Moral Failures, Half-Way Love, and the Wonder of Imputation

Heidelberg Catechism (1563) Question 60: How are you righteous before God? Only by true faith […]

Matt Patrick / 6.26.13


Heidelberg Catechism (1563) Question 60:

How are you righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me;

While professional athletes have undeniable talent, unbelievable physiques, lots of money and fame and glory, they’re still human, which means they fail. Not only do they fail in their particular sport, of course, but in life off the floor/court/ice, etc. When a star athlete experiences some kind of public moral lapse, there’s often a striking question that pops up. It’s a pervasive question, whispered in coffee shops, sports bars and on Sports Center: Does this act tarnish their legacy?

I find this question incredibly insightful. The “legacy question” brings us to a theological category, and an ongoing Mockingbird theme: Imputation.

Nick Lannon wrote a killer piece on the subject, highlighting the ways in which human words are not creative in the same way as divine ones–well worth reading. In a similar vein, another pressing problem that the “legacy question” exposes is our inability to treat/view those who “transgress”—especially, and in our case, athletes who’ve failed morally—with grace or unconditionality. Our proclivity to ask the legacy question highlights our pervasive Semi-Pelagian love, or as Paul Zahl calls it, “half-way love.” We know all too well that this isn’t exclusive to sports, we ask that very question in our day-to-day relationships. Once someone breaks our trust, or hurts our feelings, it’s pretty hard not to view them in light of that act.

Just to name a few: Barry Bonds, Tiger Woods, O.J. Simpson, Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Michael Vick–at one point or another, the question has arisen: Does their scandalous behavior change things? Sure, these athletes have gobs of accolades, which their identity, as it were, rests upon. Do their moral failures corrupt their accomplishments, and therefore, their identities?

In Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, Paul Zahl alludes to the power of humans imputing grace/qualities to others, and how powerful it can be. Here’s a zinger:Grace-in-Practice-9780802828972

To impute means to ascribe qualities to someone that are not there intrinsically, to regard somebody as a person that he or she is not. Imputation calls bad things by a good name, and this is what grace does. On the basis of the atonement, grace imputes Christ the substitute to someone like Dorian Gray, who is in critical need. Grace calls the Selfish Giant, in Oscar Wilde’s children’s story of that name, a friend to be trusted, a friend to the end; and he becomes one. Imputing grace looks on a pathetic person, all bound up and dependent on the opinion of others, and calls her confident.

Odds are, you’ve experienced something like this in your everyday life. You might have been called smart when you’ve felt ignorant, pretty after gaining a few lb’s after Thanksgiving, trustworthy after being dishonest or simply an “I love you” when lovable is the last thing you feel. You might’ve even forgiven or loved in the same way yourself, “imputing” grace to someone who has wronged you. You probably weren’t even aware you were doing so. My wife and I got married 11 days ago, and I must say, I think I’m beginning to get a little glimpse into the wonder of it all. It’s wonderful, I think, because it mimics God’s imputation, for he “grants and imputes… to the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” to those of us who are everything but. Which is not only a comfort to athletes who’ve fallen on their faces, but the rest of us as well. Thanks be to God.

P.S. I don’t know about you, but I loved Nick Lannon’s posts on Wednesdays. I’m excited to say that I’ll be handling the weekly sports column for the foreseeable future at Mockingbird. Though Nick’s shoes are undoubtedly big ones to fill, I’m psyched!