I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking God’s grace (that saved a wretch like me) is akin to a vaccination shot I got as a kid – in that because of it I can be exposed to and even wallow around in the disease of sin all I want. That, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice of His precious life on the cross, I’ve been rendered immune to the eternal consequences that result from being infected by evil. While to some extent the allegory is accurate that woefully misguided attitude still misses the point by a mile. Yes I’m saved but, believe me, there’s a whole lotta room for spiritual improvement in this fleshy vessel. A master’s degree in perfection doesn’t appear on my resume. Being a Christian involves much more than having been issued a laminated security clearance badge that’ll get me through the Pearly Gates. Truth is, if accepting God’s forgiveness doesn’t make me want to let Him renovate my wicked heart then my outlook and behavior will be indistinguishable from a non-believing secularist’s. On a grander scale, if a substantial portion of United States citizens consider themselves committed followers of Christ then why doesn’t our country have the lowest crime and murder rate in the world? If mere baptism turns a person into a saint then we should be living in a virtual Shangri La. And we know all too well that ain’t the case. Not even close. Christians are frequently just as hateful, intolerant, bigoted, dysfunctional and downright mean-spirited as those who’ve never taken a single step inside a church foyer. Sin remains an epidemic in our land.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to downplay the far-reaching ramifications of what I obtained through faith alone – my treasured status as being “justified” in the eyes of God. I am blessed beyond measure. My salvation is a free gift that I could never on my best day have merited receiving. If I had to earn it I wouldn’t have a chance in hell. I know that. God’s grace is scandalous. It defies logic. In fact, I can even behave like a “bad Christian” and still not place my identity as an adopted child of God in jeopardy. “Dunked and done” is a reality and, in my case, that’s nothing short of a miracle because I continue to sin every day. I can see where that mindset probably irritates those who do their level best to be obedient, conscientious disciples of Jesus 24/7 because it doesn’t seem fair at all. To them it sounds like I’m benefitting from a loophole I found in the divine covenant. That I’m taking despicable and downright shameful advantage of God’s amazing generosity. I won’t disagree. Dallas Willard wrote, “But, to be quite frank, grace is cheap from the point of view of those who need it. That’s why attacks on ‘cheap grace’ never make much difference. To try to rule out unheroic Christianity by making grace expensive will only add to confusion about matters of vast importance. And if a fire is likely, it would not be a mark of wisdom to forgo insurance that really is available.” In other words, only a stubborn fool would turn down redemption from their sinful deeds and thoughts when the ridiculously low price is to merely proclaim they believe the Lord Jesus is the promised Messiah, “…the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
However, seriously flawed folks like me should never entertain for a split second the opinion that we’re “getting one over” on God Almighty. I have no doubt my Heavenly Father is well aware of my every wayward thought and act and, therefore, He’s never surprised by my all-too-predictable insolence. I’ll have you know I’m extremely relieved to know I serve a God who’s incomprehensibly forgiving and merciful to a fault. What truly saddens me is my failure to live up to my divinely ordained calling and potential that causes me to repeatedly miss out on the spiritually abundant life my Savior offers me on a silver platter. Jesus didn’t simply hand out railway tickets that guarantee we’ll have a reserved seat on the heaven-bound glory train when we depart this mortal coil. There’s much more that should happen to us when we get “saved.” Does anyone seriously believe a benevolent, loving God would rescue our souls and then abandon us to struggle alone through the earthly mess mankind has wrought? Wouldn’t that betray a cruel lack of concern on His part? Wouldn’t that indicate His blessings will only be accessible to us after we die? That “becoming sanctified” has no power whatsoever to overhaul our hearts and minds in the here and now? If that’s the way Christianity worked then weak-willed sinners (like yours truly) would have no hope that things can improve perceptively this side of the grave. Thank God the gospel says otherwise!
My own conversion story has a rather large gap in it that sometimes made me wonder if my initial surrender was the “real deal.” I was raised in a church-going family. One Sunday morning when I was somewhere around the age of 9 or 10 I saw my older sister respond to the pastor’s altar call and go “down front.” Thinking I could ride on her coattails into eternal bliss I followed in her footsteps. Unbeknownst to me, she was only rededicating her life to the Lord. She’d previously gotten baptized while I wasn’t paying attention, evidently. So it soon dawned on me I’d volunteered to take a solo swim in the church sanctuary’s petite pond. There was no blinding epiphany involved at all, just a feeling it’d be a wise move to go ahead and “get with the program” already. I wasn’t scared. My only demand was that I’d be allowed to hold my own nose during the submergence phase. When it was over I felt relief. I’d successfully passed the holy audition and my future destiny was secured accordingly. But for the next half century I was anything but pious. It wasn’t until early in 2009 that I finally hit rock bottom and found none other than Jesus Christ waiting for me at the bottom of the slippery slope. I can only relate that it was a personal encounter unlike and superior to any other I’ve ever had and He changed my life forevermore. Frederick Buechner had a similar indescribable experience. He wrote, “To say that I was born again, to use that traditional phrase, is to say too much because I remained in most ways as self-centered and squeamish after the fact as I was before, and God knows remain so still. And in another way to say that I was born again is to say too little because there have been more than a few such moments since, times when from beyond time something too precious to tell has glinted in the dusk, always just out of reach, like fireflies.” Amen. I couldn’t have said it any better or more poetically than that.
Christians can’t help but be alarmed over what we see happening in our nation daily on the evening news. Especially in light of the fact that, according to a recent Harris poll, only 74% of Americans say they believe in God (a drastic plunge) while 68% believe that Jesus is His only begotten Son. And only 34% claim to have had a “new birth” experience. Obviously there are a lot of men and women out there who have the same naive notions as the infamous Nicodemus did. To refresh your memory, he was the Pharisee who had a one-on-one meeting with the King of kings and still didn’t “get it.” “Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus at night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3:1-3). Nic thought Jesus was talking in riddles. He wasn’t. What Christ was saying to Nicodemus (and a notable portion of the 21st century populace) is that there’s a huge difference between mumbling “I suppose so” and boldly avowing “I believe.” A born again Christian is an individual who’s no longer undecided about whom Jesus is. They’re a person who understands that becoming a “new creature in Christ” is as real as rain but not necessarily some kind of spectacular, other-worldly, emotion-wringing event. I’m sure it comes about differently for everybody but for me (it’s now been almost eight years ago) it was an extraordinarily impactful yet intensely private “moment of clarity” wherein everything I’ve read in the Bible about Jesus suddenly made absolute sense. I didn’t look or feel any differently but I knew intuitively I wasn’t the same person anymore. Now, the “old man” with his deeply-imbedded hurts, habits and hang-ups didn’t disappear but he did have to take a seat on the bench and watch while the “new man” in me took over as the starting quarterback.
I’m definitely a work in progress. I sense there are a lot of “inconsistent Christians” out there just like me. Otherwise this country wouldn’t be contending with the massive problems and divisions we have. If all believers loved their neighbor as themselves things would be tons better than they are. But that hasn’t been the situation for eons, has it? Thus we must consider that there’s something fundamentally wrong concerning how Christians are being educated about the “good news” of the gospel. I have to ask myself a tough question: Am I focused too much on “riding herd” over my sinful nature instead of concentrating on keeping my eyes fixed on Jesus and thereby letting the Holy Spirit engulf the essence of my being? Could it be that the collective body of Christ is making the same mistake? Willard wrote, “History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally.” I see this error manifest itself in the Celebrate Recovery ministry frequently. Folks in desperate need of help zero in exclusively on eliminating their sinful ways and fail to surrender all of themselves to the Lord. That “sin management” tactic never works for long. Eventually they give up, give in to their demons and stop coming to the meetings. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). Too many don’t realize Christianity is an “all or nothing” proposition.
We all recognize there’s a cavernous right and left split politically in the USA. It’s impossible to miss seeing. Sadly, the same division exists in the Church. Right wing Christians consider divine forgiveness of sins (via adherence to strict, uncompromised legalism) as being the most crucial message. Left wingers believe the elimination of social ills and injustices should be our foremost concern. Conservatives say an authentic Christian is a man or woman who’s prepared to die and humbly stand before the great I AM solely because of their faith, not because of anything they did. Liberals believe a bona fide Christian is one who can report to God on Judgment Day they did everything humanly possible to “spread the love” and thus improve the world’s sorry condition. It would seem that tolerance and understanding are in short supply within each side’s agenda yet they do have something in common. Neither faction emphasizes strongly enough the coherent framework of solid, Bible-based knowledge and the inerrant guidance the indwelling Holy Spirit employs to thoroughly transform the hearts and minds of those who’ve given their life over to Christ’s care and control. The result is we have a nation full of “tee shirt slogan Christians” who have no intention or inclination whatsoever of developing into one of our Lord’s disciples. To them the title of “Believer” is only one of the many hats they wear. Their faith is but skin deep. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging because I’m guilty of that very thing myself.)
The “word that must be heard” is that all believers should make it their central goal in life to be more like Jesus. Not to champion one theological “side” or another but to be exactly what our Savior commanded us to be – ambassadors of grace. We have an urgent message to carry and deliver. James S. Stewart wrote, “But while the basic message thus remains constant and invariable, our presentation of it must take account of, and be largely conditioned by, the actual world on which our eyes look out today. The Gospel is not for an age, but for all time: yet it is precisely the particular age – this historic hour and none other – to which we are commissioned by God to speak.” He added, “…To offer pedantic theorizings and academic irrelevances to souls wrestling in the dark is to sin against the Lord who died for them and yearns for their redeeming.” The best way for Christians to conduct ourselves like Jesus is to remain fully transparent about our own shortcomings and to tell our own stories honestly. While admitting that we’re still far from perfect we can, at the same time, display openly our joyful gratitude for the changes God has made in us already and continues to make day by day. Nothing else we can do is more attractive and influential.
Buechner expressed it wonderfully when he wrote, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. Maybe nothing is more important than that we keep track, you and I, of these stories of who we are and where we have come from and the people we have met along the way because it is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes Himself known to each of us most powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.” His wise conclusion nails it. We don’t have to be perfect ourselves in order to give someone the perfect answer.