Jesus once told a man that he was pretty close to the kingdom of God.
And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.
That man had just demonstrated an understood – to some extent – the heart behind God’s commandments. The commandments of God do not call for an outward obedience to be paired with a corrupt heart. But rather, God’s commandments describe a righteousness that is to be lived from the heart. Righteousness demands nothing less than total devotion to God and selfless love of our fellow-man.
I don’t bring this up for the sake of talking about the heart of the law, but more so to talk about the heart of the gospel. Specifically, I’d like to discuss a line of thinking that is very far away from understanding the gospel. Just as one man’s thinking may be close to the kingdom of God, another man’s thinking may be far away, that is, not even close.
Let’s be real for a minute. If I’m far from the kingdom of God, I want to know about it. That doesn’t mean that I’ll enjoy being told that I’m way off, but someone should at least tell me. Even if I never appreciate it, if you love me, you have to tell me. Some conversations are awkward, but loving. No one enjoys being told that they have a booger hanging out of their nose, for example. Yet, while it’s not an enjoyable moment, you’re probably thankful for it.
So, if you were far from the kingdom of God, would you want to know? Or would you resent the embarrassment of being told more than the opportunity to get closer to God?
There are Christians today who don’t believe in condemning sin, or talking about the awkward truth of other people’s moral failings. There are Christians, maybe you know some, who believe that pointing out sin is contrary to the loving nature of God. I’m talking about sincerely well-intentioned people who feel that confessing the truth about a person’s sin suggests that God doesn’t love that person. That way of thinking is very un-Christian.
There, I said it.
It’s un-Christian. It’s un-gospel. It’s even kind of anti-gospel. I mean, you can’t think that way and understand the gospel at the same time. It breaks my heart because I know Christians who are in that predicament right now. This way of thinking prevents them from understanding the gospel.
[At this point an impromptu dialogue breaks out]
Me: I love these people, and they love God. They believe something that they think is the gospel. They know many truths about God. But they can’t understand the gospel, they can’t put the pieces together, because they have a false understanding of God’s attitude toward sin.
Joe Christian: Oh? So, what’s God’s attitude toward sin? I suppose you’re going to tell me how much he hates and condemns it. As if I didn’t know that.
Me: No, actually I’m going to tell you that God loves sinners. And that if you think that calling someone a sinner makes it sound like God doesn’t love them, then you, personally, don’t understand the love of God.
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Joe: How can you say that I don’t understand the love of God? I know God loves them. You’re the one that wants to call everybody a sinner!
Me: Yes, you know he loves them. I didn’t say that you don’t know it. But you do not understand it. When you say things like “all this talk about sin is overlooking the love of God,” or “God doesn’t want to tell people about their sin, he wants to tell them that he loves them,” you are demonstrating that you think sinfulness and love are incongruous, incompatible.
Joe: No, I’m not.
Me: OK, well let’s talk about people that march in gay pride parades.
Joe: What about them?
Me: They are sinners. Not a single one of them is righteous. They live their lives in darkness. They don’t even try to understand God. They live worthless lives. They don’t do good, they do evil. They use their words to destroy, and they’re eager to see the innocent die. They have no respect for God.
Joe: Now I know you’re wrong. God loves those people and you call them worthless! Condemning people like that is totally unloving. God is for them, not against them. You can’t condemn every one of them, you don’t know their hearts. If God was like you, every one of them would go to hell. If God was like you, he’d never have given his son to save them, but he did. Because – thank God – he doesn’t look at us like that. He doesn’t see us as sinners, he loves us!
Me: There, now. Was that so hard?
Me: Was it really so hard to admit that you think God can’t love sinners? Your heart tells you that if God really thought that way about someone he would not, could not love them.
Joe: Why would he? You’re just all hate, all the time. God’s not like that- Jesus isn’t like that!
Me: Tell me about him.
Joe: Jesus loves people. He doesn’t see them as sinners. He certainly doesn’t see them as worthless. He would never condemn someone or want them to feel bad about themselves. That’s what the devil does. You’re the kind of person that gives Christians a bad name. You’ll never win anyone to the Lord Jesus Christ because you just want to talk about their sin. They’re not going to listen to you. Why would anyone listen to you?
Me: Some won’t. But they have a big reason to listen-
Joe: Because you’re right?
Me: That’s not what I was going to say, no.
They might want to listen because I know who they really are, and I believe that God loves them anyway.
I know what they see when they honestly look inside their own hearts. I know the disappointment and the horror they’ve experienced when they’ve betrayed their own moral code.
And I know they wanted to betray it.
I know that they are desperately afraid they’ll do it again.
I know that they hope against hope that they’re good enough. They hope that those moments of being horrified and disgusted with themselves are the mistaken moments, that the moments of self-satisfaction are the moments of clarity.
They hope that the things they tell each other are true, that they really are good people. They hope that comparing themselves to other people is a legitimate measuring stick. I know they like to think they’re better than some people.
And I know some of them don’t hold out much hope of that being true at all. Some of them are just faking it, because that’s what you do. That’s what everybody does, right? What other hope is there?
That’s what I can offer them. I know the other hope. I know that hope that faces up to reality. I know the hope that doesn’t vanish in light their sin.
I know the hope that doesn’t need them to be better than someone else. I know the answer to those times when they didn’t even try.
I know the God who loves people that kill their own children, people that hate their closest friends, people that destroy everything they touch.
I know the God who sees them as they are, who knows they aren’t good enough, that they’re never good enough.
I know a God who loves them while they’re not good enough.
I know a God who won’t lie about who we really are, who won’t change the world to fit our evil desires. I know a God who won’t allow our corruption to overwhelm the good things he has planned. I know a God who won’t let us stay the way we are.
Any god that can’t face up to sinners as they really are, is a god too weak for me. Any god and any gospel that is forced to pretend that I’m a good person is worthless to me. There are a hundred such gospels, and they are all trash. They are a dime a dozen. And yours isn’t my favorite anyway.
No, what I need is a gospel that offers hope for who I really am. I need a gospel that saves hands that shed innocent blood. I need a gospel that saves wicked hearts and feet that run to do evil. I need a God that knows my heart is full of abominations, and knows what to do with them. I need a God that knows enough to hate me, and loves me in spite of that knowledge.
PS In case you haven’t caught on, my above condemnation of “people who march in gay pride parades” is a restatement of the judgement of God against all men and women. You can see it in Romans 3:9-18