Archives For The Gospel

Protestants are generally suspicious of Catholics. I often hear concern that Catholics work to earn their salvation. In this post, I would like to turn that accusation back on Protestants. We talk a lot about grace, but I’m not convinced that the typical Protestant confidently believes that he doesn’t have to earn his own salvation.

Ask yourself this question: What do you do when you sin? Remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and immediately hold to the grace and forgiveness he offers? That’s the right answer, but is that really your first response? Can you tell me honestly that this comes to you naturally? I doubt it.

Most of us take a little time after falling into sin. We recognize that we have just dishonored God, so we’re careful not to approach him too immediately. Let’s wait till the dust settles. Let’s clean ourselves up a bit.

I would say that most of us live right there. We have a post-sin detox period before we’ll let the gospel kick in. Yes, Jesus died for my sins, but I just engaged in this sin. I’m not gospel-worthy yet. I hope you see the oxymoron in that line of thinking. There’s no such thing as “gospel-worthy.” Whether your latest bout with sin took place five seconds or five years ago, you don’t deserve the gospel. Grace should not be wasted on you.

And yet it was precisely while we were sinners that Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). You are not gospel-worthy, but when has that ever stopped God from loving you? When has that ever held back God’s grace? Our delay in approaching God for his grace and forgiveness is a childish game at best, and damning at worst.

Many of us aren’t content with a waiting period before we can re-approach God. We sin, recognize immediately that we’ve done something incredibly stupid and offensive to God, and then we beat ourselves up a bit. How could I be such a fool? I promised myself that I wouldn’t be back in this position again! How could I have let this happen? And so we punish ourselves. We talk down to ourselves. We reinforce our rules and tighten up our boundaries.

Do you realize that the gospel means that you are not punished for your sin? That when you beat yourself up over what you’ve done wrong you’re actually proclaiming that you do not believe the gospel? This sort of thinking is antithetical to grace.

That’s the worst part. But Paul is also clear that this approach to dealing with sin is useless:

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:20-23)

Worthless.

Do you best. Work harder. If you’re not getting results, redouble your efforts. When that doesn’t work, tighten up the rules. When you can’t keep those, punish yourself a bit. Deprive yourself. Degrade yourself. Be ruthless with yourself.

And when all of that fails, realize that it was all futile from the start. This isn’t the gospel. The gospel speaks to sinners. The gospel proclaims God’s grace, not our goodness. The gospel offers forgiveness to those who don’t deserve it. It calls us away from our own efforts and points to hope in Christ.

So don’t be slow to accept God’s grace. It’s for you. It is designed for sinners. There is no gospel for the self-righteous, the sinless, the unbroken. Nor is there a gospel for the self-punishing, for those who have done their own Protestant form of penance.

Here’s a handy little rule of thumb to help you test your trust in God’s grace: your understanding of the gospel is inversely proportional to the amount of time it takes you to return to God after engaging in sin.

 

God’s scandalous grace invaded Portage, Wisconsin, with unwelcomed splendor in April of 1994. It targeted a criminal serving multiple life-sentences in the Columbia Correctional Institution. It’s not uncommon for thieves and murderers in prison to receive God’s grace, but this day was different. The person who attracted God’s love was a man who killed, had sex with, dismembered, and then ate (in that order) 17 young men. Reviled as the epitome of human depravity—if human is even a fitting term— turned heads and stomachs with his imaginative acts of necrophilia and cannibalism.

His vial behavior elicited a shocking and nauseating response when it hit the news in the early 90’s. How is it possible that a human conscience can become so seared, so cemented in depravity, that one would fornicate and then eat dead bodies? America—a country that doesn’t lack imagination when it comes to immorality—was stunned with disbelief. But what happened in April of 1994 trumps Dahmer’s depravity. While in prison, Jeffrey Dahmer gave a TV interview and mentioned in passing that he wished he could find some inner peace. A Christian woman named Mary Mott saw the interview and immediately thought, I know where you can find inner peace, and so she mailed several Bible studies to Dahmer. He received them and, to Mary’s surprise, he immediately worked through all the studies and wrote Mary Mott back asking for more. And so she sent more. After a while, Mott contacted Ron Ratcliff, a minister who lived near the prison, and asked him to visit Dahmer to share the gospel with him. Ratcliff nervously agreed, and so he told Dahmer the good news about Jesus, answered some questions, studied the Bible with him, and eventually saw God’s grace enter Jeffrey Dahmer’s soul and transform his eternal destiny. After receiving Christ and repenting from his sin, Jeffrey Dahmer was baptized on May 10th, 1994.

God, yet again, had transformed an unworthy sinner into a spotless saint. Dahmer’s blood stained hands were washed clean with the blood of the Lamb. All the acts of murder, pedophilia, necrophilia and cannibalism where removed as far as the east is from the west—no longer to be remembered. Six months later, Dahmer was killed by an inmate with a broomstick, and now, as far as we know, he’s in the loving arms of Jesus.

Such splendor of grace, however, was unwelcomed when it invaded Portage. Many people—especially Christians—were cynical, doubtful, or even angry over Dahmer’s “religious experience” in prison. Ron Ratcliff talks about his encounter with other Christians after they heard about Dahmer’s conversion. Ratcliff recollects:

One of the most common questions put to me about Jeff has to do with the sincerity of his faith. And I usually hear this from Christians. They ask if Jeff was truly sincere in his desire for baptism and in his Christian life. My answer is always the same: Yes, I am convinced he was sincere.

Ratcliff admits that this question bothers him. “Why question the sincerity of another person’s faith?” If a person confesses Christ and yet does not demonstrate any evidence that the confession was genuine, then there’s room to doubt. But the cynicism lobbed at Dahmer’s conversion did not focus on his post-converted life—whether or not he demonstrated faith and obedience—but the heinous evil he committed before he came to Christ. “Jeff was judged not by his faith, but by his crimes.” God could not actually forgive Dahmer for his wickedness—this was the sentiment that drove the questions. We’ve got to draw the line somewhere. We’ve got to put grace on a leash.

But grace has no leash. It’s untamed, unbound, and runs wild and free. I bring up Jeffrey Dahmer not to defend his conversion. As far as we can tell, it was genuine, yet only God knows for sure. But the church’s response to Dahmer’s conversion is quite telling. The cynicism and doubt toward Dahmer’s conversion reveals a perverted view of grace among the Christian questioners. They believed that Dahmer’s crimes before God were too great to be forgiven. Or they desired—with Jonah and the prodigal’s brother—that God would judge the wicked rather than save them. Either way, we want grace to have at least some limits. When it runs wild and free, it scares us.

In many ways, the word “grace” has lost its stunning beauty, and perhaps through overuse, it’s become just another Christianeze buzzword. And so we use the word “grace” in very flat ways. My students will ask for “grace” when they turn in assignments late. “Come on, Preston, give me grace.” But divine grace is more than just leniency, more than just allowing exceptions to a rule. The grace of God is also more than just unconditional acceptance, which is the typical way in which grace is defined. Unconditional acceptance: God accepts people even though they have not met his standard. Again, there’s some truth to this, but grace is more than just acceptance.

The grace of God is more than just leniency and unconditional acceptance. Divine grace is God’s relentless and loving pursuit of his enemies, who are unthankful, unworthy, and unlovable. Grace is not just God’s ability to save sinners, but God’s stubborn delight in his enemies—even the really creepy, twisted ones. Grace means that in spite of our mess, in spite of our sin, in spite of our addiction to food, drink, sex, porn, pride, self, money, comfort, and success—in spite of these things, God desires to transform us into “real ingredients of divine happiness” (Lewis, Weight of Glory).

Grace is God’s aggressive pursuit of, and stubborn delight in, messed up people. And since we’re all really messed up—home school moms, porn stars, Awana champions, and suicide bombers—we are all equally in desperate need of God’s grace.

 

Here’s an excerpt from the book I’m writing on Grace. Love to hear your thoughts!

Ezekiel 16 is a stunning portrait of grace told through the lens of a racy allegory. In as much as the Israelites resemble human nature as a whole, this allegory reveals God’s love for you and me. So let’s rehearse Ezekiel 16 as if it was our autobiography, since in many ways it is. In order to help us get inside the story and make it our own, we’ll have to contemporize it a bit. Here’s the allegory of Ezekiel 16—remixed:

Your father was a pimp and your mother was a prostitute. Your mom found a lucrative way to fund her drug habit by having sex with multiple men, until your father took her in (and a few others) to live under his roof. When a pimp lives with a prostitute, one thing leads to another, and that’s where you came in. With the help of a few lines of crack and a bottle of Jack, you were conceived and immediately unwanted. Too scared to have an abortion, your mother waited until you were born when she discarded you in a nearby dumpster.

Minutes later, a stranger walked by and heard the shrieking from inside the bin. He opened the lid and found you—squirming in your blood, expelling your last breath of life. The stranger’s 911 call miraculously summoned an ambulance within minutes, and you were saved. But still unwanted. The stranger couldn’t bear the thought of sending you to a foster home, so he signed some papers and took you into his home. But “home” is an understatement. Your new father was the CEO of a multimillion-dollar business. Your new home would be a small castle, and your future life would be paradisaical.

And he was a good man too. Humble, strong, generous, and honest. And though his wife had died childless a few years earlier, your father possessed an unusual joy, which he often spent on you. His time, his money, his affection, his attention—it was all yours. There was nothing you lacked. All the storybook tales combined could not compare to the utopian life you had. You were the envy of all your friends and the prized possession of a father who had it all. From his perspective, though, “having it all” boiled down to having you. You were the true source of his uncanny joy.

But something snapped when you turned 16. The boys at school started noticing your body and didn’t hide their glances. And glances turned to comments. Comments turned to touches. And touches opened the floodgates of a different kind of love—one that was both exhilarating and empty, but too addictive to deny. So at the age of 16, you left your father’s house, leaving him in pools of tears. You didn’t hide the fact that you were happily leaving him in order to pursue a sexual relationship with your new boyfriend. The more he wept, the more you laughed, as you skidded off in your boyfriend’s car.

Your adolescent love affair was only the beginning. Before long, your boyfriend’s buddies took a liking to you and the flirtatious cycle was replayed with them as well. Soon, mere sex with your boyfriend became boring and so his friends were added to the mix. But orgies also get old after a while, and so drugs, alcohol, and other men joined in the hellish dance. Your dream of freedom and love had turned into nightmare. But nothing can compare to the pain the day when your boyfriends decided to mail a picture of you to your father’s house. Delighted to catch a glimpse of his princess, your father laid his eyes upon a whore.

Your once beautiful hair was frayed and knotted. Your eyes—the windows to your soul—were dark and sunken. Devoid of life. And the bruises on your face revealed that your boyfriend’s love had run dry. Daddy’s baby girl was the prized possession of half a dozen drug infused teenagers. And there was nothing he could do.

Sex, drugs, and imaginative acts of depravity piled up as you lived the next two years satisfying your misguided lust for life on selfish scum—nameless boys who use and abuse you. Yet you still use them to satisfy your craving to be loved. You gave one boy the car daddy bought you on your sweet 16. Your boyfriend’s other girlfriend took the dress your father had made. And you sold the necklace that belonged to your father’s wife to buy heroine for another boy. Yet the beatings continued. Soon, your bank account ran out and you took to the streets to sell your body in order to keep a steady supply of heroine flowing through your boyfriends’ veins.

And heaven began to rumble with furious excitement.

One day, your “friends” were gone and you were all alone. Coming down off a high, you began to feel depressed and lonely as you felt your humanity slipping away. So you head for another pinch to numb the pain. Just then, the front door is kicked open and a burst of fear grips your heart. The bruises on your body are a constant reminder that your new home is never very safe, even though—or, especially since—your boyfriends live there. Kicked-in-doors were a regular occurrence and they never fared well for you. And this time, the fear ran especially deep. Maybe it was the suddenness of the blast coupled with the misery of coming down from a high. But your stunned demeanor quickly changed as you saw the man standing at the threshold. It was your father.

Your immediate reaction is still one of fear. You recall the day you drove away from his house laughing as he stood on his lawn weeping. How did he find me? Why had he come? Is he too going to beat me, after all I have done?

But his tears spoke otherwise. His face glistened with joy. His hands trembled with furious excitement. You could feel his heart thump steadily from across the room. And the familiar tears revisited his cheeks again, but this time was different. These were tears of jubilant joy. And they were flowing because your daddy has found his baby girl. Your daddy—who found you wailing in a dumpster—has taken the initiative to find you again.

Confused, enthralled, fearful, overjoyed—you can’t move.

But your father can. And so he races across the room to swallow you with an embrace—the first non-sexual touch you have felt in years. A touch that radiated more love than all your sexual encounters put together. You feel safe. You feel loved. You feel forgiven—instantly, as your Dad gathers your face with his hands and declares:

I’ll restore the relationship we had when you were young only this time it will be better. It will last forever and nothing will lure you away from me again. You’ll remember your past life and face the shame of it, but when I shower you with the good life you had as before and it will make your shame fade from your memory. Don’t try to fix it. I’ll fix it for you. I’ll make everything right after all you’ve done, it will leave you speechless (Ezek. 16:60-63 modified from The Message)

Grace. This stuff never gets old.

Yesterday, I argued that the gospel is good news to every culture. It affirms all the best longings in that culture and points beyond the superficial to the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ. But we have to be clear: the gospel is also inherently subversive.

For example, the gospel affirms our longing for relationship. When a person is feeling lonely and isolated, the good news speaks deeply into his life: Though we are separated from God and one another through sin, Jesus died to reconcile those relationships and enables us to receive and give love in its truest form.

But be careful. The gospel is also subversive here. It addresses the self-focus imbedded deep within our feelings of loneliness. Very often, our longing for relationship is intensified by self-idolatry. We long for people to make much of us, to see us as we see ourselves, to appreciate and praise us. The gospel is still good news in this situation, but the good news is subversive. It calls us to repentance. It tells us that what we are truly longing for can only be found by denying ourselves and embracing Another. It announces that there is a great King who reigns, and that we cannot and must not rule ourselves.

To every government that believes itself to be absolute, the gospel is subversive. It proclaims that Caesar is not lord (this was the proclamation of the Roman empire at the time of the early church). Jesus is Lord. The good news is the proclamation that he has taken his rightful place as ruler of this world.

To every culture that glorifies sex, the gospel is subversive. It tells us that we have exalted one of God’s gifts over God himself. The good news is the proclamation that we must turn from our pursuit of carnal pleasure and in doing so, we can instead embrace the true Source of joy.

While some cultures are more visibly evil than others, the gospel subverts every culture. The gospel can be effectively proclaimed in every culture, but it also calls every culture to change. We have a nasty tendency to present the gospel in purely happy terms. As I said yesterday, the gospel truly is good news for every culture. It affirms much of what we long for. Yet none of our longings is completely pure. So while the gospel affirms our longing for justice, it subverts our longing for retribution. While the gospel affirms our desire to care for the environment, it subverts our worship of it.

So as we reach out to the people around us with this good news, we should be watching for the ways in which the gospel is good news to each particular person. What are they longing for that the gospel affirms? But we must also watch for the ways in which the gospel subverts the thought-patterns, longings, and lifestyles of the people around us.

There is so much more to say about both of these concepts, but unless we keep both in mind—that the gospel is good news and that the gospel is subversive—then we are not seeing the gospel accurately.

 

 

Meet Mary Magdalene

Preston Sprinkle —  April 24, 2012 — 2 Comments

Mary Magdalene is one of the most well-known and yet misunderstood women in the Bible. She’s commonly portrayed in Christian art as a forgiven prostitute, or, in an extreme case, she’s thought to be Jesus’ wife—the “holy grail”—according to Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. Neither of these depictions bears a shred of biblical evidence. The Bible never says she was a prostitute, and neither does it suggest she was Jesus’ wife. The only thing we know about Mary is that she was probably from the small fishing village of Magdala, and that she was once possessed by 7 demons (Luke 8:2).

7 demons. That’s a lot of horror. The number 7 may be literal, but it also may be symbolic, referring to completeness, as the number 7 often does. This would mean that she was totally ruled by demons. And so she probably not only looked insane, but would have been a well-known social stigma in her small town of Magdala. People would have looked at her with horror, disdain, and disgust. It’s likely that she had no friends, certainly no husband or any man who would take the slightest interest in her. Society not only rejected her, but was repulsed by her. She probably had to beg for money—if anyone would come close enough to drop a shekel in her cup.

Mary Magdala was the epitome of social rejection.

The closest type of person in our culture would be a toothless bag lady, who walks down the street muttering and arguing with herself. If you look at her, she cusses at you. Keep looking, and maybe she’ll throw a rock at you. That’s Mary Magdalene. Now, imagine the joy that would flood Mary’s heart when Jesus not only delivered her from her demonic oppression, but delighted in her and valued her enough to say: “Come follow me, I need you to help set up God’s kingdom on earth.”

Put yourself in her shoes. Imagine for a second that everyone you know despises you. They actually think that you smell horrible, that your clothes are repulsive, and that you have nothing to offer. Why are you still here? why don’t you just curl up and die? they think. Now imagine that this is your life—forever. For as long as you know, you have not had a life. Your mother and father have abandoned you. Your brothers and sisters have disowned you. You’ve heard the word friendship, but you’ve never known what it meant. You’ve seen people make a strange delightful sound called laughter, but you’ve never laughed. Every now and then a stranger approaches you, but just when you think they’re going to talk to you, they kick dust in your direction, spit on you, and walk away.

And then, a young Jewish rabbi walks up, surrounded by a bunch of men, and you think you’re done for. How many wads of phlegm will cover my face before they kick me, beat me, and, perhaps even stone me to death? But instead of death, the rabbi offers a tender hand and gently raises you up from the ground and sternly commands the demons to leave you.

“This woman is mine! I have bought her. I delight in her. And you have no business here any more—Mary is my disciple. And I need her to help further my kingdom. Be gone!”

Immediately, heaven comes crashing down to earth and Mary breathes for the first time the breath of life! Not only does she now know what friendship means; she now, for the first time, knows what it means to be human. And now she can laugh.

More than all the other disciples, Mary Magdalene would remain singularly committed to Jesus. We see this especially at the end of Jesus’ life. On the night Jesus was betrayed, his disciples saw that things were taking a turn for the worse and many of them scattered. Judas betrayed him. Peter, his right hand man, denied him three times. And many others were no-where to be found.

But Mary. Mary Magdalene. She can’t leave Jesus. Where would she go? Who else would sustain her stunning breath of life? So in the gospels, it’s Mary Magdalene who stands firm beneath the cross (Matt 27:56). It’s Mary who follows the guards to the tomb (Matt 27:61). And it was Mary who raced to the grave that Sunday morning to be with her Savoir, only to find him risen from the dead (Luke 24:10). When Jesus broke the chains of death and conquered the power of Satan, it was Mary who was the first one to bask in the glory of the risen King.

Mary is a beautiful illustration of God’s value for social outcasts. In the first century, women (for the most part) were viewed as inherently inferior to men (see my next post). But not Jesus. He reconfirmed that truth that’s rooted in Genesis 1, that God equally values women: all humanity was created in God’s image and therefore they are the pinnacle of God’s creation. And when Jesus came to earth, his mission was not only to save us and forgive our sins (though that was a big part), but also to grab hold of women and declare them to be beautiful, precious, and infinitely worthy in God’s sight. A radical message for then; an under-appreciated and ignored message today.

Any male chauvinism that lives on in the church today is an offense to God and works against the work of Christ.

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