The Gospel’s Good News–And Why Even Some Christians Don’t Believe It

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In trying to usurp the role of God, Man walked away from God and created a rift. To counter, God showed Man what it would take to cross that rift and return home to Him. That answer was called the Law. All Man needed to make the Law succeed was to do all of it perfectly.

Problem with the Law: No one got it right. Ever. In the end, what the Law accomplished more than anything else was to show the impossibility of doing it. The Law was a bridge too far, and no one could cross. God showed Man what was needed to make it across, but Man failed utterly.

Peace and rest in JesusExcept one man, Jesus. He kept all the Law perfectly. He achieved the holiness that comes from doing all the Law correctly. And when He had crossed that metaphorical bridge over the rift and reached the other side, Jesus announced, “It is finished.”

Except a lot of people don’t believe it is finished. Even Christians. Therein lies the problem.

Every Sunday in churches across the world, people sit in chairs, pews, and even on the bare ground and wonder what they need to do to cross the bridge. Because the rift is still there, and if they don’t cross the bridge, they remain separated from God. The rift they know. It’s that the bridge has been crossed for them that they fail to grok.

This sitting in church Sunday after Sunday and sometimes days in-between and wondering how one is going to cross that rift is one of the greatest plagues on the modern Church. It’s a sign that even though the Church has the Good News of Jesus, it’s not sinking into people.

The major difference between Christianity and nearly all other religions is that those other religions demand people cross the bridge using their own power, their own religiosity, their own supposed holiness. What methods people use varies from religion to religion, but one thing stays the same: people utterly fail to cross the bridge on their own.

In the Christian faith we have the Good News, or what we call the Gospel. That Good News first heard by the people of Palestine 2,000-plus years ago proclaims that Jesus has come on our behalf, and He will cross the bridge for us. He will keep perfectly all the Law, and not only this, but He will be the sacrifice of blood demanded as recompense for Man creating the rift in the first place.

Jesus came, lived, ministered, and accomplished.

Jesus did it all. It is finished. No more recompense necessary. No more need to cross the bridge on our own. Jesus did it all for us.

The question is of holiness, that which is required to approach a holy, perfect God who has set a bridge across the rift. The answer is in Jesus. His holiness in keeping all the Law and satisfying the debt becomes your holiness and mine. For those who come to Jesus as their hope for crossing, Jesus imputes His holiness. By being in Jesus, we have crossed the bridge and been counted holy and debt-free because God sees what Jesus did for us, not what we try to do for ourselves.

In the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the stoner rock band releases its newest album the band members believe will be bigger than The Beatles’ White Album. Spinal Tap’s album is entirely black. No band name. No title. No cover information. Nothing but blackness. Trying to wrap their heads around the concept, they ask, “How much more black could this be?” To which comes the answer, “None. None more black.”

How much more holy can a believer in Jesus be? None. None more holy. Jesus did it all on His own for us. Nothing we can do on our own can make us more holy, more acceptable to God. It is finished. We can’t add to what Jesus did, either. Jesus took care of it all. Our ridiculous contributions add nothing. The Bible calls our feeble attempts “dirty rags.”

The fancy word for trying to cross the bridge on our own religious merits is Pelagianism. It should be better known as AbjectFailure-ism. Weirdly, while some people reject Pelagianism, they’re OK with a modified form of it. Saying that Jesus got us mostly there but adding our own merits boosts us all the way across is the mockery of Jesus’ “It is finished” known as Semi-Pelagianism.

Those who love what Martin Luther started in the Protestant Reformation get a hoot out of mocking–for good reason–the stupidity that is Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism.

Except…

You see, we have this problem of should-ing in the Protestant Church. Christians who say they believe Jesus when He says He finished it all don’t actually believe. Instead, Church leaders and other well-meaning busybodies tell us we should tithe, should volunteer, should read our Bible ___ number of times a day, and should pray ___ times a day too. We should have a monthly date night with our spouse, should avoid the wrong kinds of movies, should do this thing or that action. Should, should, should. The result? Too few Christians believe that Jesus said He finished the job and paid the price so that we can lay down all these shoulds and live truly free. Instead, we get a message that shoulds all over everyone.

That’s not Good News. It’s removing the chains of the Old Testament Law that Jesus said He fulfilled and freed us from and putting on chains we make out of a mistaken reading of the New Testament. We exchange one imprisonment for another. We’ve just added a coating of Jesus to the chains.

That’s the crazy thing about the Gospel. You and I don’t have more lawful requirements to fulfill. This is what makes the Good News a scandal. The idea that we can’t add anything to what Jesus finished galls people. It angers because we want to be proud of our own religiosity.

The group Jesus opposed more than any other were the Pharisees. They insisted they had crossed the bridge on their merit. When Jesus pointed out that they’d failed miserably, they sought to kill Him. That’s how much they worshiped their own religious pride.

Each of us has his or her own Pharisee inside that insists we can keep the Law and not fail. There’s an American version of that Pharisee too, one that tells us we have other laws to keep such as being beautiful, successful, empowered, in control, and masters of our own American Dream.

Whether an American Phariseeism or the old-fashioned original kind, that Pharisee in us is both deceived and a damned liar.

Jesus condemns this self-righteous, “don’t need your help Jesus because we’ve got this bridge crossing thing covered on our own” Phariseeism every time He can.

In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the younger son tells his father that he wishes dear ol’ dad were dead and demands his inheritance, which he then blows on hookers, booze, and partying. Eventually reduced to coveting slop intended for pigs, he crawls back home demoralized.

At first sight of the prodigal, his father runs to him and tearfully welcomes him with open arms because he loves that messed up ingrate kid so much.

Meanwhile, the elder son stands by dad, pissed, because he never whored around, didn’t squander his inheritance, and was here at home all along, dutifully keeping his own nose clean.

Which of the two sons gets the stern lecture from the father? You’d think the younger, but you’d be very, very wrong.

Jesus also tells the story of a farmer who hires some men at the first of the day to come work in the field after those early risers agree to the wage. But the work is too big, so later in the day he hires more. Then even more. Near the close of the day, the farmer is still hiring.

Finally, the day ends. The farmer pays everyone he hired the same money, but the men who worked from the early morning, who agreed to work for that amount, are hacked off. They insist they acted like the best kind of workers and not like those who frittered away most of the day and only came out to work near sundown. How can the farmer give everyone, fritterers included, the same pay?

In both parables, Jesus points out self-righteousness: We’re scandalized by God’s ignoring of what humans do to try to cross the bridge, incredulous that He looks only at what Jesus has done.

Like the father of the prodigal, God stands at the end of the bridge over the rift with His arms open. In fact, when we hear the fancy spiritual word repentance, all it means is that God has His arms open and simply wants us to cross the bridge and come home to Him. And because the bridge was already crossed by Jesus and the bridge itself paid for, being in Jesus means we’re already considered to have crossed and paid. There’s nothing more to do but rest in the arms of Father God.

No more tragic figure exists than the person who believes Jesus is God but who spends all of life trying to be a “good Christian.” To him or her, I say this: Stop trying! It is finished. Jesus did it all. Rest in Jesus’ success. If you try to perform on His behalf, you’re usurping the role of God again, which was the very error that started this mess!

Some folks will object to this post on the grounds that we need to be slaving away to perfect ourselves to look more like Jesus. But the promise from God is that because of Jesus’ finished work, that’s not our job but God’s alone. He is both the author and finisher of our faith. It’s all on Him to make us look more like Jesus and none of it on us. Can the pot mold itself? No, only the Potter can mold it as He sees fit.

It is finished. All we have to do is acknowledge our failure to get across the bridge on our own and our desperate need for Jesus. Then we can head home and fall into the embrace of our Heavenly Father.

And that’s the Gospel’s Good News.

Doing What God Places in Our Hands–No More, No Less

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I was talking with a friend the other day about the fear of being an ineffective Christian. Both of us face some difficult challenges in our lives, some the same, some different. Those challenges have taken their toll on us both.

No one gets through life unscathed, though. Everyone has challenges. Everyone. If not now, then later. If not when we’re young, then when we’re old. Life is hard, and no one has a magic mirror to peer into the future or a gilded passport to avoid trials.

Christianity in America consists largely of two polar camps.

You have the Radical camp that defines Christians by what they do or do not do for God. Some even go so far as to say one’s ultimate standing with God depends entirely on how radically engaged one is for the Kingdom. It all comes down to what you do, and you better do a lot.

Then you have the Rest camp. “Do? What is that? I’m resting in the Lord and in my salvation!” The funny thing about that camp is that it never seems to do anything, ever. The world ends at the tip of their noses (or, in some cases, the outline of their belly).

I don’t think the truth dwells in either camp. The Church in America can lull you to sleep or work you to death. Neither is healthy–or godly.

Open, cupped handsOne day, I cupped my hands in prayer and said, “God, fill these hands.”

And He did.

He filled them with a mix of normal American life and stuff no sane person would want. Do my best for Him at work, at home, and out there in the world. You know, everyday normality. This blog was part of that mix. Then came the outrageous stuff, most of which consisted of challenges that would push me to the edge.

All God asks of me is to address what He has put in my hands right now, or as one wise Christian once told me, “Jesus hung on one cross only.”

We have this tendency to either drop our cupped hands and let things spill out, or we let guilt force us to take on so much we can’t hold it all and panic sets in.

We need to examine our lives. What is immediately before us? What is in our hands right now? Do those things to the glory of God.

Little things that daily fall into our cupped hands matter too. When God puts a person in front of me, I can give that person my attention and be in the present. I can be Christ in that moment to that one person. That fits in my hand. That I can always do. I may not be the answer to that person’s deep need, but the little bit o’ grace I dispense in our connecting matters to that person. I can always be kind and empathetic. Maybe I can help that person financially or emotionally if he needs it. But then, maybe I can’t. God, what can I do right now? In what ways can I be your ambassador to this person now? What have you put in my hand?

Regarding the challenges of life, let no one judge you. Anyone who has had to caretake a dying parent knows how debilitating such a task can be and how it consumes all of life. That’s reality, and it’s OK. It’s what is in your hand right now. It won’t always be there. God is not judging you by what else you try to carry. Sometimes, something that big is enough. It doesn’t matter what other people think of your inability to say yes to everything else they ask of you. You can only do what you can do. Taking on too much means you do everything poorly and stress yourself. Don’t. All you can do is what is in your hand. Too few Christians understand this, and one of the most toxic tricks a local church can pull is to guilt people “in the name of Jesus” into doing more than God expects.

God knows what you can and cannot do. Keep your eyes on Him. Learn to say no when He wants you to. Never feel guilty for saying no when it’s God leading you to say it.

If the contents of that open hand begin to overflow, get help anywhere you can. God rewards the resourceful, and admitting to being overwhelmed is no sin. Where humility is, Jesus is. You’re not a superhero, so don’t try to be. We are all dust; without God, we can do nothing.

In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the man going on a journey gave five talents to one servant, two to another, and one to a third. He didn’t give five to the servant who could handle two only. Similarly, he gave five to the one who could handle that many in the moment. When the talent dispenser returned to his servants, all he expected was to see what each servant had done with what each was given. Each was accountable solely for making something out of what the journeyman had placed in their hands. No more, no less.

Those Rest folks need to step up. Those Radical folks need to calm down.

Where are you?

Know that you can do only what God has placed in your hands at this time. A year from now, what is in your hands may be different, possibly more or perhaps less. Give your best to God for what you have before you now, and stop beating yourself up. If only one thing occupies your hands right now, do it for His glory. If God wants to add something, He will. Trust Him to get it right. And if it seems too much, trust that God will put people in your life to help. Ask for that help and keep asking until you get it.

Most of all, trust God. Pray over everything He puts in your hands and never stop offering it back to Him as you partner with Him to make it happen. In the end, it’s not really about you and how well you perform anyway. It’s about moving the whole Kingdom forward. And that happens one cupped-hand item at a time.

God Made a Way–But Only One

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Listening to a a recent Ravi Zacharias podcast, I was overcome by a need to reiterate what the apologist shared and both simplify and unpack it further. Thus, this post.

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.

Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.” And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”

But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”

But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”

So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him. And he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, before whom I stand, I will receive none.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused.
—2 Kings 5:1-16 ESV

Naaman was a great and proud man, the General Eisenhower of his time and place, but leprosy had infected him. In time, the disease would rob him of his position and place in society, as lepers were forcibly outcast by the virulence of the disease and its horrible effects. In this era, no cure existed. A diagnosis of leprosy destroyed lives. In the Bible, leprosy exemplified the physical manifestation of the sin that bedevils all our lives.

Into Naaman’s household came the lowest of the low, a little girl of foreign birth now made a slave through enemy conquest. In his desperation, Naaman listened to that pittance of a person tell of a prophet who could heal him. Interestingly, Elisha had not performed a healing miracle yet, but this girl’s faith in the God behind the prophet prevailed.

How humbling to listen to a lowly enemy then go to another enemy for help. And yet Naaman went.

Naaman washes in the Jordan RiverBut instead of facing this opposing prophet, proud Naaman, already humbled in part by leprosy, was further humbled when the prophet sent a third-rate messenger to tell him to go wash in one of Israel’s rivers.

Naaman, enraged by the slight, cried out how the rivers back home were even better than Israel’s meager Jordan . His servant pleaded, and eventually Naaman relented. And he was healed.

LESSONS

If you are not a believer in Jesus:

Every person believes he or she knows what is right, yet each also knows that deep down inside, something is wrong. That wrong is sin. People try all sorts of ways to deal with that sin and its consequences in life, yet everyone fails.

Jesus said this:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
—John 14:6 ESV

Naaman lamented, ” Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?”

No. God made a way to be clean. One way. In the only waters that lived and healed.

To Naaman, it all sounded like foolishness.

People can try all sorts of ways to be clean: Buddha, Mohammed, self-fulfillment, self-mortification, this or that. But God made a way. One, exclusive way.

That way is Jesus. The living, healing water you need is found only in Him and nowhere else.

You can do what is asked by God, or you can succumb to the leprosy. But don’t say that God has not made a way. He has: Jesus.

This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
—Acts 4:11-12 ESV

Lastly, God may be asking you to give up your pride and listen to one of those weird Christians you hate. The message of healing and life will likely come from someone you ordinarily disregard. That’s often how God works. Don’t let a superior attitude prevent you from humbling yourself long enough to heed what may very well save you.

If you are a Christian believer already:

Israel was filled with lepers, but they were not healed. Instead, the God of Israel healed a Syrian enemy of Israel.

God seeks out those who will believe Him, even if He must go outside the walls of the fortress to find them. Do not assume because you are inside that you will not be considered an outsider–and the outsider an insider.

Naaman listened to a nobody, the least of these. And he did as he was told, even if it violated everything rational and right. He alone was healed. He alone received absolution.

God will work in the lives of those who take Him at His word, and He is no respecter of persons. He used the lowest of the low to speak to the greatest. Take care in who you listen to. Take care in how you respond.

Even Christians will defend an inadequate river if they proudly operate from their own wisdom and not God’s.

Christians should also finish the story in 2 Kings 5, because an additional warning to us exists in the failure of one who had seen many miracles and yet did not have saving faith, Gehazi, Elisha’s own servant. The world is filled with Gehazis. Don’t assume you aren’t one of his kind or that you are better than he is.

God made a Way in Jesus. One Way alone. Come, humble yourself and be made clean.