Lance Armstrong’s recent admission of using performance enhancing drugs has led to an all out assault on the most famous cyclist in the world. Armstrong not only violated the rules, he lied repeatedly, and some would say even betrayed his country. This high profile case has emerged as the most talked about scandal in sport’s history. Talk around the “water cooler” is brutal. His fans feel betrayed. His competitors are outraged. And the media is ruthlessly attacking a man who is struggling to regain some sense of composure as he confesses his sins.
As I listen to people weigh in on the Armstrong confession, I hear the gavel slamming relentlessly on the bench. I hear the drone of a prosecuting attorney who seeks to cross-examine a defendant into the corner until he breaks. I see the executioner who prepares the “rope” which will execute final justice on an unrepentant miscreant. However, today it struck me: Each time one of these well meaning people casts a vote of no-confidence for Armstrong, they are in the final analysis making a proclamation: “I am better than Lance Armstrong.” Bottom line: “My righteousness surpasses Lance Armstrong.” Or does it?
There is no question, that the man who founded Livestrong should be held accountable. The more important matter, however, concerns his position before a holy God. The God of the universe is holy and righteous. As such, he demands his creatures be holy in their behavior: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” (1 Peter 1:14-16, ESV). Jesus says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48, ESV).
But Jesus gets to the heart of the matter when he tells his disciples, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). How can anyone exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? Lance Armstrong has proved that he can’t do it. He has failed the test. But here’s the rub. I have failed the test. You have failed the test. Each of us has failed the test. We have all lied like Lance Armstrong. In fact, Scripture says that even if we keep the whole law, yet fail at one point, we become accountable for breaking all of it (James 2:10). Each of us are sinners by nature and choice. Jonathan Edwards said that “sinners would kill God” if given an opportunity. Scripture is clear on this matter. Apart from grace, we have no righteousness. Apart from grace, we would freely lie, cheat, and steal. And we would enjoy it. Listen to the prophet Isaiah:
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6, ESV).
“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa. 64:6, ESV).
If we are to think clearly about Lance Armstrong, we must remember that we too are sinners. We are totally depraved. Apart from grace, we are lost without hope and without God. The Westminster Larger Catechism rightly refers to sin as, “that corruption whereby man is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all that is spiritually good.” Think Saul of Tarsus – a murderer. Think Aurelius Augustine – a fornicator. Or what about C.S. Lewis – an atheist. Think about a vile sinner and stand in awe of this fact: God is in the business of transforming liars and cheaters (people like Saul, Augustine, and C.S. Lewis) into worshippers; worshippers who are forgiven of all their sins; people who delight in God and make Jesus their highest treasure. Jesus died on a cross and bore the wrath of God for everyone who would ever believe. He endured the wrath that we rightly deserve. And he rose again on the third day to secure eternal life for everyone who believes. Jesus came to set sinners free; to liberate them of all their sin; to forgive them. He came to offer hope for the hopeless and a new life for the desperate.
Here’s the problem. Somewhere along the way, Christians began to think that the gospel is for the unconverted. But nothing could be further from the truth. The gospel is for not only for the unconverted. It is for the follower of Christ. This gospel has the power to transform lives and marriages and businesses and churches. This gospel is the only hope for lives and marriages and businesses and churches. When we buy the lie that the gospel is only for the unconvinced, we embrace a small gospel, a weak gospel, a comfortable American gospel. This is not the gospel that Jesus proclaims!
So followers of Christ: Let’s give Lance Armstrong a break. Better yet, let’s extend some grace. Instead of casting stones, let us share the love of Christ. Here’s the reason why. When you judge Lance from afar at the office, imagine an executive who is stealing money from the company. Imagine a young secretary who is tangled up in an immoral relationship. Imagine an attorney who cheats on her taxes. When we play judge and jury with Lance Armstrong, we play judge and jury with every other sinner. And these people hear the message loud and clear: “I am better than Lance Armstrong” – which is to say, “I am better than you; you have no right to the grace of God. You deserve to go to hell!” May we root out this Pharisee-mindset. May we freely extend the grace of God to sinners like Lance Armstrong. Perhaps God will use this horrible situation for good. Perhaps God will extend grace to Lance Armstrong like he extended grace to this man – for I am not better than Lance Armstrong and neither are you!