Category Archives: Gospel

The Center of the Gospel: Cross or Kingdom?

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 5:8-14

Part 12 (5:1-7)  ΑΩ  Part 14 (6:1-8) →

Have you seen the musical Wicked? How about Blue Man Group?

I know there are people out there who are fanatical about Wicked. In fact, it seems that most people who see it end up thinking it’s the best thing ever to grace the stage. And it may very well be. But I guess I missed whatever it is that has made it such a sensation.

I actually had the privilege of seeing it on Broadway and… I fell asleep. I couldn’t help it. I recall having slept just fine the night before, and I’m not one that has much of a problem staying awake if I need to. But I was just. so. bored.

And that’s not to say that the musical isn’t great. It probably is great, as far as musicals go. I’m in no position to be an informed critic. I just couldn’t stay awake. I so much prefer situations in which I feel like I’m participating. Which is why I’ve never had more fun as a part of an audience than I did at Blue Man Group, a stage show in which individual audience members—and at times the entire audience—is involved in the show. I won’t wreck the surprise for those of you who haven’t been. For those of you who have: I caught the marshmallow in my mouth. [High-fives all around]

I think this dynamic might explain, in part, why I’ve always had trouble with the traditional evangelical formulation of the gospel. It makes the audience completely passive. They play no role whatsoever. Typically it goes something like this: Jesus came to die for my sins so that I could be forgiven and go to heaven.

Is that statement true? Of course it is. It’s just that it leaves so much out. And to call it “the gospel” is not to condense the gospel into a brief statement that faithfully encapsulates the whole, it is to represent one strand of the gospel as the whole of the gospel. It would almost be like saying that Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi. …Well, yeah, that is a very key thread in the story. But let’s be careful about saying that Star Wars is about that. Star Wars is not easily summarized or condensed, and neither is the gospel.

An intra-evangelical debate has gone on for some time—and intensified in the last few years—about whether the gospel is mostly about Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross, or Jesus inaugurating the Kingdom of God on earth. And while there are exceptions, generally speaking the more conservative evangelicals speak as though the Cross is the core of the gospel, and the Kingdom is an add-on that you mention if you have time (or not at all). The Cross is what you talk about with an unbeliever. The Kingdom is something you can talk about while you’re discipling/mentoring someone if you happen to take them through the books where the Kingdom is a central theme… What are those books called again?… Oh yeah… The Gospels. More progressive evangelicals generally flip that: God’s work to establish his Kingdom on earth—and our participation in that work—is the central message of the gospel, and Christ’s work on the Cross is (at best) something we need to cherish but keep in the background or (at worst) something we need to rethink and possibly further downplay in significance.

It seems to me that Revelation 5 has a useful response to the mistaken tendencies of both conservative and progressive evangelicals.

In Revelation 5, three songs are sung to the Lion-like Lamb that has just been revealed as worthy to open the scroll—God’s battle and renovation plan for the world. The first song goes like this:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation, 10 and you have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)

Do you see what I’m seeing? Read it again. What do you notice?

Verse 9 is the “gospel” of the conservatives and verse 10 is the “gospel” of the progressives. I guess I’m wondering why modern evangelicals feel the need to pick one or the other, or even to emphasize or prioritize one piece over the other. The earliest believers clearly didn’t. Verses 9-10 are one sentence in the original. If you’re reading an NIV or NLT translation, they put a period at the end of verse 9, and they’re wrong to do so because it’s a misleading error.

Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificed himself so that by his death he could rescue his people, anointing them to act as his vice-regents to rule with him, and his worship leaders to point people to him. That’s the gospel. And all I did was paraphrase verses 9-10.

Jesus did not come to die to make you a passive participant in his salvific work, who receives the gift of his sacrifice and then sits around just waiting to die and go to heaven, like someone watching (or falling asleep at) a play. And Jesus did not come with his Kingdom-inaugurating message, inviting well-intentioned, basically good people to get on board and help him, without a thought as to how it’s possible for people to do any good at all when they are, biblically speaking, enemies of God, filled with darkness and enslaved to sin under the rule of the Evil One.

The gospel is not either about the Cross or the Kingdom of God. We don’t need to emphasize one over the other. One does not need to be prior to the other. We don’t need to decide whether we’re going to be “Kingdom” people or “Cross” people. And anyone telling you in a sermon or a book or a blog post that one is more central or more important is distorting the gospel.

We don’t need to argue about which blade is more important in a pair of scissors. We don’t need to debate whether the front or back wheel of a bicycle is more necessary. No one needs to write a book about whether your right or left foot is more vital to finishing a marathon.

And you don’t need to choose only one sentence with which to express the gospel. But if you really feel compelled to do so, let me strongly suggest the use of some commas:

Jesus gave himself up to be killed in our place, bearing our sin, so that we could be forgiven, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and sent out into the world as his pastors and ambassadors, who work to make their small corner of the world look like God’s kingdom—his new world—and who call the people around them to recognize and embrace their king and savior.

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O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Part 1)

Originally written as a Christmas message, delivered on 12/12/10. Listen to the original audio recording here.

I’m driven to the Old Testament book of Zephaniah during the Christmas season. Zephaniah has a marvelous sense of anticipation to it. Some people most associate the Christmas season with joy, or family or hope or peace or rest—I have always associated Christmas most with the sense of anticipation and excitement.

Some of that comes from before I was a believer. I didn’t become a follower of Jesus until I was 19, but I’ve always loved Advent. It was pretty much the only time I liked going to church as a kid. The church I grew up in had an advent wreath, and if you grew up in a more traditional church, you’re probably familiar with this. The advent wreath had a candle for each of the four Sundays of advent. And each Sunday of advent in church, they’d light the next candle, until all four were lit, which meant Christmas was here.

It lent this intense sense of anticipation and eagerness and excitement—almost longing for Christmas to come. And of course, back then, Christmas anticipation was mainly about school letting out and wondering, “Will I get the G.I. Joe Aircraft Carrier?!” or will dad cheap out?

But while what Christmas means to me has changed, the sense of anticipation and eagerness and longing has not. And that’s why Zephaniah resonates with me during advent—because it has this intense sense of longing.

I’d like to start by looking at the last seven verses of this book. But before we do, here’s what you need to know about this passage. This passage reflects an anticipation of what has not yet come. What I mean is that much of the language of these seven verses is present-tense. It reads as though these things have already happened.

But the fact is that these things have not yet happened for the original readers. At the time Zephaniah was speaking and writing these things were still a long, long way off. And the original readers would obviously have known that. They wouldn’t have been confused. They wouldn’t have been reading this and saying, “Wait, what?! This hasn’t happened yet!” They would have understood that Zephaniah was using present-tense language as literary device to heighten even further their anticipation for what is still to come. Almost as if to say, “Imagine that this is here now. Imagine what it would be like to have this still-far-off thing happening right now.”

So, with that in mind, let’s look at chapter 3, starting in verse 14: “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,’ says the LORD.”

So, this is what the people of God were anticipating at the time of Zephaniah. This is what they were desperately longing for. That much is clear. The questions are, first of all: Why are they in such longing? Why aren’t these things a present reality for them? And, second, do they ever get it? Do they ever get the G.I. Joe Aircraft Carrier? Do they ever get the things they’re so desperately longing for?

So, first: Why are they in such longing? What’s going on here? What’s the back story?

The situation facing the people of God during Zephaniah’s ministry is that the people are in a state of utter moral and spiritual wreckage. Almost everyone has turned away from Yahweh. They’re worshiping the gods of other nations. They’re making pagan sacrifices—even sacrificing their own children to some of these other gods. They’re not keeping God’s law. The kings are corrupt, the priests are corrupt—everybody is corrupt. It’s a mess. It’s awful. It’s The Jerry Springer Show.

And because of the utter rebellion and sin and evil of the people, God has decided to do something about it. Namely, he’s going to send the nation of Babylon—this terrible, powerful pagan empire to the north, to destroy Israel, destroy the capital city, Jerusalem, and even destroy the temple. They’re going to come in, there’s going to lay waste the Promised Land, and they’re going to carry the people of God out of the promised land and into exile in Babylon. It’s going to be unimaginably awful.

In fact, it’s almost impossible for us to understand just how horrifying—how terrible—this situation actually was to the people of God. Probably the best we can do to try to imagine it by imagining another nation coming in and laying siege to the United States, destroying Washington D.C., and dragging us all away from our homes and out of the country to live in exile in, say, Siberia—or Tehran.

But even that doesn’t quite do it.  Because, you see, it wasn’t just that they were getting displaced. It wasn’t just that they were losing their homes. It wasn’t just that their whole way of life was changing. That’s all bad enough. But it was really so much more than that. So much more horrifying than that.

Israel was The Promised Land.  It was the land that God had given to his people as part of his covenant with them—as part of his solemn agreement that he would be their God and they would be his people. So, this wasn’t just a matter of wondering, “Where are we going to live now?!” This was a matter of wondering, “Has God forsaken us?” “Are we cast off?!” “Is it over?!” “Has God finally reached the limit of his patience with us?!”

That’s the horror we have to try to imagine.

Imagine the feeling that would come over you if you realized that it looked like God was finally done with you. He’s seen enough of your idolatry. He’s seen enough of your perversion. He’s seen enough of your pornography. He’s seen enough of your greed. He’s seen enough of your self-centeredness. He’s seen enough of all of it… And that’s it! He’s done. He’s washing his hands of you. Grace has run out. It’s over. No more saying, “It’s okay if I sin. There’s always forgiveness. No more second, third, fourth, five-thousandth chances! He’s cutting you off from him forever…

Imagine that horror of believing that. That’s what the people were forced to consider.

And that’s not all! It wasn’t just the fact that their sins had become so many and so repugnant.  And it wasn’t just that they were going into exile in a foreign country, which made them wonder if God had cut them off forever. Even that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the destruction of the temple. You might think, in light of God forsaking you and of being exiled into a foreign country, the destruction of the temple just doesn’t seem like that big a deal, really. Right?

But remember that for the people of God under the old covenant, the temple was the very dwelling place of God. Yes, they knew God was omnipresent—that he was, in one sense, everywhere. But God dwelled in a special way in the temple. It was the place where God was with his people. It was the place where God dwelled among his people. It was the place where he was Emmanuel—the “God who is with us.”

And so God sending the Babylonians to lay siege to Jerusalem and destroy the temple was a signal that God was leaving. He would no longer be among them. He would no longer dwell with them. He would no longer be “God with us.”

So, as the people begin to see the events prophesied begin to unfold; as they see Babylon pressing into their borders; as they see the foreign armies coming to lay siege; as they realize that this is really happening—that it isn’t just a strong warning; that the nightmare is coming true… they begin to long and wait and anticipate.

And as you can imagine, what they were longing for were three things: First, that God would somehow forgive their sins. That somehow he’d have mercy. Second, they longed for him to bring an end to the exile, and that he would be their only master—their only king—once again. And third, they longed for him to come again to dwell among them—to be “God with us.”

And that’s what Zephaniah invites the people to anticipate with him in the passage we read. Remember: These things were not yet a present reality for the people. These are the things they’re longing for.  Zeph. 3:15, again, says: “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you.” That’s forgiveness of sin. “He has cleared away your enemies.” Verses 18-19: “I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.” That’s the end of exile.

And, perhaps the most beautiful portion, starting midway through verse 15: “The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.’” What is that?

That’s “God with” his people. Loving them. Singing to them. Exulting over them.

So, what’s the rest of the story? Did this ever happen? Well, in 538 B.C. (50 years after the exile began) the Babylonians were overthrown by the Persian Empire, and King Cyrus of Persia began to allow the people of Israel to return to their land. So, it seemed like that exile was over.  Twenty years after that a temple was built in Jerusalem. And so, apparently, it was over. The darkness was ending. The people were living in the Promised Land. There was a second temple.

…And still… something was off. It just was off.

First of all—they were back in the Promised Land, but their King is really still Cyrus, king of Persia. They weren’t free. They were still under a pagan ruler. It didn’t really seem like God’s kingdom. In some ways, it almost felt like they were still in exile, because they were still slaves.  They were still under the dominion of a foreign nation. In fact, in Ezra 9:6-9, the authors write this (and keep in mind, this was written after the people have returned to the Promised Land):

“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery.

For we are slaves. [Don’t miss this! He doesn’t say: “we were slaves—until recently, when you brought us out of slavery!”  No. He says: Even right now back in the Promised Land, “We are slaves…”] Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.”

So, apparently, the people who had returned still viewed themselves as living in slavery. They still viewed themselves as in living exile. They knew that this wasn’t what the “Kingdom of God” was supposed to be like. There had to be something more coming.

Moreover, their sins clearly still had not been dealt with. Remember that Ezra said in 9:6: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” So the forgiveness they had longed for and had anticipated still had not come.

And worst of all, while a temple had begun to be reconstructed, it was such a small, shoddy, lackluster building in comparison with the first temple that when the old men saw it—men who had lived long enough that as boys they had seen the first temple—they wept (Ezra 3:12). Not for joy.

For sadness.

They wept because they felt, “This can’t be right. This is all wrong. This can’t be what we were waiting for! This is not a place where God will dwell!” Everything was just wrong somehow.

And so even after they returned to the promised land, the people of God still longed for a return from exile, for forgiveness of sins, and for God to come and reign and dwell among them. And they didn’t know if it would ever come. It was a time of deep darkness and hopelessness and fear.

The song doesn’t date back that far, but it captures perfectly the despair of the people of God: “O come, O come, Emmanuel (“God with us”); And ransom captive Israel; That mourns in lonely exile here…”

And we all know that that’s not where the song ends.  But Israel didn’t know whether or not the song would end there. And so they waited. They waited for hundreds of years…

Until some people started hearing a strange story.

Apparently a story had originated in a town called “Bethlehem” that was really of no consequence other than that it was the city where the great King David had been born. But that was a long, long time ago. And this story really wasn’t believable. Surely it was just another wishful fairy tale. But it had such teeth, and was so over-the-top in what it claimed, that it was hard not to listen to it.

The story went something like this:

“When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, “God with us”).  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.  They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’” (Matthew 1:18-2:6).

It was an outrageous story. An almost unbelievable story. That after all this time, God would bring (in the form of an infant, no less!) one who would bring forgiveness of the sins of his people, who would be a Messiah King who would end the exile, establish the Kingdom of God and reign over his people, and who would be “Immanuel”; God dwelling with his people.

An outrageous and almost unbelievable, but true story. “O come, O come, Emmanuel; And ransom captive Israel; That mourns in lonely exile here; Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice!  Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

The nightmare has come undone. The darkness has lifted. The wait is over.

What Zephaniah invites the people to long for is here. We might use Zephaniah’s own words to express it this way: “Sing aloud, O Church!; shout, O people of God! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O Church! Jesus, the savior, our ransom, our sacrifice, our Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, Jesus Christ, is in your midst—dwelling among you by his Spirit; you shall never again fear evil.

It is said today in all the world: “Fear not, O Church; let not your hands grow weak.  Jesus, the Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who has saved; he rejoices over you with gladness; he quiets you by his love; he exults over you with loud singing. He has gathered those who mourned for the festival, so that we will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, he has dealt with all your oppressors through the Cross. And he has saved the lame and gathered the outcast, and He has changed our shame into praise and renown in all the earth. He has brought us in, and gathered us together; and has made us renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, and has restored our fortunes before our eyes,’ says the LORD.”

One of the most beautiful and joy-giving ways we can celebrate Christ in the advent season is not to take his coming for granted. Most of us are not as amazed by his coming as we ought to be. It isn’t a stunning reality for us because we’ve gotten used to it. But as we consider our spiritual ancestors; as we consider their hardship; their trouble; the darkness and hopelessness in which they lived; the fear and despair, we may begin to see the coming of the Messiah King, the end of the exile, the dawn of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sin, and God making his dwelling among us in Jesus Christ as absolutely stunning realities.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice!  Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

Excuse Making and Pillar Building

A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 3:7-13

Part 7 (3:1-6)  ΑΩ  Part 9 (3:14-22) →

How good are you at coming up with excuses?

Man… I’m pretty good. It’s frustrating to me how easy it is for me to come up with clever reasons for not doing what I should be doing—at least in some areas of life.

I’m not an excuse maker at work. I work hard, do the job, take responsibility when I’ve gotten something wrong, and ask for feedback on how I can do even better. I’m not an excuse maker when it comes to my family. I love strongly, discipline firmly and fairly, invest time and thought, I’m intentional in discipleship, and when I screw up, I seek forgiveness—even from a 6- and 4-year-old who don’t even fully understand why Daddy is apologizing and asking forgiveness from them for forgetting to lead family devotions this week.

But I tend to be pretty good at coming up with excuses for ignoring the voice of the Spirit. Especially when he’s prompting me to do something that transgresses social norms—the customary rules of a civil society. Too often I don’t do things that might “weird people out.” Like asking a client how I can pray for him and his wife because she’s having surgery (“Not professional”). Or sharing the story of Jesus with a stranger working on her laptop at Caribou (“She looks busy”). Or… I mean, you know, right? Social norms and civil codes too often make us ignore the quiet voice we know to be God’s own, prompting us to live out his design for our lives—the only design that really matters.

It’s why I need to hear God’s words to the church at Philadelphia over and over again. Excuses couldn’t have been easier to come by than for the believers at the church in Philly. They’re being opposed by a dominant, vocal, well-established Jewish population who have favor with the powers-that-be and who try to sabotage their work at every turn. These are Jewish opponents of followers of the Jewish messiah. What could be more discouraging? It reminds me of the way whistle-blowers in large companies often get treated. They try to tell the truth and do the right thing, and their own company eats them alive. So, would-be whistle-blowers often don’t blow the whistle. They just quit. Better to keep your head down and move on to something else.

It would have been very easy and very tempting for the believers in Philadelphia to do the same. Worship Jesus in private. Keep to yourself. Keep your head down. Meet in secret. Don’t “weird anyone out.” Don’t break social norms. Be excited about Jesus. That’s fine. Just keep it to yourself. Keep it in church. Keep the fire in the fireplace.

But God, the Cosmic Interferer, says to them: “I’ve opened the doors for ministry for you. All of them. We’re going to set the world on fire. Ready?”

These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know you have little strength…” (Rev. 3:7-8)

Jesus isn’t refusing to acknowledge the challenges. He isn’t looking through rose-colored glasses and imagining that it will be easy. He knows we’re tired. He knows there’s lots of excuses. He’s simply saying, “I’ve done the hard work. I’ve placed open doors for ministry all around you. Walk through them. I’ll be there. I’ll help you. Ready?”

And the privilege we receive for walking through these doors and living as his followers is the gift of being “pillars in the temple of my God” (v. 12). The temple of God is the church—not the church building, but all believers everywhere. He’s calling us to be pillars.

A pillar. I don’t want to be a brick. I don’t want to be a bit of mortar. I don’t want to be part of some decorative facade or something else that looks nice, but doesn’t matter much to the temple itself.

God, make me a pillar.

May I quit with the convenient excuses. May I overturn the social norms like so many table of money changers.

God, make me a pillar.

May I stop typing and talk to this girl with the laptop who needs to know Jesus. May I call that client back and see how I can pray for him.

God, make me a pillar.

May I listen willingly and earnestly to your Spirit, go where he points, and do what he says.

God, make me a pillar.

No Strings Attached

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27-30)

Imagine that you were given the one thing you want more than anything.

What’s the one thing you want most? It doesn’t really matter what it is, but imagine that one thing. Let’s say it’s a brand new top-of-the-line Polaris snowmobile. Now imagine that someone wants to give you this dream of a machine for nothing. They want to give it to you absolutely for free. They want to give it to you as an act of sheer grace and kindness. Good news, right? Amazing news! Now imagine that this gracious giver tells you that there’s just one string attached: If you scratch, dent or ding the snowmobile up, it will be taken away from you forever and you can never ride a snowmobile ever again.

Is the offer still good news? Not really. Sheesh… that one “string” really sucked all the fun and joy and goodness out of that gift, didn’t it? I mean, would you even ride the thing? I doubt I would. If I even accepted it, I’d probably wrap it in bubble wrap, stick it in storage and never ride it. Maybe try to sell it to someone before it depreciates…

That same “string” could have the same effect on the gospel—God’s absolutely free, gracious offer of rescue through Christ the Savior. What if God told you that if you trust in Christ and choose to follow him with your life, you will be adopted as a son or daughter of God, you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit, your life will take on a new and unimaginable significance, that your sins and all the ways you’ve rebelled against God would be erased from the record, and that one day you will be able to enjoy the sheer joy of God in his perfect world?

But then God tells you that there’s one string attached.

If you screw up too much; If you don’t measure up; If you have any serious scratches, dents or dings in your holiness over a long enough timeline, then you’ll loose this gracious gift of rescue. Is the offer still good news? Not really. Again, the “string” sucked all the joy and goodness and peace out of the gift.

This is one of the things that makes the gospel so wonderful. There are no strings attached. In John 10 Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (vv. 27-29).

It is a terrible mistake to think that we receive our salvation by God’s sheer grace, but then we keep our salvation through our own effort and merit.

Many of us think this way. I mean, haven’t you ever wondered if God was at the end of his patience with you? Have you ever wondered if maybe God was so tired of your disobedience that he was ready to end his relationship with you? I certainly have—particularly in the last year. When are you most prone to entertain those thoughts?

Even if we don’t think this way, many of us tend to live this way. We go about our lives believing that if we sin too much, if we don’t give enough, if we don’t share the gospel enough, if we don’t measure up for long enough, eventually God will get sick of our failures and take back his gift of salvation. He’ll cast us off, wash his hands of us, and kick us to the curb. And so we go through life trying not to make any “big” mistakes, and with a paralyzing fear that prevents us from daring anything great for God.

Why would you take risks? Why walk into enemy territory? Why risk dings and dents in our lives? Just stay at home, right? That’s the kind of thinking that believing that we keep our salvation by being good leads to.

Today, let the freedom to fail give you the courage to fight. Today, know that God’s love for you in Christ is everlasting. Today, know that the Cross is greater than your sin and failures. Today, know that God is infinitely patient with those who are united to his Son, and will breathe fresh life into you whenever you turn from your sin and reassert your devotion to his mission and his call on your life. Believe me. I have experienced that very thing.

You are his sheep. The Father has given you to Christ. He is greater than all. And nothing—not even your own failures—can snatch you out of his hand.

I Am the Woman at the Well

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” (John 4:13-15)

Have you ever been in a conversation that was so uncomfortable that you just had to change the subject abruptly? It’s pretty well known, for example, that if you’re among Minnesotans, you’re not supposed to bring up religion, politics or money. For whatever reason, those are especially uncomfortable topics of conversation for people in these parts. We’ve all experienced that moment when someone brings up a touchy subject and everyone else at the dinner table gets wide-eyed and just looks down at their plate and hopes someone else changes the subject.

There’s a situation just like that in John 4. Jesus is sitting at a well, talking with a Samaritan woman. The conversation up to this point has been friendly and considerate (albeit maybe a little strange). But suddenly the conversation takes a turn into the super awkward.

Jesus gets really personal. He tells the woman, “Go, call your husband and come back,” knowing full well that that question was going to be incredibly awkward and uncomfortable for the woman. She knows she’s living in sin. She’s living with a dude she’s not married to. And Jesus’s question is going to reveal it. So she answers the way we sinners so often do—with a half-truth: “I have no husband.” Was that true? Well, technically, yes. She does not have a husband. But that’s also not the whole story. Unfortunately for her (and us), God always knows the whole story. So Jesus says to her, “I know. You’ve actually had five husbands, and you’re not even married to the man you’re living with now” (vv. 17-18).

Jesus’s direct and unapologetic response to her lifestyle choices is so uncomfortable and awkward for her that she brushes it off—basically pretends she didn’t her him—and immediately changes the subject and asks him for his opinion on a controversy about worship: “Well… um… What do you think about this whole ‘Mount Gerzim controversy?’” (see v. 20).

Have you ever been there? I know I have.

The Spirit of God speaks to me. He weighs on my conscience. He points right at some sinful choices I’ve been making. And I know he’s right. I know I’m guilty. I know I’ve been caught, but I think to myself, “Maybe if I can quickly change the subject, God will just drop it.” So, God says, “My friend, talk to me about this anger I’m seeing in your heart.” And I say, “Well… um… Don’t you think we should sing more hymns in church, God?” Or he asks me about the way I’ve been using my money, and I say, “Well… you know… What’s with these hurricanes I’ve been seeing on the news, God?” Or he points at your kids and says, “Talk to me about why you’re not setting aside enough time to love and encourage and disciple them.” And you shift in your seat and say, “Yeah… So… What’s the deal with the Boston Marathon bombings? How come you didn’t step in?”

We become so uncomfortable when he know someone else knows about the secret (or not-so-secret) sins of our hearts. And the worst news of all is that the One who cares most about these sins and pays the most attention to them is actually the One who can see all of them all the time.

But here’s the good news: We do not have to be afraid of these conversations with our Father.

God always has our best interests in mind when he raises these issues with us. Just as the best of parents have their children’s best interests in mind when we engage them in conversation about their disobedience. The best of parents bring these things up not to condemn and not to chide, but to shape and disciple and to shepherd their children’s hearts for the good of their children. For their joy and peace and happiness. And God the Father is the best of parents.

He loves us more than we can possibly imagine. And he wants to give us the water will become in us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (v. 14). He wants us to have life, and have it fully. May we never hide from him. May we look him in the eyes as he talks with us about our sin, helps us understand and fight it, and offers the forgiveness and cleaning that his son freely bought for us.