Righteous Ragamuffins

One of the best books I could recommend from my last year’s reading is The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. He does an incredible job of tackling the plight of Christians who keep on sinning and the pride of Christians who think they don’t. According to Manning, we are ragamuffins. What does he mean by that? Who is the ragamuffin? He is

“the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out…the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to another…the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether and are too proud to accept the hand-out of amazing grace…inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker…poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents…the bent and bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God…smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags” (15).

The main argument of his book is as upfront and direct as his testimony would seem:

“The American Church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice. We say we believe that the fundamental structure of reality is grace, not works–but our lives refute our faith. By and large, the gospel of grace is neither proclaimed, understood, nor lived. Too many Christians are living in the house of fear and not in the house of love.”

He argues that the profession of our faith has become empty words as soon as we begin living counter to that profession. Our testimony to our creed is nullified, neutralized, and zeroed out when we stop exemplifying it. “The word itself, grace, has become trite and debased through misuse and overuse” (20), until “our Christian language pays lip-service to God,” but “our way of functioning assumes that God is dead or in a coma” (192). He calls these people “Christian agnostics” (179).

Tertullian (born approximately 160 A.D), one of the early church fathers of the second and third centuries, argues that the believer should not sin after baptism, and if so, perhaps only limited forgiveness should be extended. Serious sins, he argues, were unforgivable! And if you were never baptized, you could not be saved! A large school in the early church, called Montanists, held to this. For more about Tertullian, see his treatise, On Baptism.

Indeed, after the first large wave of persecution of Christians began in 64 A.D. and ended several years later, many believers who wavered during that time wanted to return to the church. Some flat-out denied Christ. Some sacrificed to the Roman gods to avoid being arrested and possibly killed. There were people in the church who remained faithful during the persecution who wanted those wayward Christians to come back. Others did not. They saw their parents and spouses and children tortured and killed, years wasted in prisons, entire life-paths altered out of necessity to run and hide. Why should they be welcomed back as if everything were just fine, and I had to go through all this? These opponents to the extension of such grace became known as Donatists. They thought that if you were a true Christian, you wouldn’t mess up like that. As one of my fellow church members put it, “It’s nice in theory but poor in practice.” I think these people forgot about what Peter did to Jesus on the very night He died for his sins. He denied him three times, and before Peter ever got a chance to say sorry, or do penance, or be re-baptized, Jesus said on the cross, “forgive them” (Luke 23:34). And if you remember, Peter gave the message on Pentecost that added 3,000 Christians to the world in a single day (Acts 2:41). No, God likes using broken people who keep messing up, because those are the only people there are. It seems the same attacks on the grace of God are repeated throughout history, and the schools of thought from inaccurate early church ideas plague us to this day.

It’s hard for me to think about going to church Sunday morning and telling my small group how I sinned that week, although I’m not expected to, but such a transparency very often can be relevant to our discussions. It’s hard to say “I was wrong” and not tag-on an excuse or relative way of thinking that I secretly think will make me look better to them and myself. It’s much easier to talk out of the philosophical eccentricities of knowledge and hypothetical application. It makes me feel warm and safe and comfortable. However, as another member in my church puts it, God continually calls us out to live in a state of discomfort. That’s where faith becomes alive. He reminds us of the perhaps cliché but accurate quip that the farthest distance in the world is from your head to your heart.

So what is the solution to the Christian who continues to make both new and old mistakes? How do you fix the sinner who keeps on sinning? According to Manning, you don’t. You just get used to it.

“What makes authentic disciples is…a capacity for faithfulness. Buffeted by the fickle winds of failure, battered by our own unruly emotions, and bruised by rejection and ridicule, authentic disciples may have stumbled and frequently fallen, endured lapses and relapses, gotten handcuffed to the fleshpots and wandered into a far country. Yet, they kept coming back to Jesus (176)….The mature Christians I have met along the way are those who have learned to live gracefully with their failure. Faithfulness requires the courage to risk everything on Jesus, the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout our lives (185).”

Now I understand what sanctification is. We are God’s work in progress while on earth. And I understand what Apostle Paul meant when he said we should not intentionally keep on sinning so grace can abound (Romans 6:1-3). I’m assuming you understand these premises too. But so long as we are on earth, we sin, and for Christians, it should be bothersome. I’m still afraid to try and fail.

The song “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863) by Charitie Lees Smith (later known as Charitie Lees Bancroft) speaks deeply to my soul on this matter. We are righteous by Christ alone, and that’s it. I have adapted its melody to the Native American style flute. Though there are other instruments that can play the full range of the original melody, this is the instrument I want to share with you right now. For those of you who are still reading, I’ve pasted the lyrics under the video so you can read along to the melody.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on His hands
My name is written on His heart
I know that while in heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
No tongue can bid me thence depart

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end to all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me

Behold Him there the risen Lamb
My perfect spotless righteousness
The great unchangeable I am
The King of glory and of grace
One with Himself I cannot die
My soul is purchased by His blood
My life is hid with Christ on high
With Christ my Savior and my God!
With Christ my Savior and my God!

Thanks for reading, and never stop learning to love the ragamuffin, even if that ragamuffin is yourself. Until next time.

Sources:

  1. Bancroft, Charitie Lees. “Before the Throne of God Above.” Hymns to the Living God, #224, 2017. Hymnary.org,  https://hymnary.org/text/before_the_throne_of_god_above_i_have_a_.
  2. The Bible. Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+2%3A41&version=ESV. English Standard Version.
  3. The Bible. Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke+23%3A34&version=ESV. English Standard Version
  4. The Bible. Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+6:1-3&version=ESV. English Standard Version.
  5. Jones, Timothy Paul. Christian History Made Easy. Rose Publishing, 2009.
  6. Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel. Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2000.
  7. Tertullian. “On Baptism”. Ante-Nicene Fathers. Trans. S. Thelwall, Ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, Vol. 3, Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. On Baptism, Ed. Kevin Knight, New Advent, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0321.htm.

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