"The same flesh that wants to sin is used to living under moral constraints that thwart sinful desires - the mind brings both of these into play. This is why true grace is so scandalous and why we are constantly seeking to undermine our freedom with a little Law... we will seek such 'ethics' rather than face the liberty to which grace actually calls us". Jim Mc Neely.
How do we approach a scripture like John 3:16 ?
When we consider the essential message of most teaching that's heard, we may think it should be heard something like this:
God made the world, but because we ate something that was forbidden, we're outcast from paradise forever.
Because we were so terrible at following rules, God clearly needed to punish us.
God wanted to show us, however, just how bad we were, so He gave us lots more rules, which we couldn't keep, and then decided something more must be done, so Jesus, who was God's good boy, had to be killed, because what we did what and do is just bad. God killed the good boy rather than punish you, so you should be so grateful that you behave better. If you do, then you get to go to heaven.
Most of us, or course, would recognize what's outlined here as a parody - Jesus isn't saying that - but why does the essential nature of the Gospel so often come across as though this is the kind of thing we believe - that God is austere and remote from our poverty, even when the very heart of what He's about, evidenced in Christ living and dying for us, is what we're talking about?
David Zahl on the Mockingbird website did a superb revision of the parable of the Prodigal Son recently. Here's what he wrote:
“There was a man who had two sons;and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he got involved with a really large church.
The pastors at that church told him that if he gave sacrificially, he would be blessed and so, wanting to experience the fullness of God’s blessing, he gave them his entire inheritance. Unfortunately, he promptly contracted a debilitating case of lupus, which led to him losing his job. He began to wonder if his church was perhaps not preaching the authentic Gospel. So he went and joined himself to another church in that country, one that had splintered off from the bigger one a decade previous. They had rejected the prosperity teaching and claimed to take the Bible more seriously, preaching the benefits of a life of radical obedience and imitation of Christ. Before long they had him on a regimen of thrice daily bible studies, scripture memorization and marathon prayer sessions. Before he knew it, he was spending more time at church than at his apartment, helping in whatever task was asked of him. Nothing was too menial.
One day, when he was mopping the floors of the church basement, he realized that he felt no closer to God than before, that the harder he tried to be holy, the further away holiness seemed to recede. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if his salvation, or even God, was real. In the next room he overheard an AA meeting going on. Someone was saying something about an admission of powerlessness. He felt pretty powerless himself and so he sat down, and heard about a God who saved people who could not save themselves. That sounds pretty great, he thought–possibly That night, he got online and looked for more information about this exciting message. He stumbled upon a website called Mockingbird and his mind was blown. The Gospel was good news after all! He decided to go home to his father, and say ‘Father, I have completely misunderstood the gospel; I have squandered my inheritance on oppressive, heretical churches and have been an insufferable legalist. I understand if you never want me at another family gathering.’
And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have completely misunderstood the Gospel, and am no longer worthy to be called a Christian.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; tell the Senior Warden we have a new vestryman, and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was a synergist, and is now a mongerist, was judgmental and is compassionate again.’ And they began to make merry.
Now the father’s elder son was watching the game in a bar with some friends a few blocks away; and as he drew near to the house on his motorcycle, he heard music and dancing, two things he liked very much. So he called one of the guests and asked what was happening. And the guest said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But the older brother was angry and refused to go in.
His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have believed in grace with all my heart and never swayed in my commitment to the solas; I had your back 100% when you were kicked out of your last church, yet you never threw me a party. But when that shamelessly Pelagian son of yours came back–who threw our money down the drain, you not only didn’t ask him to publicly denounce his Pharisaical ways. But instead you made him a vestryman and killed for him the fatted calf!’ And the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and were welcome to serve on the vestry at any time. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found".
What I particularly like about this re-telling is the way it shows just how easily legalism can take hold of our behavior, of our piety, of our 'godliness', and truly leave us as poisoned as Adam and Eve seeking to cover themselves as God approached them, or as the pharisee so thankful that he was 'better' than others.
Salvation is about something entirely different. Think for a moment about the life of Jacob (Genesis 25-33).
Here is a man who's will and desires had him scheming and conniving all over the place, using his mother's love so that he could con both his dying Father and his twin brother, until he finally faced reaping the consequences of what he's been doing all his life (which, by the way, had included getting a taste of his own medicine when it came to marrying the woman he loved - see Genesis 29). There's nothing here that would commend us to Jacob - he's certainly no paragon of virtue, but Jacob had one thing going for him that made all the difference. God loved him, and as Jacob fearfully faces the showdown with Esau that should have ended his life, grace comes from God (Genesis 32).
The important thing to note here is it's at this point that Jacob is re-named and crippled - not exactly the 'victorious living' he was looking for - so that faith in the one who blessed him in spite of his nature would become what he could rest on in future (Hebrews 11:20).
What counts here is to see that it's the grace and work of God that gives to Jacob and the people that would descend from him - Israel, (which means one who wrestles with God) what counts, and that's all that makes Jacob, and any of us, special.
God's action in this world and in our lives allows us to become those, like Jacob, who are loved in spite of our folly and our mischief. No doubt our lives, like Jacob's, will often be stained by trouble and by sin, which would indeed cause us to perish, but grace has something more in store for us. Grace alone allows us to look outside of the prison of our present exile, and see the one who has come to make us free, not by virtue of our behavior or morality, but purely because of His rescuing us from death and hell by His life alone.
Godliness is His, and the best we will truly manage in this life is moments when, by the grace poured into our hearts from Him, we can share such beauty and richness with each other.
God loved this world with a love that saves, and when we know that love, then we can share something of that splendor with the world, for it truly sets us free.