It was like a punch in the gut.
I couldn’t breathe. I just sat in the pew next to her with my jaw clenched. There were eternal consequences here, I thought. I couldn’t belive this was happening. I could feel her retreating from the church – retreating from Jesus.
He was a potential candidate for the now vacant Senior Pastor position in the church where I served as the Worship and Arts director. He was being seriously considered for a call, and this was his day to preach.
She was a relative of a relative. Visiting our church. She NEVER went to church. But this was her day. Prayers, the Spirit, and circumstance brought her here. Could have been the most important day in her life, and she didn’t even know it. She was wounded, hurting, lost. She needed Jesus. She needed “Come to me, all who are weary…”
He was a jerk.
It is one thing to preach the Law in all of it’s sterness to awaken the souls of the complacent and pierce the hearts of the defiant IN ORDER THAT they might receive the life-giving Gospel truth: Jesus has already paid our penalty, we have hope, it is finished. It is another thing to revel in the preaching of the Law. To wield it like a clumsy weapon, clubbing the saints and the searching alike. As if guilt were a better indicator of healthy spiritual life than love.
I realized early in the message she would never come here again. Truth be told, I had decided early in the message that if he took the call, I would not come here again, either. But now I felt hope slipping away and angry walls being built, brick by brick. He was railing. Railing against those who would defile their body with tattoos. Spit in the face of God by piercing their bodies, His temple. Those who would wear their sin proudly like a badge of honor in their dark clothing and Doc Martin boots and heavy eye make-up. How shameful they were. How disgusting their vanity and rebellion must look to God.
She shifted uncomfortably, uncrossing her legs to lower her Doc Martins under the pew. Her plaid flannel sleeves weren’t long enough to cover the ink spilling down her forearm and onto her wrist. She was ashamed. Then she was angry. Then she was gone.
I have never – NEVER – forgotten the lesson of that day, but I’ve never written about it. Here I am in a Lutheran Seminary, learning how to divide all of scripture into two distinct categories: LAW and GOSPEL. God has given us the Law to kill our self-reliance and to point us to the cross. And as a fifth (sixth… more than that?) generation Lutheran, I’ve been taught that the Gospel without the Law is cheap grace. People need to be confronted with their sin before they are ready to receive the Gospel. True conversion involves repentance. We die to self before we are reborn.
That “but” has big implications. I have feared pushing against centuries of Lutheran orthodoxy and thousands of Spirit-led theologians who would warn me that in this regard, there are no “buts.” Law, then Gospel. LAW, then Gospel.
Sometimes, people already know they are broken. Sometimes, people are aware that they don’t measure up. Sometimes people come to church expecting God to view them the way this clumsy, angry, mean-spirited preacher viewed them. And to them Jesus says, “Come…”
Why is this? It is because He created us to be in a relationship with Himself, for His glory and our enjoyment. It is not unholy or selfish to seek to enjoy God. He crafted us with a longing to be satisfied. And NOTHING satisfies like the enjoyment of God Himself. As we express that enjoyment in worship, thanksgiving, service, obedience, and praise, God gets glory. And the two great longings in the universe are simultaneously met. Man hungers to be satisfied, God desires to be glorified. And God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.
So I look at the great God-story of the Bible. And I see how it all points to Jesus. And I believe it is the GREATEST truth in all of time – and that people everywhere need to hear it. And I look at the beginning of the story. And I see God there, “In the beginning…” And I see the beginning of man. And I notice something important…
Adam was created in God’s image, bearing His likeness in a personality and a desire for relationship… and God said it was very good. They walked together in the garden and had face-to-face relationship. It was very good. And this is the relationship mankind was created to have with God. This was God’s intent from the start, and it is His desire now.
And all of this is solidified before Genesis chapter 3.
Why is it we start out as preachers and street evangelists, wielding our bullhorns and pointing our fingers from the pulpits, and we start at Genesis chapter 3?
“She took of its fruit and ate, and she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”
Tragedy. Horror. Shame. Separation. Judgment. Brokenness. Pain. Death.
It is true. Because of that day, and because of all of the days between then and now that man has spent serving himself instead of our gracious creator God, everybody takes their first breath on earth as a sinner. Disconnected from that “walk in the Garden… and it was very good” relationship. We are hopelessly broken and unable to make our way back to God. And that is why Jesus’ death on the cross is the centerpoint of history. And that is why people need Jesus – to be rescued from themselves. And that is why well-meaning evangelicals swing their clubs of condemnation. They want people who don’t even realize they need saving to be saved. So the Law must do its heart-breaking work. To break up the hard-packed earth of the hearts of men, so that the Gospel seed might take root and grow and bear much fruit.
Sometimes people are broken and they know it already. Must we always skip over the first two chapters of Genesis? Must it always be LAW, then Gospel?
The message I have heard for so many years often sounds like this… (1) You are a sinner. Your sin is ugly, and it separates you from God. There is nothing you can do to avoid eternal judgment. You are condemned by your sin. (2) Jesus came to pay the price for that sin. On the cross, your sin was crucified with Him. When he rose from the dead, He announced once and for all that forgiveness has triumphed. Because of Jesus, we are forgiven, and we can be with Him in heaven forever.
You know what? This isn’t the whole story. I submit that when we LEAD with the LAW, we beat up already wounded souls. Not every time. But often. Way too often. I propose proclaiming a message, over a lifetime of biblical preaching, that looks more like this:
(1) God loves you. He created you for a purpose. God is zealously pursuing a relationship with you, and He will rejoice over you when you turn to Him. This is what we are here for. To enjoy the love of God. God is a pursuing God, and you are made in His image. He wants to restore you to your created purpose.
(2) Sin mucked it all up. God is Holy and can’t be around sin. He is righteousness, and He cannot tolerate sin. Therefore, your sin separates you from Him, and nothing you can do can change that. You will never be “good enough” for God.
(3) In light of Genesis 1 & 2 – in light of your created purpose – God made a way to redeem your soul. Jesus death on the cross was payment for your sin. Repent of your selfishness and self-reliance. God has been pursuing you because He longs to be in relationship with you. Jesus is the answer. There is hope for even you.
Evangelicals will face judgment for the souls they have driven away from God with their clumsy handling of the Law.
Yes, the proud need to be broken. But not by us. By the truth of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit. And not all who hear us preach believe they don’t need God in their life. Some come to hear because they simply have no idea how to find Him. Some come to hear because they already consider themselves a screw-up. Those people need to hear Jesus call, “Come, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” And they need to know God is pursuing them.
Some of you are clenching your jaw right now. You feel this is dangerous ground, and that I stand at the precipice of a slippery slope. We cannot soften the full weight of the Law. We cannot compromise. We cannot settle for “gospel-light” just because it’s what people want to hear.
I submit that your uncomfortability may come from the evangelical culture you have been steeped in. What I am saying is rooted in scripture. God created us as deeply valued sons, born with a purpose first. THEN sin broke the ideal. First God created and it was very good. THEN sin separated us from Him. Some people will reject God because the church FIRST reflects His judgment rather than His love. I believe more souls will be willing to hear the truth of their sin and their need for Jesus if they FIRST hear the truth that God loves them, considers them deeply valuable, and that he is pursuing a restored relationship with them out of his zealous love for us.
It’s not all about us. It’s about Him. And when more souls are saved, and more hearts are set free and restored to their created purpose, God receives more glory. He loved first. It has been this way since Genesis 1 and 2. Not just since the 3rd chapter, when we stood condemned by our sin.
So back to that day in the church pew, with my jaw clenched, and the tat-covered, lip-pierced girl sitting next to me…
I wonder what would have happened that day if the message surprised her, instead of confirming her suspicions. “Yep, I am rotten. Yep, the church is all about making sure I know that. Yep, I thought this would be uncomfortable. No way am I coming back to hear this stuff again.”
What would have happened if she would have heard how valuable she is to God? That there is hope for her, and that she has been created by a God who knows her personally with all of her failings and rebellion, and still pursues her.
Tomorrow (Friday, May 13), a number of Christians on Twitter will be using the hashtag #4Giveness to connect with those outside of the church who have been pushed away from God by His people. If this post resonnates with you, read this from my friend Chris Goforth, and join us tomorrow.
Too often the people of God have beaten people up with the Law as if WE don’t need it anymore, and it is meant to be applied as judgment to the sinners “out there.” Too often we have stiff-armed people, making the gospel difficult to reach by way of a long trail of guilt and shame. Jesus says “Come…” It is simple. It is very good.
It is time to tell people that God is loving God who is pursuing them.
‘we don’t need to beat up the broken and stiff arm sinners :: can i still be a lutheran?” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.