What was your reaction to The Gospel when you first heard it? I mean, REALLY heard it and grasped it? When did you realize forgiveness was not just some abstract thought or idea Christians talked about, but came to understand that it was real, it was true, and it was very personally for you?
I want to talk about this, but it’s difficult for me. I know what I want to say, but because of the topic, when I try to say it, a lot of history wants to pour out. MY history and MY life in church. When that happens, I tend to ramble on about all the bad or screwed up things I’ve seen in church, and as a church member, did myself. I don’t want this to be about all the bad or screwed up things. I want it to be about the best thing, The Gospel. Unfortunately, I just can’t do that without the framework laid down in the form of experiences. So I ask, as you read this, if you care to read on, to give me some grace if I go a little off track, and even more grace for the churches, who are filled with legitimate believers, even if we can go a little “prodigal” at times from the full truth that needs to be heard.
The Gospel and…
I suppose I should start by saying that we all should be in a place to hear The Gospel preached regularly. It doesn’t necessarily limit that place to a church, but the church should be a place to hear it often! Throughout the years, I can say I did hear The Gospel, but many times it appeared as some faint, obscure, random background noise that you barely heard for just a second underneath all the louder, more prevalent sounds in the room. You turn your ear to it, consider checking it out, but make up some excuse like, “if I hear it again, then I’ll investigate.” You turn back to the main sounds around you and you don’t hear it again or when you do, you don’t put it together with the previous noise you heard because that was last week.
This is the pattern many people seem to get caught up in at church. I’d hope more people would hear these little background clicks of sound and investigate (and find rest), but the reality is that we’d much rather be distracted. I know I did. Hearing The Gospel means being honest about your sinful condition, more honest than most people, if not all, are comfortable being. So, yes, we did hear The Gospel in church. We probably heard it more often than we think, but too often we’re taught that it looks like something that it’s not. The Gospel, even if was only a few crumbs that fell at our feet, was quickly swept away by the big wide broom of law/do more theology. Again, it’s not that we didn’t get The Gospel, We just never got “ONLY THE GOSPEL!” Instead, We got:
The Gospel …and spiritual gifts.
The Gospel …and generous giving.
The Gospel …and being a good servant.
The Gospel … and don’t sin.
We even got, The Gospel and all the reasons why we might not “get it”. What we got was people telling us-telling me- to believe The Gospel and then telling me how to believe it or live it. I can even remember hearing that The Gospel was not just Jesus dying for your sins and living to give you his righteousness, but it’s also what you do to restore people and creation.
The Gospel is…
The Gospel is good news and that good news is summed up by Paul here:
For I am not ashamed of The Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith. – Romans 1:16-17
Too often, before this glorious Gospel of grace could seep in and take root, it was immediately drowned out by what we should be doing, what we shouldn’t be doing and how we should look to the world. So, whether it was begging for spiritual gifts, looking to give more generously than the year before, serving in a hundred different ways or abstaining from sins, my understanding of the Gospel was always, the Gospel and.. something else. Oh, there were times that I looked and acted the part. I was doing the Gospel and… whatever. We can be honest and say there are things we can do as Christians and those things will be fueled by the Gospel, but it’s not the Gospel. When we start mixing anything that we do with what God has done, we are creating a false measuring stick for our salvation in Christ. Again, that is not the Gospel and its is not the purpose of the Gospel.
The Gospel: God’s Verb
The one thing we don’t do is The Gospel. That will always be God’s verb. God provided the sacrifice in His Son Jesus, who was sent to be our propitiation. God rescued us from death by the sacrifice of that son. God restored relationship with us by removing forever the eternal penalty of sin. God made us righteous by clothing us with Jesus’ perfect life. Jesus was the doer of The Gospel. Jesus lived a perfect life, Jesus died a wretched death, Jesus rose again. Jesus alone saves us!
I remember when I first began to seriously grasp this. I had just stepped down from all church activity, which included being co-leader of our church’s men’s ministry group. I stepped down because of sins, none of which I was I was caught doing, but admitted to after some heavy conviction. I don’t think that was “the moment” I became a Christian, or maybe it was. Who knows and frankly, who cares! I just remember thinking and grasping in that moment so tangibly that God really does forgive me, no strings attached! Not the world, not my neighbor, not my boss, but ME PERSONALLY! In the middle of all my struggling and admittance of sin, it made me smile. I might have even shed a tear or two. He wasn’t forgiving me so I can go out and do “great things” for him. He wasn’t forgiving me so I can be a “shining example” for all to see of a transformed life. He was just forgiving me. I think that was my first taste of the true grace of God. I was beginning to understand that God was not holding forgiveness out to us like a golden nugget so that we might stretch for it and barely grab hold of it by the strength of whatever good works we may be doing for Him. Instead, He sits us down, places it in our open palm, closes our fingers around it and says, “rest in this”. He forgives me. And when I’d screw up later, I’d hear it again (and again). He forgives me. He forgives me. Such a sweet sound.
The Gospel: Rest and Forgiveness
The idea of hearing something that we never heard before, “The Gospel”, reminded me of a video making the rounds on social media. This video was of people (children-adults-babies) who were hearing sounds, voices and words for the first time by the miracle of modern medical technology. The reactions always seemed to be the same. Shock …then tears. Deaf for however long, the first words spoken, especially for the adults and children, reduced them to a broken state of joy. They were weeping because they knew what was missing and now they had it. That’s about as close as what it felt like for me. Made deaf to The Gospel by the white noise of everything else added to it. When I heard, “You… Dominick… are forgiven”, I was overcome. I heard something that was missing and now I had it. Was God preparing me to hear those words? Maybe. I was in a place of brokenness and despair and for the first time in a long while I wasn’t able to just get up and go do something for God in church. All I could do was sit and listen.
Now, I still have bad days, I still try more times than not to justify myself by something I do and yes, I still sin. There are days I don’t feel forgiven. There are days that I have doubts and fear and struggles and wonder if I’m a Christian at all, let alone a “good” one. Despite all that, I keep returning to that place of rest and I had never done that before. I’d sit and face God with nothing but words of repentance on my lips. Nothing fancier than, “God, I screwed up again. I’m sorry.” The reply from God is just as sweet now. I hear it more clearly now above all the white noise of everything else that still exists. “You are forgiven. You are loved. The price has been paid. You have been made righteous. It is Finished.”
I hear it in His Word and more and more, though not perfectly clear, I see it in the sacraments. I see it in my baptism and the promise the waters bring. I see it in communion, the body broken, the blood shed for me. I see it not just with my feelings that can betray me at times. But in everything outside of me. This is where even the smallest morsel of faith steps in. Another wonderful gift of God. God has given us the faith to trust in Him and rest in Him, even when we don’t feel like it or want to. I have said it before and I’ll say it again. There are days that I feel as if I could walk away from it all, but I don’t. Because God, through Christ, is holding onto me through his promises in His Word and in the Sacraments. I would’ve been gone a long time ago.
God is doing all the verbs that need to be done to hold you, to keep you..
Trust in His promises. Trust in the Gospel. Trust in His Son.