August 12, 2010
by Katherine Britton, Crosswalk.com News & Culture Editor
"Don't lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old evil nature and all its wicked deeds. In its place you have clothed yourselves with a brand-new nature that is continually being renewed as you learn more and more about Christ, who created this new nature within you."
The seminary dean of Liberty University recently lost his position, despite tripled enrollment during his tenure. In fact, Liberty University's investigation into Ergun Caner's past life uncovered no secret tapes, no drug use, no sexual misconduct - just "factual statements that are self-contradictory." By most accounts, his offense was really a misdemeanor. He simply made his life's story a little more interesting than it really was.
The fatal flaw, however, was the career he built on those historical flourishes. He touted himself as an expert based on life experiences that now seem exaggerated. For that, Liberty retained him as faculty, but he will no longer steer the seminary he helped build. Caner's demotion and loss of influence should caution not just preachers and public speakers, but all Christians.
Caner's appeal stemmed from his astonishing conversion narrative, which spoke of growing up in Pakistan on a jihadist path before coming to Christ. His true testimony, however, may not have been so glamorous, as Liberty "found discrepancies related to matters such as dates, names and places of residence." It seems Caner fell prey to what a Christianity Today editorial called "testimony envy" - that is, the desire to craft our coming-to-faith stories in a way that inspires awestruck wonder from our fellow Christians.
Here's the problem: Damascus Road conversions display God's irresistible pursuit of us in dramatic fashion, but not everyone needs - or has - that kind of conversion experience. Every Christian has a sin nature that separated him from God, and Christ's sacrifice surmounts that obstacle for every Christian.
We don't need to make ourselves into "bad boys." Theologically speaking, we all looked despicable before a holy God. Exaggerating our testimony to make it more "exciting" gives a quiet voice to an old heresy. Such actions implicitly affirm the idea that our sin nature isn't really that bad. That means we don't really need a Savior that badly. Testimonial flourishes don't make grace more amazing - they cheapen grace.
The Gospel works because Christ loved us enough to accept everyone, not just those who met him on the Damascus Road. He also accepts the good kids who slowly grew in their understanding of faith without a particular moment of conversion and the adult who returns to faith slowly after a period of coldness. The Gospel has never been about how outrageous our story is. It will always be about the outrageous love of God.
Intersecting Faith & Life: One of Christianity's cornerstone verses is Ephesians 2:8 - "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourself. It is God's gift, not of works, so that no one can boast." When you tell stories about your faith, do they call greater attention to your own responses or God's sustaining grace? The most incredible testimony in the world is that of an ordinary sinner plucked from the mouth of destruction. That's grace. That's worth telling.