Grace is for Yuppies: How Reformed Theology Engages New York City
Over the past month, I’ve started work as an intern for a “big four” accounting firm in the heart of Manhattan for ten weeks, trading the small world atmosphere of my college campus in North Carolina for the rat race of New York City. I’ve moved from the sidewalk of the South where people nod and speak to passersby, to the concrete jungle where you pass by thousands of people on your morning commute. To fit the culture and climate of my job and city, my body has changed from the relaxed dress of jeans and a jacket to slacks, dress shirt, dress shoes, coat, and scarf. I no longer am the master of my destiny in the classroom as the author of a paper or the taker of a test, but am now at the lowest rung of a vast corporate hierarchy finishing tasks higher-ups would rather not perform. I speak of these facts not to utilize tired clichés or to explain the sexiness of my internship (trust me, cash confirmations are probably the farthest thing from sexy), but to explain that the city has an effect on those that dwell within.
In the midst of this change of space and place, I’ve also had the opportunity to attend a different church than the one I attend back home. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, started by widely influential author, speaker, and pastor Tim Keller, draws in about 5,200 congregants each week to its three Manhattan locations.1 The hundreds that attend the 5 pm service with me at the Downtown location are primarily young urban professionals (yuppies) in their mid to late twenties, wear clothing that shows that they are well-off New Yorkers, and are diverse in ethnic background. Every Sunday service is geared toward the good of the city, explaining that Christianity impacts one’s Monday through Friday work life, teaching that the Christian gospel is true in the face of other religions’ truth claims, and proclaiming that each one of us is desperate in our state of sin, needing God’s grace in Jesus Christ to be reconciled to God.
Though I could write about the difficult intricacies of a mega church culture, the many ways Redeemer extends itself out to the city for justice and mercy outreach, and Redeemer’s hope to be a place for skeptics to engage the claims of Christ (I’d love to discuss these points in the comment section if anyone is interested), I want to focus on the distinct Reformed theology of the church and how it impacts the lives of professional New Yorkers. Reformed theology in particular homes in on the desperate state of the human being in the midst of her sin, and the radical grace that God has extended to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In what follows, I hope to elucidate this two-part nature of the gospel (desperate state in sin and the radical grace of God) in order to show that this gospel has huge implications for the well-off, working New Yorker.2 As an aside, one could read this article as an argument for the contextual superiority of Reformed theological emphases on the lives of workaholics, the wealthy, and persons who strive to or have attained positions of power.
Desperate State in Sin
As explained above, the New York state of mind is one that hopes to make something of oneself, an individualism that seeks to find identity in profession, clothing, and busyness. Within the corporate world, one is tempted to view one’s status as dependent on one’s position on the corporate ladder, as tied to the title that comes after your name. Now, there are at least two distinct ways sin manifests itself within this system. First, one can easily become restless and feel insignificant as one begins the climb of the ladder. As an intern, I understand this all too well, feeling like I have little to no voice within the team. The temptation is either to put my head down, attempting to place my entire life in the hands of the company, or to continually feel humiliated as my title does not reflect what I believe to be true about myself. Second, when one finds himself within a position he deems worthy of significance, he is easily drawn to pride, as one’s sphere of influence grows and one’s position in the skyscraper heightens. The temptation here is to place your significance over and against those either lower on the corporate ladder, puffing oneself up in the midst of those “beneath” (sometimes literally) you, or, more likely, over and against those who are not of your social and professional class.
In the middle of this status-driven individualism, what a smack in the face to be told that one is in a desperate state of sin before God and neighbor. All of your attempts at finding identity and happiness in your busyness, any pride that comes from a mere title, and the restlessness that comes from feeling insignificant, are truly self-destructive and alienating.3 And the worst of it is, I can’t blame this problem on someone else or work to make up the difference, it is truly my sin. The Reformed tend not to pull any punches in emphasizing the scriptures that deal with this awful state of humanity, for we are “dead in our trespasses and sins,” as we “live in the passions of our flesh,” “and were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3). Though this may sound offensive and harsh, Christians are committed to believing this is the sad lot of humanity without a God who is merciful, we stand needy before him. Truthfully, our restlessness will never lead to rest, our attempts at establishing our righteousness before others will never lead to holiness, our money and status won’t make us joyful, and all of this spirals into our own demise.4
It is a beautiful thing to experience the deep contrast that exists between the state of sin in which we currently exist, and the undeserved grace that God has shown to us. As I’ve explained above, it is not as if humanity has veered in the wrong direction and needed to be set on the right path, nor is it that sin isn’t really all that big of a deal and can be treated like spilled milk, nor is it that we can make up for our sin by being extra good. No. As we have seen, this will either only lead to more restlessness, as we see perfectly pictured in the rhythms of affluent New York City life, or it will not take sin seriously as alienating and self-destructive.
Now, let’s hear the contrasting good news of God’s grace. After Paul explains that we stand “dead in our sin,” Paul transitions with an incredible exclamation of “But God”:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”(Ephesians 2:4-10)
In Christ Jesus, Paul explains, we are raised from death to life, for through faith we are able to experience the love, kindness, and grace of God. Though we were entirely undeserving of this grace, God has chosen to give us this precious life of salvation. Now, just as a robust doctrine of sin is a smack in the face to the affluent New Yorker, so is the beauty of God’s radical grace. You see, God’s grace is entirely unlike the rhythms of New York City, the busyness, restlessness, and work to establish ourselves before others. It is given to us as a gift, outside of anything we’ve done, outside of anything we’ve offered to God, outside of anything that gives us status and recognition on earth.
Though this grace comes free from the hand of God, this gift does not leave us unchanged. Paul concludes that this undeserved gift of grace, not given as a result of any work on our part, results in a new creation. Those who are created anew in the grace of God cannot stay as we once were, for we are God’s “workmanship, created for good works.” The question is then begged daily to the New Yorker, how am I to live as a new creation in the midst of the city? This will have to lead (and this is no easy task to me or any of us) to giving of our time and money to the poor, loving our coworkers well, seeking justice and mercy in our businesses, and fighting the city’s rhythms of workaholism, consumerism, and restlessness in our social standing.
View Sources 1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redeemer_Presbyterian_Church_%28New_York_City%29 2. Please note that this two-part discussion of the gospel is not exhaustive of the good news. The Reformed tradition’s view of the gospel is not merely these two parts, though sin and grace are thoroughly emphasized in Reformed theology. 3. One thing I want to note is that the writer is not oblivious to the poverty of the city and the many injustices in modern capitalism. There is a real difference between the administrative assistant or intern that feels insignificant in his/her role, and the underpaid/exploited worker at the bottom of a service industry. These two feelings of insignificance are not to be conflated, the latter feeling is indicative of real injustice. 4. This article will primarily deal with sin’s separation of humanity to God. This aspect is heavily emphasized in the Reformed tradition, though it is not exhaustive of the Reformed tradition’s beliefs on sin and its effects.
2. Please note that this two-part discussion of the gospel is not exhaustive of the good news. The Reformed tradition’s view of the gospel is not merely these two parts, though sin and grace are thoroughly emphasized in Reformed theology.
3. One thing I want to note is that the writer is not oblivious to the poverty of the city and the many injustices in modern capitalism. There is a real difference between the administrative assistant or intern that feels insignificant in his/her role, and the underpaid/exploited worker at the bottom of a service industry. These two feelings of insignificance are not to be conflated, the latter feeling is indicative of real injustice.
4. This article will primarily deal with sin’s separation of humanity to God. This aspect is heavily emphasized in the Reformed tradition, though it is not exhaustive of the Reformed tradition’s beliefs on sin and its effects.