There's really only one word that comes to my mind which adequately summarizes the nature of politics, whether here in the States or around the world in general. That word is scandal. The modern political environment has developed into a culture of scandal. The media fuels this, of course, but they do it because the masses eat it up. We seem to have an insatiable appetite for scandal. Turn on the TV, read the newspaper, listen to the radio, and there's a good bet something scandalous will be reported by the end of the day.
Now, to a certain degree this public interest in scandals is understandable and even justified. People have a right to know if their leaders and public servants are acting unethically. That is, after all, the basic definition of what a scandal—something that “provokes concern, indignation, or even outrage." Thus, the greater public influence the person has, the greater the potential for scandal.
Yet, in the American way, we’ve taken a concern for a lack of political integrity and we’ve made it an obsession and a distraction. Scandal is the modern political tool for destroying your opponents, and in this age of the internet and living room bloggers, anything is fair game. Those rare political candidates who pledge to run a “positive” campaign face a steep uphill climb, because in the end, as noble as their efforts are, it doesn’t feed the masses what they’re hungry for.
Yet at the same time, we as a society tend to be highly selective about what we deem to be scandalous. Catch a politician committing espionage: scandal. Catch a CEO committing fraud: scandal. Catch a TV evangelist in adultery: scandal. But when you hear an ordinary, everyday person identify himself or herself as a Christian, scandal isn't exactly what comes to most peoples' minds. Ignorant? Maybe. Uneducated. May. But scandalous? Probably not.
Here's my contention: I think the Christian life is scandalous. No, not scandalous in an immoral sense. But I think at their core, every Christian's personal testimony has all the elements of a scandal. Don't believe me? Let me show you from Ephesians 2:1-10 seven scandals that mark every believer's life.
Ephesians 2:1 says that every Christian was once "dead in your trespasses and sins." Here, we’re introduced to the Christian’s past condition. He was dead—nokros—it’s where we get the medical term necrosis, where the cells in an organ die because of disease.
Of course, we’re not talking about physical death here. Physically, he’s alive—walking, talking, eating, drinking, breathing, living life—but spiritually, he’s dead. Not just sick. Not even terminally ill. There’s still at least an ounce of hope in that condition. No, here the sinner was dead. He was incapable of responding to any kind of spiritual stimuli. He had a condition that he couldn’t reverse. And he was powerless to change it if he wanted to.
Now, if this was all there was to his condition, we might have reason to pity him. But Paul makes it clear that he has this condition because of the consequences of his actions. He is dead in trespasses and sins, two terms that are used synonymously here to speak of moral failure. In other words, his condition isn’t an accident. He is dead because of he was a moral failure. And if we know anything about scandals, we know it usually always starts with moral failure.
One of the most beloved tactics of any political smear campaign is to uncover an opponent’s ties to corrupting influences. Any kind of ties to conflicts of interest—any hint that there are outside parties that are controlling a candidate or a political figure—make for a great scandal.
Several years ago, the the president of South Korea was impeached for numerous counts of corruption. One of the elements uncovered in this scandal was the president’s ties to a mysterious spiritual advisor that apparently was able to exercise considerable influence over the president and government policy. One New York Times writer said,
Ms. Park has admitted letting Ms. Choi, who has no government job or background in policy, edit some of her speeches, and a cascade of news reports have alleged that Ms. Choi had considerable sway in the presidential Blue House and other government agencies. But what infuriates many South Koreans about the Choi affair is not merely that Ms. Park had a secret adviser, or even the possibility that the adviser turned a profit from the relationship. It is the notion that their president has been in thrall for decades to a family of religious charlatans—a shameful throwback, their view, to ancient stories of Korean kings and queens brought to ruin by deceitful monks or fortunetelling shamans.
But what about the Christian? What kind of influences were in his life? According to Ephesians 2:2, every Christian was dead because of moral failure "in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." Now we're getting into some deep conspiratorial business!
Paul says that the Christian’s former walk—that is, his lifestyle or ethical practice—was controlled by the course of this world. In other words, the Christian’s past was controlled by an evil world system. It's the ethical world that characterizes this evil age. And this world system is itself under the control of the prince of the power of the air, who is none other than Satan himself (cf. 1 John 5:19; John 8:44). In other words, behind every Christian's past moral failure is their involvement in and influence by an evil world system controlled by Satan.
Now, we could conclude that the Christian was but a tragic, hapless victim in all of this, unduly forced into a life of ethical and moral failure by an overbearing world system. Certainly Critical Theory proponents would argue for such an interpretation. (Well, maybe not for a Christian). But Scripture doesn't come to that conclusion. Just the opposite, in fact. The Christian was no mere victim, but an active and enthusiastic participant in all this. We see that in Ephesians 2:3, when it says, "Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind."
So the Christian not only lived under a worldly, satanic system, but he actually enjoyed it. He embraced the corruption and made it his own. He was happy to be a part of the system, and content in his moral failure.
The final nail in the coffin of the Christian's past is that he was, quite literally, convicted of all of this and condemned to die. In that sense, he was living on death row. That's what Paul means when he writes in Ephesians 2:3 that "we were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest."
He was, Paul writes, by nature a child of wrath. The word choice here is fascinating. There’s a couple of words used in NT Greek for children. We saw one of them in verse 2—“sons of disobedience.” The word “son” is huios. And here, it’s contrasted with the term teknon—“child.” The contrast is intentional. The word “son” assumes a level of independence. You don’t usually call an 18-year-old a “child.” But he is a son.
A child, on the other hand, speaks of a closer relationship. It carries a sense of dependence and closeness. But note what the parent is—wrath. The Christian was, before Christ, a “child of wrath.” He had a close, personal dependent relationship, not with God, but with God’s wrath.
So, to summarize the Christian's past, let me put it this way. When your neighbor moves in next door to you and you find out they're a Christian, what that really means is that they were once spiritually dead on account of complete moral failure because of their intricate involvement in and influence by an evil world system controlled by Satan himself, a system and life in which they indulged and thoroughly enjoyed, living on borrowed time until they were executed for their horrific crimes.
In other words, everything about the Christian's past is a giant scandal.
The scandals don't stop there, though. They continue from the Christian's past and into the present, beginning with his shocking acquittal. We learn in Ephesians 2:4-5, "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)." The scandal of the Christian life includes the fact that this convicted and condemned criminal has unilaterally acquitted of his crimes by the very judge that originally condemned him to die, and all on the basis of mercy.
God clearly made the first move. In Romans 5, Paul repeatedly makes it clear that the Christian didn't do anything to merit his acquittal. It was while he was still helpless (Rom. 5:6), still rebellious (Rom. 5:8), still an enemy of God (Rom. 5:10) that God declared him not guilty. And in that process, he completely reversed the Christian's spiritual condition...he made the Christian alive.
At the end of his term as president, Bill Clinton stirred up quite a controversy when he offered up what some considered an inordinate amount of presidential pardons. The public response to these pardons ranged from surprise, to shock, to downright outrage. One pardon in particular proved especially scandalous—the 1999 pardon of 16 members of the FALN, a Puerto Rican paramilitary organization responsible for detonating 120 bombs in the United States, resulting in 6 deaths and the permanent maiming of dozens of others, including law enforcement officers.
The public response to these clemency grants was fueled by one basic issue: it seemed as if the recipients of these pardons had committed crimes that were undeserving of pardon. What people felt was a sense of injustice.
That's why it's so shocking that more people don't consider the Christian life a scandal. After all, at the center of it stands a morally corrupt person influenced by Satan and an evil world system who sits on death row, and this person is unilaterally declared not guilty and set free spiritually from death and condemnation by the death of an innocent person who sacrificed himself as the Christian's substitute. The Christian deserved none of this. Yet he was granted it out of mercy and out of grace.
Earlier we mentioned that the level of scandal increases with the level of influence a person has in politics or society. When we find out the guy bagging our groceries was convicted of murder and is out on parole, it may unnerve us, but it's no scandal. But we find out a president's Chief of Staff is a convicted murderer out on parole...well, that's a different story.
What we find out from Ephesians 2:6-7 is that the Christian has not only been acquitted of his life of immorality purely by divine mercy, but he's also been elevated to a position of honor and authority completely unheard of in the secular world: "...and [He] raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." In other words, the Christian was picked up from the moral sewer and has been seated with Jesus Christ at the right hand of God where he receives spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3), status and citizenship (Heb. 12:22), and power and authority (1 Cor. 6:2-3; 2 Tim. 2:12).
And perhaps the most scandalous part of the Christian's position is the reason for it all: God wanted to show everyone how gracious and kind he is. In Ephesians 2:8-9, he puts it another way: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourself, it is a gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." The position and privilege enjoyed by the Christian has nothing to do with his credentials. He hasn't worked his way up the ladder, proven himself to the bosses, and won his seat beside God because of hard work, discipline, and perseverance. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was a sewer rat that God plucked up from the gutter, cleaned up, and given the status of a son.
So Christians have received full acquittal for their capital crimes, full reversal of their sordid pasts, and an elevated position of blessing, privilege, and power, all by sheer grace and mercy. And so to top off the list of scandals is the ultimate reason for all of this...the reason beyond God's demonstration of his mercy and kindness. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10 that every Christian is "His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them."
God took filthy sewer rats and turned them into sons so he could display them to the world as trophies of his grace. The language is even more dramatic than that, actually. He recreated every Christian into a new creation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17) for the expressed purpose of living a completely different life than they previously did.
In verse 2 we saw that one of the evidences that the Christian was once dead in trespasses and sins was that he walked according to an evil world system and satanic forces, and pursued the passions of his sinful nature. And just so we understand exactly what that walk looked like, Paul fills it out for us in Ephesians 4:17-19:
So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness.
That was the walk of the Christian before Christ. That was his past. And the great scandal is that he’s now called to a walk completely opposite of that. He was this way—but now he is to be this way. He once walked in sensuality, impurity, and greediness. Now he is to walk in good works which were prepared beforehand by God. His walk is reversed.
And that brings up the final charge that rounds out many a scandal: The charge of hypocrisy. It's the scandal that says, "You may live like this now, but I remember when you were living a different way!" But even more scandalous is the reality that that is exactly God's point: the Christian was once this way, but not anymore.
In the end, God's designed it all this way because he gets all the credit for this transformation. The Christian story is not one of pulling oneself up out of the moral gutter, cleaning up, and changing ways. It's the story of God pulling the sinner up from that gutter and transforming him into something breathtaking and inexplicable apart from God and his mercy.
Ultimately, the true scandal of Christianity is Jesus Christ himself. In fact, we get our English word "scandal" from the Greek term skandalon, which refers to "that which causes offense and thus arouses opposition." It was Paul who said in 1 Corinthians 1:21-24, "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block [skandolon] to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."
So it really isn't the Christian who is the scandal. It's Jesus Christ who is the scandal. And he's a scandal by God's very design:
"Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense [skandolon]; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame." (Isaiah 28:16; quoted in Romans 9:33)
It is Christ who is "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense [skandolon]" (1 Pet. 2:8). And it's because he stands at the center of it all. The Christian was made alive "in Him." He was seated at the right hand of God "in Him." He was created "in Christ" to walk in good works. And it was Christ and his substitutionary sacrifice that allowed God to declare the Christian acquitted of his high crimes.
The scandal of the Christian life is a scandal of God's own design. And rather than shrinking from it, the Christian should boldly own it and proclaim it. Because in the end, it's not really a story about you. It's a story about God. And by his grace, your name gets to be in the credits.