Californians are talking about earthquakes again. Faults, and tectonic plates, and shifts in the earth’s crust are all the rage. After 20 years of relative calm, everyone is wondering when and where the next one will come. And here in southern California, they’re talking again about the Big One — the one that’s going to bring devastation on Los Angeles.
I want to talk about the Big One today, but it’s not an earthquake, it’s a shift in perception that typically occurs in all Christians because of our human bent towards performance. It’s as devastating as a major earthquake — even more so — because it robs the gospel of its power.
I’m talking about the fact that, contrary to public opinion, we don’t automatically become good people when we become Christians. This is such a popular concept that it becomes necessary to continually remind ourselves and others that it is not true. Christians are not good people getting better. Christians are bad people, forgiven. Christians are people overwhelmed by God’s grace who live in a constant sense of astonishment over being forgiven, loved and accepted by God.
When you first became a Christian, you were acutely aware of your sin. Indeed it was your sin and helplessness to stop it that drove you to Christ because you had heard that He had forgiven your sin, removed it as a barrier between you and God and even gone to the cross to break sin’s power over you. Suddenly salvation is free and being right with God is there for the taking. As to your own sin, you had nothing to hide. You were not measuring yourself as a semi-good person coming to the cross. You were not “joining God’s team.” You were despicable and incapable of anything good. And in your confession and forgiveness you were washed clean, unburdened, overwhelmed with grace, thankful, open, honest and pure. You felt like a baby inside, giddy with delight, like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning with the spirits having done it all in one night! This is how you felt.
Then you started going to church and hanging around other Christians who have been Christians for a while, and something gradually changes. A shift occurs. The shift is away from focusing on sin, the need for forgiveness and helplessness to produce anything good, and towards what you can do to become a better Christian.
The process of obeying the commands of scripture became something to strive for. Church and Bible study and prayer became something able to make good people better. And there are countless programs, seminars, small groups, books and studies to help you do this. Hardly any of these remind people of either their despicableness or their inability to do good; almost all of them help you to think you are getting better.
And what do we try and show the world? That we are good people getting better? But how will that help, when it’s the gospel for sinners that will help them? Suddenly we have fallen from grace, but not in the way we normally mean that phrase. This is a fall from grace that comes about because grace is no longer necessary. Good people don’t require grace.
Jesus made it very clear that He did not come for the “righteous,” but to call sinners to repentance. So what happens to sinners who repent? Do they then become righteous so they have no need to repent anymore? Do you outgrow grace?
What happens to the gospel, the cross, forgiveness, grace, and that continual, overwhelming feeling of astonishment? It becomes a story in the past – something to sing about and be sentimental over. In truth, the gospel, the cross, forgiveness, grace and that continual, overwhelming sense of astonishment should all be present-tense experiences for the believer.
What happens when we turn out to really be bad people hiding behind a mask? People laugh at us and feel better about their own sin. What they supposed about us all along is true – we are a bunch of hypocrites – and the gospel is totally wasted on them. They never hear it. (The world only hears the gospel when it hears about our sin and why we need it.)
Here’s the real deal: there is no shift. We are still walking in our conversion. We need the Spirit to begin and we need the Spirit to continue. The real Christian life requires the acknowledgement of our sinfulness and inadequacy to do anything good and walking in the Spirit requires an unmasked life so that the miracle of the life of Christ can be easily seen in us and not confused with us.
There will be no Pharisees in heaven — no one who expected to be there — no one who isn’t shocked, surprised or amazed at how they got there. It will be like every other day — like the day we first got saved.
And then I saw as in a dream
Reflections of His glory stream
On unsuspecting faces
Enraptured in His graces
And the lost who now had all been found
Sang in pure unfettered sound
A song I knew from memory
Although I’d never heard it sung before
And then the host brought out the wine
And bid us all come and dine
At the banquet of the living —
The table of forgiving
And as we raised our glasses high
And tears were forming in our eyes
I heard His words remind me
Of what I’d heard so many times before:
“You’re not the only one with truth
You’re not the only one with eyes
You’re not the only one — the only one who cries
You’re not the only one.”
from the song “Not the Only One” by John Fischer