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American evangelicals like to talk about grace. But at the end of the day, what we care about is behavior.

There’s a fine line in Christianity. One can emphasize righteous behavior so much that there is little room for grace. Or, one can emphasize grace so much that there is little room for righteous behavior. Much of evangelicalism tends toward the former.

If one spends much time around evangelical churches, he or she will notice that righteous behavior is discussed a lot. Discussing righteous behavior is not inherently bad. It just needs to be done well. Otherwise, the church becomes performance-driven. Following Christ becomes all about correct behavior. Those who do not display correct behavior are admonished. They are told to repent. And to some degree, they are often shamed.

Similarly, the church’s view of outsiders (unbelievers) becomes inordinately focused on behavior. The outsiders are pagans with no regard for morality. The church becomes the morality police and shames outsiders. This, to say the least, is not an effective evangelistic method. But not only that, it can deepen the amount of shame that those outside the church feel. For all people—inside and outside the church—this attitude creates the view that we’re all wretched people who, because of our sinfulness, could never hope to be loved by God. Whether the church means to or not, we give the impression that God is sorely disappointed in us for our sins. We carry crushing boulders of shame. Even if we know that God forgives us, we still chastise ourselves for failing to reach perfection. And we do this because the church taught us to, whether it meant to or not.

Much of the problem stems from the way the church thinks about sin. Most evangelical churches teach, explicitly or implicitly, that sin is behavior. To sin is to do something wrong. That’s true, but sin is much more than that. The church teaches that we’ve all done bad things and that we need to repent to receive God’s forgiveness. The result of this teaching is that people keep a checklist of sins in their head. Of course, we aren’t perfect, so everyone builds up a list. The result of this is shame, which some people feel more than others. We are bad—the sin list is evidence of that. The church then teaches that God forgives these sins through repentance—we will even use language such as “You’ve been wiped clean.” That’s true. But the church has still taught us that we are bad. And that’s not exactly true.

Some might object and say that yes, we really are bad. We’re sinners and therefore we’re bad, and the good news of the gospel is that God still forgives and accepts us even though we’re bad. But this misses the essence of the gospel. The point is not that we’re bad people who are now God’s children even though we’re still bad (although maybe a little less bad). The focus of the great transition of the gospel is not behavior; rather, it is essence. We were people of darkness, but now we are people of light. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We weren’t children of Christ, but now we are. We are new creations. Our very essence and identity has been changed. That’s the gospel’s focus. And it ought to be the church’s focus as well.

This makes all the difference in the world. No, Christ followers aren’t bad, even if they commit sin. We are a royal priesthood, the light of the world, new creations, the meek ones, the humble ones, the peaceful ones, the just ones, lovers of righteousness, ambassadors for Christ, God’s children, beloved, sons and daughters of glory. This is not language for “bad” people who just get their bad deeds forgiven. No, this is language of goodness and beauty. This is not language of shame. This is language of glory.

We are people whose identity and allegiance has changed. We don’t always act in accordance with that identity and allegiance. But that doesn’t change our identity and allegiance. When we approach God after sinning, we have full confidence that his response will always be forgiveness, acceptance, and love. It doesn’t matter how many times we sin. God will never tire of forgiving us, and our identity as holy ones will never change. There is no more reason for shame. Shame tells us that we are bad—not just that we have done bad things, but that we are bad. God and the gospel say the exact opposite—we are good, righteous, accepted, forgiven, and loved because of what Christ has done for us.

The way evangelical churches talk about the gospel and their inordinate focus on behavior intensifies shame. We’re constantly told to focus on our behavior. When we inevitably fall short, we are left with the conclusion (reinforced by the church) that we are bad. This is the essence of shame. We really are bad people because we cannot achieve perfection. Many churches will even teach, explicitly or implicitly, that we’re not worthy of love (a belief that the doctrine of the Imago Dei refutes). Talk about a recipe for poor psychological health! Then we come back on Sunday to hear that even though we’re sinful, God still forgives us. But that doesn’t change the splinter in our minds reminding us that we really are bad.

This is especially harmful to people struggling with certain frowned-upon behaviors (this includes addictive behaviors, although it isn’t limited to them). For these people, the weight of shame is crushing. Perhaps it will subside at the assurance of forgiveness, but when the behavior surfaces again, they will be distraught. How can I keep doing this? Do I not love God? What is wrong with me? How can I stoop to such low levels? I must be really bad!

For these people, the church has largely been an utter failure. By focusing excessively on good behavior, we have condemned these people to a lifetime of shame. Pastors decry certain bad behaviors from the pulpit, the people struggling with the behaviors know they shouldn’t be doing them, and then, simply because the people aren’t perfect, they fall into the behaviors again. This is indisputable evidence in the figurative court of law that we are indeed wretched, horrible, bad people. We aren’t worthy of love. When people believe they aren’t worthy of love, they don’t take care of themselves or advocate for themselves. And this makes undesirable behavior more likely. Thus, the cycle continues.

This misunderstanding of the gospel has also affected the American population as a whole. The church’s heavy focus on morality and sin is still imbedded in our culture. Many people are caught up in negative behavioral cycles, and even though they may not attend church, they still feel a crushing weight of shame. They have been told, implicitly or explicitly, that God is a puritanical judge who views people as wicked sinners and condemns them to hell. Shame descends on them as they think that God could never love them—indeed, that no one could ever love them. Despair takes over, driving them into further darkness.

For the church, there is a somewhat counter-intuitive approach to addressing undesirable behaviors. That approach is this: grace, compassion, and kindness. In a word, love. It is love that transforms people, not heavy-handed admonitions to morality. For the believer, all behavior and shortcomings must be viewed with the knowledge that the believer’s identity and status are unchanged in Christ. Grace is abundant. Regarding interactions with unbelievers, we must remember Christ’s compassion for “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 [NIV]). We must remember that Christ said, “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). We must be careful not to inadvertently condemn them with our words. Rather, we want to graciously invite them to a completely new life, a completely new identity.

May we experience a renewed understanding of the gospel, and may it enlighten us to understand God’s transcendent grace. And may that spill over into our lives and into our churches and into the world in the form of grace, compassion, kindness, and love.