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The Cost of Collapsing Distinctions

Launching from the clear distinction that Jesus makes in John 8:23—You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world—the whole encounter between Christ and the Pharisees points to the painful cost of denying such a distinction, which includes continued ignorance of God, constant frustration with Christ, and the rather concerning verdict that these Pharisees are wandering towards destruction, condemned to die in their sins if they don’t declare that Jesus is Lord. The Pharisees are engaging with Jesus at best as his equal though more likely as his superior, but in so doing they deny the real and meaningful distinctions that he has been declaring in his public ministry. Ultimately, the cost of collapsing these distinctions is that they will die in their sins.

This text points out, then, that there is much wrong with who we are in our natural state, apart from the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. We may think that we’re our own masters, righteous and knowledgeable, but we are really ignorant, creaturely sinners in need of Christ. From a slightly different angle, the denial of the meaningful distinctions presented in this text comes at the great cost of alienating us from a right relationship with the Word made flesh. But while on the surface it might seem liberating to be free from Christ, that “liberty” comes with its own chains.

The Pharisees, then, reflect the natural pull toward an objective and detached assessment of who we are and who God is. The problem, as Christopher Watkin highlights, is that an independent, objective, detached engagement is actually impossible. Nobody can be entirely detached, for “we are connected to God, to other people, and to the world” in every aspect of who we are, including our self-understanding.[1] Like an astronaut who is “free” to float in the vast void of space only because of that absolutely essential tether to the life support systems of the spacecraft, humanity can only be “free” from God, other people, and the world, by being even more tied to something else that supplies significance. Greater “freedom” is “always won at the cost of greater relational entanglement, not less.”[2]

One of the more vexing challenges of evangelism, in my opinion, is presenting a sufficiently powerful alternative to the greater relational entanglement that comes with greater “freedom” from Christ. The challenge is not with the gospel itself, for it is a sufficiently powerful alternative. The challenge is with the presentation of the gospel through word and deed so that the “life support systems” of cultural subgroups might be seen for what they are: temporary supports that will eventually fail.

This challenge can be approached both negatively and positively. Negatively, we can ask what happens when the oxygen in the life support system runs out. If the astronaut is only “free” to float as long as there is oxygen in the system, what happens when the oxygen runs out? What happens when society moves on from the current fad to the next one, but you are deeply entangled in relationships that have enabled your “freedom” to express yourself? The cost of collapsing distinctions, of claiming to be free, is the constant need to be reborn in the societal flavor of the day so that one might remain entangled in the necessary life support systems, or risk being cut off, or shall we say cancelled.

The alternative of the gospel is to acknowledge our dependence on God and our co-dependence on one another. The alternative is to proclaim that though I may not be floating among the stars, I am far freer with my feet firmly planted on the truth of God’s word. In fact, to acknowledge who I am and who Christ is—to acknowledge that he is Lord—is to be somewhat like Neo in the Matrix, breaking free of the illusion for the first time (though Christ has already won the battle to secure our freedom). This is the greater love, a love that is honest about our place as servants of Christ, and honest about his rule. Because he is unchanging, and because his yoke is easy and his burden is light, there is no good reason to try to collapse the distinction between us and him and pretend to be detached from all laws and norms. True freedom is found in Christ, which is the point of the rest of John 8 that we will take up next week.

[1] Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 251. [2] Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 252.

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