[1Jo 4:16 NASB] 16 We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
There is a fundamental simplicity to the gospel to which it seems all of my discussions about things come down. We are constantly worried about what type of person we are as a Christian. Are we still sinners? How much of a sinner can we be and still be a genuine Christian? Are we made holy by Christ, is His righteousness imputed to us? Is the Romans 7 experience – that I agree with the law but I don’t do it – before conversion or after conversion? What kinds of fruits should I be showing as a believer? Am I still a wretched man, or does the Holy Spirit empower me not to sin as before? Is my mind set enough on the Spirit? Am I sanctified and empowered by the Holy Spirit to forsake sin and do good works, or am I caught in the grip of the “simul justus et peccator” – always a sinner and yet always holy? What does that mean really? On and on and on it swirls. Let’s look at some recent popular blog post titles, that I’m pulling from random Christian sites :
- What Did Jesus Say About Worry?
- Are You Willing to Obey Before You Understand?
- Is Opposing Gay Marriage Just as Bad as Supporting Slavery?
- Parents, Now is the Time to Gather for Family Worship
- Mothers, Let Your Call to Christ Fuel Your Mission
- What It Means to Make Disciples
- This String of Prophetic Dreams Shows Why Christians Must ‘Wake Up’ Immediately
Of course there are so many things posted every day. But regardless of the topic or the theological persuasion, in conversation, in social media, in reading, so many things come down to this one conclusion: it’s all about me. There is pressure to be a certain way, think a certain way, believe a certain way. Many times these well-meaning urgent appeals are diametrically opposed. It can be quite bewildering. What exactly am I supposed to think, to do, to be?
I don’t mean to belittle these questions. Here we are – we exist. And we have to walk through our lives, day by day, fighting to survive and thrive until the very shadow of death presses upon us. I am interested in being the kind of person God created me to be in all of these circumstances. But there is a very important fundamental piece which is often missing from these messages which press themselves upon us.
The fundamental question
The fundamental question driving most of these things for the Christian is this: “What does God think of me?” We are consumed to know, is this thing I’ve done or that I have a propensity to do too much? Have I now committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Do I have enough commitment to Christ? Do I serve well enough? Am I living enough of a sacrificial lifestyle? Have I fulfilled God’s purposes with my life? Am I a good enough parent or spouse? On my deathbed, what shall be my regrets as I face the judgement seat of Christ?
The Bible gives us an answer for what God thinks of us. It is an important answer to an important question. It is not a backwater doctrine kind of answer. It is not complex theology. It is not difficult to grasp. It is not someone’s pet theology. The answer is not drawn out of context, nor is it obscure. It is the core doctrine of the New Testament, the central message really of the whole Bible. It was the central purpose of Jesus’ life to definitively demonstrate the answer to this question. If we neglect or marginalize this answer we do ourselves tremendous harm.
Here is what God thinks of you: He loves you. He loves you despite your sins and failures. Forgiving sins and failures is THE WHOLE POINT. God does not love you in response to your great love for Him! No, He demonstrates HIS OWN LOVE towards us while we are yet ungodly sinners!
[Rom 5:6-9 NASB] 6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath [of God] through Him. (emphasis mine)
My identity, the core animus to my life, the center of my Christian belief, is that I am loved by God, forgiven everything and set free eternally from judgment. That is Christian theology 101. God so loved the world. God IS love. It is not that we love God but that God loved us (1 John 4:10). This is not the message of a few obscure verses. This is the message of the cross, writ large and writ painfully with the savior’s own blood. My response is flawed, but I have not come to a great teacher or theologian for help. My response does not matter. The new covenant in His blood is a one-way covenant. I have come to a savior. I am beloved and nothing can shake Him, not even death. Not even my own worst sin. No, he has determined to love me. He has me in His hand, and He created the universe and everything in it, including me.
There is nothing more important than this. Nothing trumps this. Nothing you can do short-circuits the savior’s love for you. You are flawed and sinful and have missed the mark for your life in a million ways, but neither this nor your paltry pride-inducing successes define you. God’s love for you defines you. The love which God has for you is the beginning, the substance, and the end of your identity. When an angel shall look at you in 10,000 years, they will not see a sinner. They will not even see a saint. They will see the one who is loved by Christ, the very bride of God.
This fundamental shift of perception, that I cease striving to make God love me, to an abiding trust that God persistently loves me despite everything, is the one true transformation that happens to the Christian. We may or may not perceive of ourselves that we adequately do the works God has prepared for us. We may or may not be a good husband or spouse on a given day or year. We may or may not serve well during a season. But this kind of striving and questioning and urgency are not the true measure of us.
The only true measure of us comes from the judgment of God, and God has judged that we are eternally beloved. God has judged that His beloved Son has died for us, and that is enough for Him. The judgments against us have been answered. Our heart says, what Jesus did worked. It was enough. It is right that God now accepts us. And so believing, I am changed. I cannot keep up with whether or not my current actions are enough. Am I a good enough employee, a good enough husband, a good enough friend, a good enough father? There are very stringent and conflicting standards, and always the answer is NO. But these things are not the real definition of me. I am not a husband. I am not a father. I am not an employee. I am not a homeowner or a consumer. I am not a writer or a theologian or whatever. No. I am beloved by Christ. Period. Anything beyond that becomes messy and confusing and probably sinful.
But, you may ask, isn’t this all just too simplistic? There’s more to life, more to Christianity, than “God loves me.” It’s not just a message that you give “mental assent” to. I would say, how easily you denigrate the importance of belief by calling it “mental assent.” And how deeply at odds you are with Jesus’ conception of faith. And I would say yes, this is very very simple:
[2Co 11:3-4 NASB] 3 But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity [of devotion] to Christ. 4 For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear [this] beautifully.
It seems to me that so many people are so worried about what they do and what kind of person they are. If you stand back and get some perspective, it always ends up being about THEM. I would say that if you read any portion of the Bible in a way that says God’s love for you is conditional, that God’s love for us is any less than eternal, you are reading it out of context. Because here is the context:
[Jhn 3:14-18 NASB] 14 As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
These are Jesus’ own words in the highly venerated and famous passage from the Apostle John’s gospel. They are unambiguous and clear. God loves the world. He makes the offer of eternal life to anyone who believes. God sent the Son into the world to save the world. Sure it is simple. Thank God it is simple. The true things are always simple and apprehendable. If it requires rhetoric and technical language and oratory, it is probably masking the fact that there is no real truth behind it. Paul makes this point at length:
[1Co 1:17-24 NASB] 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. 18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not [come to] know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Yes, the simple message of the plain vanilla Bb normal gospel is enough. We don’t have to say it is a “real” gospel or a “full” gospel or a “genuine” gospel. There is no other gospel. Jesus Christ is the only message from heaven (Acts 4:12). God has demonstrated His own love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). If that is not enough for you, you are really not a believer. I’m sorry to break it to you. I don’t mean to split hairs or make accusations. But that is the thing you have to believe to even BE a believer. It is the thing a believer believes. It is really the ONE THING a believer believes. That one simple belief is the single thing that distinguishes a believer from a non-believer. If you want to say, I do believe that, but there is more to it, I would say no. There is not. You want to be very very careful about what you add to God’s work in Christ on the cross. You will find Paul in his writings being very very careful about this point. Go back and read Colossians, Galatians, Romans, Ephesians. He is so very careful. In fact this is why he even wrote the book of Galatians.
So, what is your takeaway from all this? What is the point? If your main concern is, what is the trajectory of my life? Am I successful? Do I have a successful career? Am I a successful artist? Was I a great musician? Am I a good husband or wife? A good parent? Have I lived with integrity? What will they say of me at my funeral? If these things are driving you, you are living in fear and are constantly under judgment. This is what living under the law is all about. I cannot imagine being on my deathbed and thinking I would face the judgment seat of Christ based on the quality or endurance of my repentance and my works and my personal life trajectory! What fear!
[1Jo 4:17-18 NASB] 17 By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
You can rest, you can rejoice, you can have abiding confidence, in this. God has loved you in Christ with an everlasting love. He has loved you with an overcoming forgiving redeeming love. He has vanquished every judgment against you. You are forever accepted, you are crowned with every blessing of heaven. you have become the very royalty of heaven, blessed and honored beyond your wildest dreams. That is the takeaway. Put that in your application pipe and smoke it.
[1Pe 2:9-10 NASB] 9 But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR [God’s] OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.
Here is your takeaway: be astonished, and believe! Rejoice, and rest in your flawed depressed proud lustful gluttonous sinful response, that He will never stop loving you to the very end of time. You are safe, you are provided for, you are forever going to be OK in the care and love of a very great savior. Walk free and walk humbly knowing that His love for you is a free gift. He has loved you forever with a very great love which will never run dry and never be surprised or exasperated with you. He already died for you, what would He withhold?
[Rom 8:31-39 NASB] 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God [is] for us, who [is] against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.