I recently finished reading a biography on Johnny Cash entitled The Life, by Robert Hilburn. As a long-time fan of Johnny Cash’s music, I was enthralled to learn more about the life of the man behind it all. Though I was aware of many of Cash’s demons, I was astonished to learn the depth to which he wrestled with himself to the very end. Johnny Cash was a man of deep contradictions. On the one hand, he partnered with Billy Graham on many of his evangelistic crusades. On the other hand, he battled debilitating drug addiction through most of his adult life. He sang about Jesus and also about cold blooded murder. He wrote a book about Paul the apostle (Man in White), with whom he self-identified, while simultaneously embodying polar opposite tendencies.
Reading The Life reminded me that all of us, like Johnny Cash, are full of contradictions and these contradictions make us vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. Yet, hypocrisy is only appropriately tagged to the self-righteous who either ignore or hide their sin. Johnny Cash was no hypocrite. He knew his sin and he relied on God’s grace, especially, it seems, as he neared the end.
In many ways, Cash’s sins were coloured with more brilliant paint than most of us have access to. At the same time, God gave this man a platform to proclaim the Gospel in ways that many of us never will. Johnny Cash is a trophy of God’s grace at work in the life of sinners. His life is an exhibition of Romans 7 and his legacy, for me, is the reminder that we, in the Church, cannot afford to be legalistic or licentious. The Gospel recoils from both in equal measure.
Johnny Cash is not a man to be idealized or emulated in the Church. He is, however, a man that we ought to come alongside to worship Jesus Christ, his Saviour and ours. In the end, Christ alone judges the hearts of all men. I cannot be certain that Johnny Cash had a genuine faith that led to his eternal salvation. From the evidence that remains, however, I expect to sing songs with him in glory.