Thursday, May 22, 2014

Radical Grace in John 14

The gospel never made sense to me until someone told me about radical grace. I understood that God loved me. And I knew that there was nothing I could do to earn his love. But I also thought that I had to decide to be a Christian. It went something like this:

Step One: If you want to go to heaven, you have to pray to God, tell him you’re sorry for your sins, and ask him to send Jesus into your heart.

There is no Step Two.

Sounded easy. I’ve always enjoyed following directions. They couldn’t get any simpler than that. So I did it. I said that prayer, and I gave God every single ounce of my heart, my will, my intention, my mind, my everything. And it didn’t work.

So I tried again. Kind of like the directions on a shampoo bottle, which invite you to rinse and then repeat, I went back to Step One and tried it again. And again. And again. And every night I said that prayer, and every morning I woke up wondering whether it had worked. Looking back, I now understand salvation to be that confidence one has that God will take care of you. It was missing, so I suppose in that sense salvation had eluded me. I tried pretty much every night for a dozen years and got nowhere.

Finally, I explained this frustrating experience to a friend and mentor, who then smiled warmly and put his hand on my shoulder and explained to me what radical grace is. “Evan, you can’t earn God’s love. You’re still trying to earn it by praying that prayer. You can’t decide for God to love you. God just loves you.” That night my prayer changed, and I only had to say it once. Here’s how it went:

Step One: If you want to go to heaven, good news! God already loves you and has sent his son Jesus Christ in order to make that possible. You don’t have to do a thing.

Step Two: Say thank you.

Step Three: Now that you know salvation, what are you going to do about it?

It’s a very different model of salvation. It’s one that says that we don’t decide whether we go to heaven. Just like we can’t decide whether God loves us. Either we’re going or we’re not and it’s all up to God. Heaven-bound or destined-for-Hell…either way, it’s up to God and not up to you. The God I know is a loving God, a saving God, a God who yearns to bring us into his kingdom. So I have that confidence (i.e., faith) that God will take care of me and all of creation. And it’s one that allows the believer to live into that unmerited love for the rest of his life.

This Sunday is an opportunity for me to remember that. In John 14:15-21, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” My “radical grace” mentality has refused to hear that as “If you don’t keep my commandments, you don’t love me,” but a part of me has always wondered whether I’m doing Jesus justice. Although I would never whisper this from the pulpit, I’ve thought to myself, “Maybe Jesus really is saying that what it means to love him is to be obedient to the commandments.” But that throws everything I know and have experienced about grace out the window, and I don’t like it. So I’ve avoided it. But, this year, I’ve found a new foundation upon which to stand.

A men’s bible study that I’m a part of has been pouring over 1 John. To condense a five-week study into a few sentences, I’ll say that John was writing to a community that seems split over issues of Gnosticism (whether the physical world really matters or not). He writes, “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother [or sister] in need, yet closes his heart against him [or her], how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). As best I can tell, some in that community had claimed that since we’re all heaven-bound nothing in this world matters, including the needs of our fellow Christians. But that can’t be right. And we know it.

Reading and studying 1 John has given me new confidence in my description-not-prescription approach to John 14. Jesus isn’t telling us that we must keep his commandments in order to love him. He’s saying exactly what the text says…that if we love him, we will [we must] keep commandment to love others. Loving Jesus is transformative because of the power of his love. Step One: God love us in his son Jesus. Step Two: That love changes us forever. Step Three: We live our lives in response to that transformative love. That’s what keeping the commandments is all about.

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