Tag Archive: grace


Before you read Part 4 of this series, it’s really important to understand the context for what I’m about to say. If you haven’t read the entire series, at least read Part 3 first (I promise it’s short).

Jesus Cleansing the Temple 4

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

There’s another application of these ideas that might hit a little closer to home for some of us. Please understand that I don’t write this in a critical or condemnatory spirit. Rather, I write from a pastor’s heart. I long to see Jesus’ church reclaim His mission—seeking and saving the lost.

But I worry that the modern church has reversed Jesus’ methodology. We are gentle and accommodating to well-churched people, and we worry tremendously about offending them. (If you’ve ever been on a church board or nominating committee you know what I’m talking about.) But we seem to give little thought to how we might be offending those who are not so firmly established in the church. When new people come to our churches, many of them feel immediately that they are not good enough to meet our standards. They don’t look like us, smell like us, talk like us, and they certainly don’t live like us. And sadly our attitude toward them communicates that until they do become like us, they won’t be accepted.

One especially egregious example is our treatment of young people, even young people already in the church, unfortunately. They come to church dressed “inappropriately,” and some self-appointed church guardian scolds them (anonymous letters seem to be a popular tactic). They sing special music and the beat is a little too strong, so they’re reminded to be more “reverent” next time (as if they’re going to want to sing again after being shamed the first time). When they speak up and share their ideas, we often ignore them. If we bother to listen at all we may tell them that they lack the wisdom and experience to comment intelligently on the important matters of the church—not necessarily in those words, but the message is clear: “leave it to the adults, kids.”

The well-churched folks who do this kind of thing may be well-meaning, but good intentions are not enough. Sadly they are misrepresenting the gospel. No one is good enough for God’s grace, not even church folks. You may be a tithe-paying, Sabbath-keeping, vegan-eating Seventh-day Adventist, but none of that qualifies you to receive God’s grace. But like the Pharisees, when spiritual pride creeps in we imagine ourselves better than others. We may not say it openly, but our self-righteousness is obvious to others.

Please don’t think I’m being judgmental of judgmental people. I’m not any better than they are. I’m just as bad as they are, and I need Jesus just as much as they do. But part of being the body of Christ means that we hold each other accountable. There are times when we must take a stand and say enough is enough. We need to stop letting spiritual pride hinder others from coming to Jesus.

Now, I know someone may be thinking: “But what about our standards? Who will uphold them? Who will guard the church from creeping compromise?” The answer is simple—Jesus. He’s the one who protects His bride, the church. What are we so afraid of? Are we worried that if we let our guard down, we’ll come to church some morning to find that the sinners outnumber the saints? If that happens, praise the Lord! Our mission on this earth is not to preserve a holy country club where only platinum-level church members are allowed. Our mission is to join with Jesus in seeking and saving the lost. It’s messy business that requires a lot of patience and gentleness in dealing with very imperfect people. Remember how Jesus showed you gentleness, then go and do thou likewise.

It takes a lot of wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit to know when to be gentle, and when to firmly rebuke. The example Jesus gave us is a great place to start. Be gentle with the wandering soul looking for hope, love, and salvation. Be firm with the self-righteous saint hindering others from finding those things. This blog series is not intended to be a manual on who to offend and who not to offend. I don’t pretend to know the answer for every situation. But I think it’s high time the church had a conversation about all of this. Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Jesus Died for Ariel Castro

CrossA couple days ago the news broke that Ariel Castro, the Ohio man who kidnapped three young women and imprisoned them in his house for years as his own personal sex slaves, committed suicide in prison. He was serving a sentence that would have lasted the rest of his natural life.

When I first saw the story on Yahoo! News, I knew immediately what the comments would be like. “Great news!” “Thankfully this saves the taxpayers a lot of money!” “Should have done it sooner!” “Rot in hell!” Now, I won’t deny that for many of us the death of a horrible, violent criminal probably evokes more positive feelings than negative. If it’s somewhere close to home we may even breathe a sigh of relief; our families are safer now. Some might even say that such a reaction is biblical. After all, didn’t the Bible writers sometimes exult over the death of enemies? The answer, of course, is yes. At times the Bible does depict the death of wicked people in positive terms, especially in regard to God’s judgment on sin.

But I’d like us to take a step back for a moment and look at the larger picture here. While there is a part of us that feels relief or even joy when the wicked perish, I have to wonder if that should be our only, or even our primary response. I wonder how God feels about the death of people like Ariel Castro. Is He up in heaven dancing for joy right now? Is He glad that the world is now rid of one more evil man?

There are three biblical principles that give me pause whenever I see people rejoicing over the death of the wicked. The first is expressed in passages like Ezekiel 33:11: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (See also Ezek. 18:23, 32.) God does not rejoice when anyone dies, not even the wicked. His greatest desire is that everyone will repent and be saved (see 2 Pet. 3:9). If God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, how can we?

The second principle is the gospel itself. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16, 17). The whole purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth was to save people from death. And lest we think that He came only for good people, remember that He said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Paul, in a similar vein wrote: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). Friends, let’s be clear on this: Jesus died for Ariel Castro. He wanted to save Ariel the same way He wants to save every sinner. He loved Ariel and had a plan for His life, a plan that involved an eternity of happiness, not horrific degradation ending in death.

The third principle comes from 1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Now, if we were to compare the life of Paul with the life of Ariel Castro, or the life of Charles Manson, or the life of Adolf Hitler, we might be inclined to think maybe Paul got it wrong. He was not the worst of sinners; those guys might not be either, but they’re certainly in the running. But I think that attitude completely misses the point. Paul is demonstrating the humility that comes from an awareness of one’s true sinful condition. When we consider the sins we have committed in comparison with the boundless grace of Christ, we ought to feel utterly unworthy, and with Paul we ought to exclaim, “Jesus died for me—for me, the worst of all sinners!” If ever we look at the death of another sinner and think, “Good riddance; he deserved it,” while looking at our own life with prideful piety, then we have not come to terms with the weight of our own sin. We may like to think that we’re better than the Ariel Castros of the world because we haven’t committed the heinous acts that they did. But perhaps we do not have as high a view of holiness as God has. Perhaps we do not find sin as abhorrent as God does. I like the way Ellen White put it in her book Steps to Christ:

God does not regard all sins as of equal magnitude; there are degrees of guilt in His estimation, as well as in that of man; but however trifling this or that wrong act may seem in the eyes of men, no sin is small in the sight of God. Man’s judgment is partial, imperfect; but God estimates all things as they really are. The drunkard is despised and is told that his sin will exclude him from heaven; while pride, selfishness, and covetousness too often go unrebuked. But these are sins that are especially offensive to God; for they are contrary to the benevolence of His character, to that unselfish love which is the very atmosphere of the unfallen universe. He who falls into some of the grosser sins may feel a sense of his shame and poverty and his need of the grace of Christ; but pride feels no need, and so it closes the heart against Christ and the infinite blessings He came to give. (p. 30)

The only sin that God cannot forgive is the one we refuse to confess. The most despicable, evil sinner in the world can be saved by God, but the prideful, unrepentant sinner, no matter how insignificant his sin may seem to us, is utterly lost. In light of this, we should be careful not to pass harsh judgments on other sinners while exalting ourselves for our imagined purity. It may be that the sinner we think is worse than us will get into heaven while we miss out.

Now, let me make something clear: nothing I’ve written here is in any way a justification for the horrific acts perpetrated by Ariel Castro. There is no doubt that he was an utterly depraved man who sinned against his victims, against humanity, and against God. By all appearances, he is destined for eternal condemnation, though we must always leave final judgment to God. While there is a certain kind of relief in knowing that God will not let him get away with his crimes, that he will pay the ultimate price for his sins, I believe our reaction must involve more than that. If we want to fully reflect the character of God, then we must mourn as He mourns over the needless loss of a life that Jesus died to save.

Think about it: Ariel Castro could have gone to heaven to live eternally with Jesus. The only thing stopping him was his choice to follow his own sinful way instead of accepting Jesus’ free offer of eternal life. The same is true for all of us. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all in the same boat as Ariel. Either we let Jesus pay the price for our sins, or we pay the price. Ariel chose the latter. What will you choose?

 

My friend Vincent, also a pastor, blogged on this topic, too.