I must have been in grade school when wine coolers really became popular. The commercials featuring the old pair, Bartles and Jaymes signing off with "and we thank you for your support" were deeply memorable. Wine coolers were made by combining cheap wine with fruit juice, carbonated water, and sugar to make something that tasted better. It was tough to get people to drink cheap wine, but when Seagram's and others sweetened it up, repackaged it and sold it, then people were eager to buy in. It also weakened the potency of the wine.
American Christianity is too often wine cooler Christianity. The branded version of Christianity that makes up much of the evangelical landscape is a watered down version of the true gospel. The Christianity that is packaged for most American consumers is too often weakened. God is presented as a kindly old man in the sky who is interested in our morality, but never wrathful. The Ten Commandments are reformulated as the ten suggestions for a better life. Christianity becomes about moral improvement for the already pretty good. The Holy Spirit becomes a help line you can call if you ever get to the point that you cannot handle things on your own. Psalm 42:1, which reads "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you" becomes a slogan to be plastered on the side of a mug, rather than an anguished cry from a man who is desperately longing for God. Wine cooler Christianity, which so often thrives on slogans, never keeps reading. Once the good tasting spiritual morsel is extracted, there is no need to move on. Psalm 42:3 reads, "My tears have been my food day and night,while they say to me all the day long, 'Where is your God?'" These words do not suggest a peaceful stream with a majestic buck; they suggest a man who is so thirsty he will die if God does not intervene.
If Christianity is only about man and him improved through suggestions for successful living, there was no need for the cross. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."
But Christianity-lite will not suffice. The Bible teaches that God's standard is perfection in thought and deed. None of us, even at the height of our righteousness, can hope to meet that standard. God hates sin and sin deserves His wrath. Still, God is not only holy, he is also benevolent and gracious. The whole Bible tells a story of God pursuing sinners who continue to rebel and, at the hingepoint of time, Christ came not ultimately as a model to be emulated, but as a Savior to bear the wrath for undeserving sinners. 2 Corinthians 5:21 reads, "He [God] made him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God." The great exchange--our sin for his righteousness.
Don't drink the watered down version. You will stay thirsty.
In honor of Reformation Day just a few days ago and a faith not watered, down, I want to finish with this quote from Robert Farrar Capon:
The Reformation was a time when people went blind-staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, 200-proof grace–of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture that would convince anyone that God saves us single-handed.
The Word of the Gospel, after all those centuries . . . suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home free even before they started. How foolish, then, they said, how reprehensibly misleading, they said, to take the ministers of that Word of free, unqualified acceptance and slap enforced celibacy on them–to make their lives bear a sticker that said they had gone an extra mile and paid an extra toll. It was simply to hide the light of grace under a bushel of pseudo-law. . . .
And for the Reformers, that was a crime. Grace was to be drunk neat: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of super-spirituality could be allowed to enter that case.