Deconversion stories from Evangelical Christianity are a staple of New Atheist propaganda. Many of these stories are moving and reveal a painful personal history. They can have significant influence on leading people away from the faith, especially when they involve the story of a family member of someone prominent in Christian ministry. One such story is told here. One can easily sympathize with the pain and struggle clearly shown.
I cannot comment on the young woman’s family life, since I have no personal knowledge of it. This post should not be construed as a comment or judgment about her or her family. I have no reason to doubt that her struggles with faith are and were sincere. However, I can say this. In 30 years of doing and teaching apologetics I have almost never seen anyone who converts or deconverts because of purely intellectual motives. Most of the time people change worldviews when for personal and emotional reasons, their old view is no longer seen to be working for them. While intellectual issues play a part, usually they are far outweighed by emotional factors. The particular question she raises that derailed her faith, concerning the question of morality and sin in the Bible, can be reasonably answered from a strictly intellectual standpoint. But I doubt that this is, or was, the main issue. I suspect there is more to this story than what she is telling us. But, regardless it raises some issues that Christian apologists ought to consider.
What this story brought to my mind was the need for taking seriously the Bible’s teaching on grace and applying it to all areas of life, especially in our families and in our intellectual pursuits. I think it boils down to this: one of the key pathologies of contemporary Evangelicalism is the profoundly unbiblical notion that the main point of discipleship is obedience. I have heard this touted by leaders in the denomination where I served for many years. They ought to have known better. However, it is widely promoted in many Evangelical circles anyway, but I believe that it is dead wrong. It is, in fact, a virtual gateway to legalism and repressive religiosity.
So let me be clear as to what I mean. Being a Christian is first and foremost about BEING not DOING. Otherwise, the entire Reformation was a waste. Being a Christ follower is about KNOWING Him. It is about cultivating intimacy and being transformed inwardly. The point is GRACE. Many of us Evangelicals have a pitiful understanding of grace, even though our best theologians have spoken well on this subject. Unfortunately, much of this teaching remains unknown or ignored. We tend to focus on rule keeping, as if that were the essence of our faith. It is no wonder that people abandon Christianity, if all they get is years of guilt after failing to meet impossible standards. Guilt and shame are the result of legalism and law keeping. True Christianity frees us from this. To teach that the point of discipleship is obedience is to simply promote salvation by works.
Christians desperately need to understand who they ARE in Christ, what it means to be a NEW CREATURE in Christ, and how to get to KNOW the Lord. I am convinced that those who comes to know Christ in an intimate way will never be talked out of their faith by any number of pseudo-intellectual atheistic arguments, regardless of whether or not they can answer the questions posed at the time. If you know someone personally, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could convince you that he does not exist.
None of this is to say that obedience to the Lord is not important. The word of God does not allow for lawlessness. But we have got the cart way out in front of the horse here. Obedience is a RESULT of GRACE, not the cause of it. DOING follows BEING. If we are being transformed inwardly, we can rest in the grace of God’s unconditional acceptance, while we live and act in fulfillment of the desire to do right that is implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. As the redeemed, elect in Christ, there is nothing, absolutely nothing more that we can do to make God accept us more and love us more than He already does. We need to contemplate this until we feel it deep in our gut. We need to read Ephesians 1 and meditate on it until it becomes embedded in our souls. We need to absorb Romans 8 until it becomes part of our DNA.
The deeper we go with Jesus, the more the desire to be pure, holy, and just will grow. Thus, the more we desire to do what he desires. We do so because we delight in Him and we delight in holiness. That is our new nature. It is this reality that we should be living and modeling for our children. They need to be nurtured and surrounded by grace. In this context we can teach them to be holy without being shamed.
So as Jesus said, those who love Him will keep his commandments. This is not a motive of fear and guilt. First we grow in love with him. As we do so we grow to love what He loves. We delight in moral purity. We grow to love those around us, those in the rest of the world. So we obey our Lord, doing what is morally right according to his teaching, not out of fear of punishment, but out of the joy and enjoyment of doing what is right, pure and holy.
All of this assume that one has been truly born again, of course. Becoming born again may very well be motivated by a fear of hell. There are many human motives that can lead one to become a Christian. There is no getting around the fact that our children must learn that they are born sinners. No one can come to Jesus without understanding this. However, kids need to understand that it is only while they are outside of Christ that they are subject to guilt and condemnation. They need to know that God deeply loves his children even while they are sinners. They don’t have to shape up or do anything in order for Him to accept and save them. They just need to repent and believe, as they run to abba’s arms to be warmly embraced.
Too often, kids from Christian homes are trained to carry their guilt and shame on their shoulders long after professing Christian faith. Obsessing about how bad they are and lamenting not being perfect are burdens that no believer in Christ should be carrying. Of course we are not perfect. That’s the point of the gospel. We can’t be perfect, we won’t ever be perfect and we don’t have to be perfect! After all, it is not our righteousness that saves us, it is the righteousness of Christ. We don’t have to worry and obsess about pleasing God because he is already pleased with us! The simple fact that we are in Christ means he delights in us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1). No guilt, no shame, no inadequacy, no need to perform to prove anything. If we don’t get this I have to wonder if we have really ever understood the meaning of the gospel.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that he has defeated the forces of darkness that would hold us in bondage. He has loved us before we ever knew of him. He already new about every vile thought and deed that we have imagined. But our guilt does not trump his love and grace. True spiritual rebirth comes to us because God has pursued us, wooed us to Himself, and graciously regenerated our fallen souls. He does not want us to continue to be oppressed by shame and guilt. Our inheritance is peace, joy, acceptance, and love. Yes, becoming a believer means recognizing one’s moral depravity and repenting of our sin. But the point is, once we come to Christ, we are totally and utterly forgiven. Our sin is removed from us as far as the east from the west. His Spirit gives us the ability to walk in that grace and live according to the new creation that we have become and are continually becoming. That means we are free to let go of our guilt and feelings of shame. We can rest and be truly free.
So what does this have to do with apologetics? Only this: grace in our lives is the context that makes our arguments believable. The most important apologetic is the one we live. Without it there is no reason anyone should listen to us. Love flows from grace. And without love all else is vain, as 1 Corinthians 13 explains so well.
Jeff VanVonderan has written some books that I have found very helpful in regard to this issue. Tired of Trying to Measure Up shows the biblical basis of freedom from guilt and shame. Families Where Grace Is in Place applies it to the family. They are worthy of careful study.