Mutual Exclusion

The Puritan preacher Matthew Mead wrote about a type of person he called “the Almost Christian”. As George Whitefield later explained it, the almost Christian is one who “halts between two opinions; that wavers between Christ and the world, that would reconcile God and Mammon, light and darkness, Christ and Belial.” [1]

To put it in simpler terms, these men were irritated with people running around thinking they could hold to two, mutually exclusive ideas. One either has faith in Jesus and follows him, or one does not. You can’t follow and not follow at the same time.

During my senior year of High School, I had a particularly powerful spiritual awakening while Deuteronomy. The passage that stood out to my young mind was Deuteronomy 30:19. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” The book is set within the context of covenant renewal for a new generation of Israelites in the land of promise and sets out two options: life or death. It was in those moments that I recognized that every human individual must make a choice. There are countless choices one may make in life that are not mutually exclusive (I can choose to both eat ice cream and a Caesar salad for dinner).

Nevertheless, there are a host of other choices that are mutually exclusive (I cannot choose to both eat ice cream and follow a raw food diet simultaneously). As an 18-year old young man, I recognized my response to God involved an inherent exclusivity. I must either believe or not believe; follow or not follow; choose spiritual life or spiritual death.

Scripture consistently presents our response to God in exclusive terms. Using the imagery of a “path” one takes, Proverbs flatly declares “there is life in the path of righteousness, but another path leads to death” (12:28). The Psalmist begins the book by reminding his readers that the blessed man is one who is not on the “path of sinners” (1:1, using דֶּרֶךְ, way, road).  Jesus’ explicitly “Yahwehistic” statement “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) is not merely a declaration. It is also an invitation. John begins his Gospel by recognizing Jesus as the logos (‘word’, and by extension, ‘revelation, truth’). Now we are invited to see this divine logos as the hodos (‘way, road, path’). It is no accident that the early Christians called themselves the “followers of the path (hodos)” (cf Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22), as they understood themselves as the ones who choose life. Later in my college education, I would encounter similar ideas in early Christian writings. The Didache begins in the starkest of terms: “there are two paths (hodos), one of life and one of death, and the difference between the two paths is great”. [2]

The Epistle of Barnabas appealed to different biblical metaphors, contrasting the “way (hodos) of light” with the “way (hodos) of darkness”. [3] Arthur Holmes renders this “the way of the dark one”. This second work presents the raw ugliness of rejecting God, describing this path as being ‘black’ (melas), ‘warped’ (skolios) and ‘full of curses’ (kataras meste). By contrast, choosing God is described as ‘the way of life (zo-eh)’ (in the Didache) and ‘the way of light (phos)’ (in the Epistle of Barnabas). These early documents understood these terms in reference to the biblical categories to which these metaphors were connected; which primarily is in the context of the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-38 (“love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”). It was during my freshman year of college I realized the path I currently was on could only lead to death. Like Augustine before me, I now understood that I had been “but a guide to my own destruction.” [4]

In Matthew 16:24, Jesus lays out the choices. He says, “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The “following” cannot occur until the other option is rejected. We can follow Jesus, or we can follow ourselves. The problem, however, is that we become so good at pretending that we are following Jesus when, in reality, we are following ourselves. This was the “almost Christian” that Matthew Mead warned against. Another favorite term was the “false professor”. The Puritans weren’t necessarily claiming such an individual wasn’t saved. Instead, they were calling attention to the inherent impossibility of such a life. Something was wrong, whether that be woeful spiritual immaturity or lamentable paganism hiding under the thin veneer of false salvation. Back in my “old school, Baptist” days preachers would talk about the “backslidden Christian”. They usually meant the individual who overtly acted sinfully, but in reality, the danger is more subtle and much more prevalent than most acknowledge. 

To some degree, all of us hold onto to feelings, ideas, and beliefs that are incompatible with Biblical Christianity. One thinks of the Southern white patriot proudly flying a large Confederate flag in his front yard (either oblivious or unconcerned about its racist history an insult to Black Americans). Or perhaps the couple who laughs at the sexual innuendos in their favorite evening sitcom. The possibilities are endless. Yet in the face of this ugly reality, we must remember the words of Jesus: if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself. There are things in us that don’t belong and currently hinder our ability to follow after Jesus faithfully. The only solution is to remove them

[1] George Whitefield, Selected Sermons of George Whitefield (Philadelphia, PA: The Union Press, 1904), 98.

[2] Translation from Bart D. Ehran, Loeb Classical Library, vol 24: The Apostolic Fathers: Vol 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 417.

[3] cf The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), 323.

[4] Augustine (trans. Henry Chadwick), Confessions: Oxford World Classics (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press: 2009), 52.

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