Saints Revisited

A few months back I blogged a fairly uncomplimentary review of the Bill Murray film St. Vincent.

I was prompted to a bit of further thought by this review, which focuses on the catholicity of the film’s basic theme and protagonist.  The reviewer picks up on exactly what the movie wants us to – that Vincent is a saint because he’s really a good guy underneath his gruff exterior.  His sainthood is deserved.  His goodness outweighs his badness by some indefinable quantity.  His badness is really probably just a result of some of what life has thrown him and therefore he shouldn’t be held accountable for it.

The idea of saints as special people lends itself to this definition, I think.  But our ideas of saints are rather limited in scope.  Our assumption is that sainthood is warranted if the good qualities outweigh the bad qualities in an individual.  But as I argued previously, that’s a rather arbitrary assessment of things that is a) impossible to quantify and, b) apart from Scripture, impossible to qualify.  To go one step further, this is not a Scriptural understanding of sainthood or our position before God through Jesus Christ.

That’s why I find Romans 5:6-11 so comforting.  If my confidence in God’s good favor towards me is based on my own self-assessment, what comfort or assurance do I have?  If my status before God is the result of how other people think of me, what comfort or assurance do I have?  As Vincent is fond of saying, What do you know about me?   I know that nobody around me really can have an accurate understanding of me.  So it’s easy for me to discount their opinions, whether they’re favorable or not.  And because even my self-knowledge is imperfect and hopeless biased, I will swing through wild arcs of hopeful confidence and abject despair if my own assessment is my metric.

But God doesn’t allow either of these metrics.  For while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly.  In our worst moments, that’s when Christ died for us.  He did not offer himself in exchange for our moments of nobility, but offered himself in atonement for our moments of complete, abject, willful failure.  Paul’s term in this verse translated as ungodly has the same root word for what Paul says in Romans 1:18 – For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men  What God reveals his wrath against is the very thing that Jesus dies to deliver us from.  Our worst, not our best.  Our rebellion, not our weak faith.

At the end of the film we feel good about Vincent because he seems transformed to a certain degree.  We like transformation, and one hopes that some of the events of the film would help to transform him.  But that isn’t what would make him a saint, in Biblical terms.  Only the sacrifice of Christ, and Vincent’s weak and highly imperfect and limited trust in that sacrifice can make Vincent a saint.

That’s why I still insist that the film that best deals with the very difficult reality of our simultaneous sinfulness and sainthood is Robert Duvall’s The Apostle.  If you haven’t seen it, go and rent it or stream it.  You won’t like Duvall’s character.  You’re not supposed to.  Yet I think Duvall understands the miraculousness and the unlikelihood of grace and what it can look like in a person’s life, and he’s done the best job I’ve found in portraying it on screen.

To God alone be the glory – that’s the way it is and always will be.

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