The transaction

Three men explain the “Doctrine of Imputation” on the DVD entitled the “Biggest Question.” They tell viewers that the infinite debt each of us owes before becoming a Christian is eliminated once we receive God’s gift of Jesus. In fact, not only is the debt paid, but lots of extra credit is deposited into our accounts.

However, to receive the bonus of endless funds, an actual transaction must take place. If this transaction is not performed “rightly,” they tell viewers, we won’t get “Jesus goodness.” It’s quite likely, they explain, that we’ve been taught the wrong way. For example, people might have encouraged us to “ask Jesus into your heart.” They tell us we cannot “ask” Jesus or “make” him our “lord and savior.” Jesus already is these things. The idea of “accepting” this fact is nearer to the proper characterization of the transaction, but even this is not accurate because we don’t accept Jesus so much as he accepts us.

To help us understand, the hosts provide an analogy. Imagine you want to belong to a country club. You don’t just walk up to the front doors and announce: “I accept you as my country club!” You don’t call up the management and ask meekly, “Will you be my country club?” No, you fill out the application and provide the proper information. You submit a request for admittance. You let the country club review the materials and accept you.

After you’ve been accepted, you can then “come to Jesus.” But even this must be done “rightly.” Your motivation should never be gifts. You must seek the giver of the gifts. If the country club analogy was still in play, I suppose this would mean your request to join would not be accompanied by an expectation of access to the amenities the club offers. Golf? Tennis? Bonus!

As the instructions grow more complicated, I question my ability to pull off this transaction. I picture the distance between Jesus and me as a field scattered with land mines. I don’t know what’s less reliable: the map I’m being offered or my ability to read it. Either way, I’m anticipating flying shrapnel.

Thankfully, according to this thesis, there’s reason for hope. In a sense, the more I screw up, the better off I am—as long as I recognize my own ineptitude. The men assure me that what the divine has to offer is not something I can earn; nor is it something I can fail to earn. They assure me that believing I have anything to do with the acquisition of “Jesus goodness” is self-righteous, as is feeling superior. Apparently, the absolute worst thing I can do is believe I’m even just a tiny bit less wretched than anyone else. How this works with their assurance that once I embrace the Doctrine of Imputation, I no longer have to feel “lacking in goodness,” I’m not sure. To embrace my badness or not to embrace my badness—that is the question.

I watch the DVD twice. The first time I’m wide-eyed at all the fancy terms and the nuanced explanations and the banking metaphors. My second viewing, I struggle to grasp the meaning behind what they tell me, especially since all three of them seem confident in their interpretation. That’s when something troubling occurs to me: isn’t such certainty a form of superiority? If you think you know the right way of forming a relationship with Jesus, doesn’t that implicitly give you an edge, however slight, over the rest of wretched humanity?

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The Biggest Question

A big question requires a knowledgeable reply, but “The Biggest Question” necessitates the explanation of three men by hour-long video.

The DVD was sent to me by a friendly young minister in Texas who must have read my op-ed when it was reprinted in the Dallas Morning News. His return address revealed him to be Baptist, but the video itself makes no denominational claims. I imagine its producers reside somewhere on the current Christian frontier where such distinctions are downplayed. The accompanying card explained that the minister hoped the DVD would answer my questions from the “evangelical/protestant point of view.” I thought that wording was nice: he wasn’t saying it was right, just another perspective.

The video’s main narrator is a guy named Todd Friel who is apparently a popular evangelical figure. He hosts a daily two-hour Christian-themed radio show called “Wretched” that streams from Wretchedradio.com. The website offers videos and podcasts, all brought to you by Burning Bush Communications. You can sign up to join the Wretched club and receive your Wretched news. You may also buy a T-shirt and baseball cap and save by purchasing them as a “Wretched wear combo.”

Friel is a tall, skinny guy with the vocal stylings and over-the-top enthusiasm of a morning rush-hour DJ. He may be a few years older than the evangelicals I’ve seen in person, like Jackson and the Christian boy band members, but not by much. The backdrop “set” for the DVD (and the other videos that stream on the site) looks like an industrial warehouse loft filled with old-timey furnishings. I imagine it’s someone’s idea of where Shakespeare might live if he rose from the dead and took up residence in a former factory.

Friel wanders around the loft talking into the camera. Intermittently, the video cuts to two other men who help him explain stuff. The first is Kirk Cameron, a former teen heartthrob (he was on a popular TV sitcom called “Growing Pains” in the 1980’s) turned evangelical actor/spokesperson. He does his explaining from a leafy yard setting. The second is a young minister who goes by the name of R.W. Glenn. He speaks earnestly into the camera while walking the streets of an idyllic-looking suburban “downtown” devoid of pedestrians. In the alternate reality of the DVD, women seem to have no presence. If they exist, it is only as implied by the wedding bands on the men’s fingers. As such, their most lively moments come when the men use their hands to make a particularly important point.

Does what they have to say answer the biggest question, as its title suggests?

Most of the DVD is dedicated to explaining what they call the “Doctrine of Imputation.” Embrace this doctrine, they explain, and experience freedom. Never again must we feel lacking in goodness.

The detailed thesis, to which each man contributes, is this:

We are criminals and an enemy of God with nothing to offer but our filthiness. Ours is an infinite debt of sin. We can do nothing God requires. We are bound for the eternal torment of hell. Put in academic terms, we all have failing grades.

Luckily, Jesus lived the perfect life and then died the death we deserve. Because God loves people who recognize their deep badness, He—in His mercy—is willing to substitute Jesus’ grade (A+) for our own.

This swap is something Friel calls “Jesus as our propitiation” and serves as the heart of the Doctrine of Imputation, which can also be called the “Imputation of Jesus Righteousness.” It occurs as the result of an actual transaction, the specifics of which are also spelled out…