I love redemption stories. “No matter how broken, each violin shared it’s story…Beauty no one ever imagined coming from what had been deemed just a pile of junk.”
I love redemption stories. “No matter how broken, each violin shared it’s story…Beauty no one ever imagined coming from what had been deemed just a pile of junk.”
At the suggestion of my friend, Blake Holmes, I’ve been rereading The Pilgrim’s Progress. Blake mentioned to me this Summer that the book is the most accurate depiction of the spiritual life available. It’s been decades since I read it, and like any good book, you see things differently with each reading. John Bunyan’s fantasy story about a man, named Christian, who goes on a journey is an allegory for the spiritual life. It begins with one of the greatest opening lines:
“As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept I dreamed a Dream.”
I love this passage from Christian’s journey that deals with differing approaches to the spiritual life–law and grace:
Then he took him by the hand, and led him into a very large Parlour that was full of dust, because never swept; the which after he reviewed a little while, the Interpreter called for a man to sweep. Now when he began to sweep, the dust began so abundantly to fly about, that Christian had almost therewith been choked. Then said the Interpreter to a Damsel that stood by, Bring hither the Water, and sprinkle the Room; the which when she had done, it was swept and cleansed with pleasure.
CHR. Then said Christian, What means this?
INTER: The interpreter answered, This parlour is the heart of man that was never sanctified by the sweet grace of the Gospel: the dust of his Original Sin and inward Corruptions, that have defiled the whole man. He that began to sweep at first is the Law; but she that brought water, and did sprinkle it, is the Gospel. Now, whereas thou sawest that so soon as the first began to sweep, the dust did so fly about the Room by him could not be cleansed, but that thou was almost choked therewith; that is to shew thee, that the Law, instead of cleansing the heart (by its working) from sin, doth revive, put strength into, and increase it in the soul, even as it doth discover and forbid it, for it doth not give power to subdue.
Again, as thou sawest the Damsel sprinkle the room with Water, upon which it was cleansed with pleasure; this is to shew thee, that when the Gospel comes in the sweet and precious influences thereof to the heart, then I say, even as thou sawest the Damsel lay the dust by sprinkling the floor with Water, so is sin vanquished and subdued, and the soul made clean, through the faith of it, and consequently fit for the King of Glory to inhabit.
Some of you grew up in churches or religious movements that were steeped in Law and external morality. You found them to be stifling and powerless to change your heart. You felt condemned and suffocated because Law only stirs up sin but cannot remove it.
There is another way called Grace. The Gospel of Grace brings freedom and pleasure. It does not wink at sin, but deals with it by a powerful and deep cleansing, extending even to the hard to reach corners and the tiny cracks of your heart. And, best of all, this cleansing was not just for your joy and your goodness (though these are certainly true), but it was also done that you might share it with the King of Glory, who comes to live with you.
Did you grow up in a church or movement that was centered on Law rather than Grace? What was it like when you discovered Grace? Is Grace still having it’s way in your heart? Have you read The Pilrgim’s Progress? Thoughts?
I wrap up this three part series (read Part 1 & Part 2 here) with a look at how one hero of the faith describes his own journey from chasing the fleeting shadows of self to resting in the stronger shadow of God.
It is an act of grace that God reveals himself and awakens us to his goodness and his glory. The following quote is from Augustine (354-430). He is clearly drawing on Psalm 36, which is the same psalm that we explored in Part 2, and he answers the question: what is it like to hide yourself in God?
“The soul of men shall hope under the shadow of Thy wings; they shall be made drunk with the fullness of Thy house, and of the torrents of Thy pleasures Thou wilt give them to drink; for in Thee is the fountain of Life, and in Thy Light shall we see the light? Give me a man in love: he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry; give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the Spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man: he knows what I mean. But if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about…” *
God’s grace is a magical, mysterious, hope-drenched wonder. When we limit it to mere doctrine or morality or religiosity or family heritage or common sense, we can never capture what Augustine describes here. Augustine is forced to use comparisons to make his point. He says that you will know what it is like if you know what it means to be in love; or know what means to thirst in the desert; or know what it is like to ache and groan for a better world. The cold or dispassionate or guarded man won’t get it; he will never comprehend what it means to be overwhelmingly satisfied by God. There is a delight with God that is greater than our proper demeanor. To speak of being drunk on the fullness of God’s house is a uncontainable joy. In our legal circles, people who are drunk on alcohol are said to be “under the influence.” When God’s grace enters our lives, it also exerts its influence on us but to a much better end.
(By the way, if you were hung up on word drunk, you have likely missed the point.)
The following verses tell us how we come to know this love:
The order is important–God loves us and leads us first. Reverse the order, and you are doomed. In both verses, God initiates, and we respond. Functionally, however, many of us live as though we are the cause of God’s love and kindness. Mistakenly, we think that our repentance leads to God’s kindness, and we act as though our love to God earns his love in return. If we think this way, we will find ourselves saying things like “if I get this decision right, then God will bless me” or “if I devote myself to this good cause, then God will give me peace.” Of course, such thinking will stress you out. How will you know when you have loved God enough to earn his love in return? How will you determine when you’ve achieved enough good in the world to merit his care and affection? But take it the other way round (the way the Bible teaches it), and your outlook will be much better.
Grace is about the good we receive from God. 1 Corinthians 4:7 was very significant in Augustine’s thinking on this issue. This single verse helped to change his entire paradigm of the spiritual life. It says, “What do you have that you have not received? If then you received it, why then do you boast as if you did not receive it?” The verse is saying that there is nothing naturally in you that makes you better than anyone else. It is all of grace. If you are more mature or more faithful or more missional or more passionate or more moral, it is only because you have received something good from God. The verse is a mighty ax swinging away at our pride. What good do you possess that you did not receive from God? Answer: nothing at all.
In his Confessions, Augustine describes his journey from rebellion to surrender. He insists that his rescue was not found in an act of his own will or wisdom. Instead, it was God’s work within Augustine that brought about the change.
“During all those years [of rebellion], where was my free will? What was the hidden, secret place from which it was summoned in a moment, so that I might bend my neck to your easy yoke?” **
The answer to these rhetorical questions is obvious: his will did not help him find Jesus. Yet, God burst into Augustine’s heart to change his life forever.
“How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose!…You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves…O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.” ***
When Ultimate Joy comes to us, our happy response is to enjoy this greater joy and to let our little joys go. That is why Christians so often speak of surrender. It is not that we, being smarter and better than others, have searched for and discovered something great. Instead, something great has come to us, and we surrendered ourselves to it.
This is what grace is all about. God comes to us, not because of our goodness but in spite of our badness. We see this in the cross of Christ, who became sin for us and died for us: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Jesus lovingly took the bad that we deserved, and we received the good that he deserved.
When you know grace like this, you want to shout like an Olympian who won a gold medal when he deserved to lose. The gospel is such good news that you never recover from it. It marks all of your life. It reorients all of your life. It fuels all of your life.
Whenever people have lost a sense of wonder and awe about the gospel, the church has lost it’s way. One of the times when the church especially seemed to drift away from the gospel of grace was in the centuries prior to the Reformation. People began to depend more on their own goodness and religiosity than on the grace of God, and the church suffered. This is why the Reformation caused such a stir. The issue wasn’t that a few theologians slightly tweaked some doctrinal stances or religious rituals. No, the Reformation was a recovery of the sense of worship and passion that overtakes a man when he knows the grace that comes through the cross of Jesus. The renewed exaltation of the true gospel was a shock and awe attack on the religion of the day. For those that experienced it, it was a joyous revolt against the tyranny of false religion, and such a revolution of God’s grace deserved a great celebration.
I love the way Robert Farrar Capon describes it: ****
In our day, I pray that we will be increasingly overcome by the gospel. This is the only way forward. May we drink deeply of God’s grace. Like the prodigal that returns home to his father’s hug and excessive celebration, may we always treasure the gospel party thrown by the one who is our Ultimate Joy.
Have you ever really tasted this grace? How does this understanding of grace shape your life? Are you living with a sense of awe and wonder at the gospel?
* Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, pp.374-375 (Tractatus in Joannis Evangelium, 26,4).
** Aurelius Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), p.181 (IX,1). NOTE: I think that originally saw this quote and the quote that follows in something that John Piper wrote, but my books are in boxes from our recent relocation so I’m unable to find the quote.
**** Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996).
I recently ran across two resources that I wanted to pass along to you as you prepare your heart to mourn on Good Friday and to celebrate on Easter Sunday. It is this combination of mourning and celebration together that gives our worship mystery and beauty and power. Like no other events in human history, Christ’s death and resurrection fuse suffering and rejoicing, rejection and glory, tragedy and comedy. If we are to celebrate fully, we need to enter into both sides of the Easter event–the death and the resurrection.
The Kind of Relationship God Wants with You
For me, the best way for me to reflect on all that the cross and resurrection mean is to place myself within the true story of the Bible. One way to do this is to consider the wedding imagery the Bible uses to describe our relationship with God.
The wedding is one of the most powerful and poignant images the Bible utilizes. Marriage is rightfully a relationship shared between a husband and wife who have devoted themselves exclusively to one another. When I perform a wedding ceremony, we speak of the importance of the covenant relationship, of two becoming one, of an inseparable union. Then, the bride and groom exchange rings as an announcement to the whole world that these two are committed to one another only.
God chose the most intimate human relationship, marriage, as the example of the type of relationship he wants to have with us. Like a groom, he initiates and pursues and woos. He declares his loyal love for his people, in spite of all their brokenness. And he calls us to respond to him in loyal love and faithfulness.
Unfortunately, God’s people have often had divided hearts which led to spiritual unfaithfulness. God’s jealousy burns strong for his beloved bride, even as she commits spiritual adultery. Where she is false, he remains true. His loyal-love is strong in spite of her weakness.
Nowhere in the Bible is this picture displayed more clearly than in the Old Testament prophet of Hosea. In this book, Hosea is commanded by God to marry a woman who would prostitute herself to others in spite of Hosea’s faithfulness.
My friends at Irving Bible Church, have captured a contemporary version of Hosea’s story in a powerful series of six short films. They total less than 20 minutes of viewing. These shorts stirred my mind and my heart, so I wanted to post them here. I’ve included some of my thoughts and questions to help you process as you watch. My hope is that the films will pull you into the story of love, betrayal, and redemption. This was the story of Hosea. This is our story too.
#1 – The Covenant Love of God (Hosea 1 – 2:1):
To think about: Have you ever entered into a personal relationship with God? What does it mean that God pursues you like a faithful groom pursues his bride? Have you ever considered that every beautiful love story the world has ever known pales in comparison to the great love of God? Can you imagine betraying a love like that?
#2 – The Tough Love of God (Hosea 2:1-13):
To think about: We all have divided hearts. In what specific ways have you allowed your heart to be divided and distracted from your love of God? God is a jealous God who wants your whole heart. The Bible says that God disciplines those he loves. Are you experiencing God’s tough love that wants you to come home?
#3 – The Tender Love of God (Hosea 2:14-23):
To think about: Do you see areas where you have betrayed the love of God? Have you become attached to lesser loves that will never satisfy you fully and forever? God is patient and slow to anger and abounding in loyal love for those that are his. Will you receive the mercy and forgiveness that he offers to you when you have strayed?
#4 – The Redeeming Love of God (Hosea 3):
To think about: Do you sense God calling you to let go of false loves and come home? What biblical truth can you depend on even when you don’t feel God’s presence? How do you know that he loves you (hint: the cross says he loves you no matter what)? God’s redemption is not based on our goodness, but on Jesus’ goodness. He knows all the bad we’ve done, and he comes to redeem us anyway. Will you accept that redemption?
#5 – The Love of God: Our Response (Hosea 6):
To think about: Have you decided? The choice is yours. His love is greater than your brokenness. Is it hard for you to trust a grace like this? Does your past or your hurt keep you from trusting God’s love? What would it take for you to have faith in God’s redeeming love?
#6 – The Relentless Love of God (Hosea 14):
To think about: Are you dealing with the consequences of your bad choices? Do your circumstances make it hard for you to believe in an unfailing love? What does it mean that God loves you in spite of your sinfulness? Can you–right now and in this moment–trust the relentless love of God that came for you?
What does Hosea have to do with Easter?
The true story of Easter is this: we were created by God who loved us deeply, but we did not love him in return. Instead of enjoying him as he intended, we betrayed him and gave ourselves to lesser lovers. Though we deserved to be cast out and abandoned, he came to rescue us. Putting himself in our place on the cross, Jesus took our punishment, our suffering, and our death. But the tragedy of his death turned into the comedy of new life. Everything turned upside down. Pain was really payment, loss was really gain, dying was really salvation. When Jesus rose from the dead and rolled away the stone, our entire world reversed course. Those who were guilty were righteous. Those who were doubters believed. Those who denied him began to proclaim him. Those who had run away returned home. Those who rebelled renewed their relationship. Love was now sure, and hope was now certain. Easter changed everything. And it still changes everything for those who believe.
Wherever you find yourself in the Easter story, Jesus’ death and resurrection are strong enough for you. May you trust and treasure Jesus more than ever.
If you would like to think more on this…
My friend, Jason Johnson, had an excellent post this week on Easter and the Great Wedding to Come. This gives a biblical / theological look at the marriage imagery and our connection with God. I’d encourage you to give it a read as you continue to reflect on this amazing relationship God offers to us. We have much to look forward to.
Imagine, for example, if Jesus had spelled everything out to Peter when he offered the “How to Become My Disciple” sales pitch: “Peter, here’s what I have in mind for you. You can follow me, and all of this will come true: I will accuse you of being Satan; I will announce your failures in advance to all your colleagues; I will ask you to stay awake with me during sleepless nights of blood-producing work; I will have a team member confront your ineptitude and record it for all to see as a part of your permanent public record; eventually I will ask you to give up your life in excruciating death to demonstrate your loyalty to our mission. So, Peter, how about it? Are you in?” If I’m Peter, I’m politely declining and throwing my nets into the water on the other side of the boat.
But Jesus doesn’t spell it all out for us. He just says, “Follow me.” If this were a job offer, it would feel more than a little vague. But Peter, and many more, followed Jesus anyway.
In theological terms, we speak of irresistible grace as God’s call on us and His influence in our hearts to make us something new. We choose to follow Jesus, but we would not do so unless God reached into our hearts and got to work. I think we need irresistible grace because irresistible trials do not exist. I can easily resist a trial or test. These are difficult struggles, and I avoid them whenever I can. Trials are to be endured when necessary, but never sought out. People that seek out trials are usually in need of medication.
When especially tough trials come my way, it can feel like Jesus didn’t adhere to industry standards or best practices for honesty in recruitment. In these moments, I think, “Jesus, this is not the plan that I thought we had worked out together.” But I’m growing to see it differently.
An Open-Ended Commitment
Jesus gives a simple “follow me” as both an invitation and a command. It’s a command, because he is our king who has come to lead. It’s an invitation, because he is our Rescuer who has come to save. This invitation-command is open-ended. He does not tell us where we are going. It’s not a follow me from Point A to Point B on the map. The invitation-command to “follow me” carries an implied meaning of follow me (wherever I go). When we respond positively to Jesus’ call, as Peter did, we stand ready to follow Jesus anywhere. So, our commitment to follow is also open-ended. We aren’t certain of where the path leads. We just know that we’ve committed to go.
In this sense, it’s like marriage. When people get married, they commit to be together. They stand up in front of friends and family and make vows to one another saying “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” These are open-ended commitments. We are promising to remain faithful no matter what. But let’s be honest. How many young couples have any idea what they are committing to when they make these promises? I love my wife and have a wonderful marriage. But the truth is that, when we married, Nan had no idea what the “worse” parts of my life would be. We said for richer or poorer, but we only imagined the richer. When she said “in sickness and in health,” she had no idea that one day we’d have three kids under the age of four when I had surgery and could not walk or drive for two months. We make bold statements of unconditional love on our wedding day, but the fullest understanding and deepest joy of those commitments comes only through many years of experiencing life together.
In the same way, we come to understand more deeply what following Jesus means through the experiences of life. Wisely, Jesus doesn’t detail every hardship up front. He simply bids us come, and then he gives us grace that carries us day-by-day. Our job is to follow him in what is right in front of us.
Open-ended commitments can be scary. Would you sign a contract to buy a house with an open blank on the line for sales price? Of course not. We have been taught to negotiate contracts to make sure there are no surprises. This is what makes open-ended commitments so frightening: you can’t negotiate the unknown.
A Relational Commitment
This is also what makes all open-ended commitments relational at their core. You can’t be sure of what lies ahead, but you can make sure you know who you are with. This is why the one who says, “Follow me,” also says, “I am with you always.” We have confidence for the road ahead because we know Jesus goes with us. When we begin to see this, our journey becomes less about the road ahead more about the companion at our side.
Growing up, we used to sing: “Wherever he leads, I’ll go.” Ultimately, that’s the commitment we make when we decide to follow Jesus. I copied below the page out of my grandmother’s old hymnal. The song still works.
Can you honestly sing (or say) the words to “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go”? Is there anything that causes you to hesitate or doubt?
I ran across a verse this morning in my Bible reading that grabbed my heart and hasn’t let go all day. Isaiah 30:18 says:
The Lord waits to be gracious to you, and he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
It caused me to reflect on things that keep me (and you) away from God.
All these things keep us away from God. Needlessly. The Gospel says that nothing stands in our way; Jesus has taken it all.
Whatever it is that keeps you away…let it go. Now.
Let nothing keep you away from Jesus.
He waits to be gracious to you. He stands at attention in his readiness to show mercy to you.
Let nothing keep you away.
Yesterday, my facebook status generated some interesting conversation. In fact, one of my former theology professors initially balked at it, thinking it incorrect. I wasn’t trying to be provocative or say anything shocking, but it obviously caught my friend off-guard. All of this got me to thinking that I ought to expand on these thoughts a bit. I’m not sure exactly where this will go, but I’m imagining several posts dealing with the topic.
My statement: The gospel wrecks you before it restores you.
The word gospel means “good news,” so it might seem odd to speak of good news that wrecks you. Let me explain.
What I’m NOT Saying
First, I’m not saying that the gospel corrupts or destroys something good. Sin does that. In his remarkable book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. writes, “Sin has pirated from goodness — energy, imagination, persistence, creativity.” Sin always steals something good, siphoning off God’s blessing into a leaky bucket we have designed for ourselves. We nourish our lives on this pirated goodness, using our skills, talents, passion, and vision for our own enjoyment and self-promotion.
God allows us to go our own way, even if it harms us. Plantinga recalls Augustine’s idea that “sin becomes the punishment for sin.” By this he means that our destruction is in getting exactly what we want. When we are given our heart’s desire, it usually ends in our destruction. Pastor Tim Keller writes, “In the book of Romans, Saint Paul wrote that one of the worst things God can do to someone is to ‘give them over to the desires of their hearts’ (Romans 1:24)” (Counterfeit Gods, 3).
So, we continually steal goodness for ourselves and use it in ways that, although temporarily pleasurable or satisifying, are ultimately harmful. When we do this day in and day out, we develop habits of living that are almost impossible to overcome. Our self-driven ways of living become so routine and normal that we can’t imagine there is another way. Returning one more time to Plantinga, he writes, “Sin has dug in, and, like a tick, and burrows deeper when we try to remove it.” Our inability to conquer our bad habits lead us to resignation. We say things like: “this is just the way it is,” “this is how I was made,” or “there is nothing wrong with this.” Over time, we give up fighting and grow so comfortable in our sin that we hardly notice its presence anymore.
What I am Saying
When I say that “the gospel wrecks you before it restores you,” I am saying that we desperately need to experience God’s wake-up call. God sends His Spirit to arouse us from our sin-induced spiritual slumber, and the gospel is God’s alarm clock. The gospel says to us, “You are not enough.” You may say that this is technically not “the gospel,” but it is at the very least implicit in the gospel message. To say “Jesus came to save you” is to say “you are not enough.” To a life that has for years embraced the idea that Self is King, this is a shocking statement. This is how we are wrecked by the gospel. The gospel message of Jesus is so contrary to anything we’ve experienced that we are undone by it, we lose our balance, we feel unstable. Whether we are self-righteous, self-focused, self-determined, self-satisfied, self-deceived, self-pleasured or self-dependent, we must learn a new way that is not dependent on ourselves, and that is unsettling.
Believing the gospel overturns our entire way of approaching life. Redemption and resurrection are disruptions of the status quo. Self-righteousness and performance are cast aside. The false supports we’ve constructed for our lives are knocked down so that our position with God may be rebuilt. Grace wrecks our previously accepted but woefully inadequate approach to life and teaches us a new way to live by faith. Jesus said, “You must lose your life (be wrecked) in order to find it (be restored).”
We’ll further explore what this means in the next post…thanks for reading. May you be wrecked completely by the grace and the goodness and the restorative gospel of Jesus.