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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Is the Gospel of Grace an Easy Message?

Figure of Jesus on the Cross at The Cloisters,...Image by Tony the Misfit via Flickr There was a day when preachers expounded on the sins of parishoners and communicants urging them to repent and be saved.  That was a hard message that left no one untouched by guilt and remorse.  Jonathan Edwards was a champion of the fire and brimstone messages of the 18th century.  John Wesley was not lax in challenging his listeners with the state of sin in their lives.  His friend and fellow preacher George Whitfield also bore a message of repentance and surrender to the claims of Jesus.  These men were noted preachers during the time known as The Great Awakening in North America, England, and Europe. Their messages focused on repentance from sin and acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A century later Charles Spurgeon was still preaching that message.  His sermon entitled "Why Many Cannot Find Peace" contanins this statement:

Dear Friend, without the fullest confidence as to your saved condition, you have no right to be at ease and I pray you may never be so!*

I cannot define the time when this emphasis on sin and repentance lost favor, but as of this date, it is a lost art.  The current theme in Christian circles is grace:  "Grace greater than all our need."  Grace is defined as the unmerited favor of God.  It is the overflowing love of God toward us that is not the product of our own efforts and cannot be secured by human wisdom, subtrefuge, or sacrifice.
Grace is so wonderful and powerful that we can hardly understand it.  Grace, forgiveness, love in abundance poured out for sinners, poured out for me.  And I didn't have to do anything to get it.  Being a Christian is easier than I thought.  Paul's call to grace in Ephesians 2:8 says that "...we are saved by grace through faith, and that not of yourselves--it is a gift of God not of works lest anyone should boast."

Other scriptures record other words of Jesus.  In John 3 Jesus gives a dissertation on the meaning of salvation and the new birth.  We don't receive God's grace in an unsanctified state.  Jesus said  “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."  Now go back to Ephesians 2:8 and reread the sentence until you come to the words "through faith."  But the faith is in Jesus Christ and he died.  Grace does not pour out on unredeemed souls.  Salvation comes to a sinner by the goodness and love of God because he, the sinner, has been made righteous by the blood of Jesus shed on the cross.

Matthew 4:17 records Jesus saying, "Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand."  This is after Jesus was baptized by John and before he had called his disciples.  It almost seems like Jesus is taking up the ministry of John.  John's message had been a call to repentance marking that change in their lives with baptism. 

After John was put in jail, Jesus became more urgent: he chose twelve disciples and moved to Capernaum.  He chose them from the crowd of people who listened to his preaching.  His message was not a light one:  He proclaimed that their righteousness must be greater than that of the current religious leaders to gain heaven.  He told them they must love their enemies.  And he began to talk about his own death.   As his message became more urgent, it also became more difficult. 

In John 6:53: Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."  Eating bread in a field while he preached was one thing, but to translate that into eating of his flesh and drinking his blood was a far more demanding discipline.  What kind of belief, what kind of commitment was that?  Many in the crowds that had followed him took offense at this.  Many of them followed him no more.

Will those who have embraced his grace back off when they hear the rest of the story?  When they learn that self sacrifice is part of the package, they may find, like the followers that enjoyed the healing and the bread, Jesus's call is a "hard saying."  There are other words of Jesus, other commitments, and other levels of participation.  Righteousness, obedience, and sacrifice do not creep in quietly in the dark hours before dawn unhearlded.  They come with demanding effrontery in the full light of day and they require attention.  And you and I and every believer will have to address their requirments.  Don't believe an easy gospel.

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