No one is too far gone to be saved

Sunrise

There’s this moment on the cross when Jesus is about to die that seems strange to me. It’s one that’s easy to gloss over, or ignore, or even turn into a debate: Jesus’ encounter with the thief on the cross. As he was crucified, two thieves jeered and mocked him. But as the day went on, one turned from being a scoffer to a believer and defender:

But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:40-42)

There’s so much to be said about this passage. Without question, it is a powerful challenge to those who behave as though our salvation is dependent upon our works. Without a doubt it is a glorious picture of justification by faith alone. But it is also a picture of hope. I love the way J.C. Ryle addressed this in his tract, “Christ and the Two Thieves”:

Reader, the Lord Jesus never gave so complete a proof of His power and will to save, as He did upon this occasion. In the day when He seemed most weak, He showed that He was a strong deliverer. In the hour when His body was racked with pain, He showed that he could feel tenderly for others. At the time when He Himself was dying, He conferred on a sinner eternal life.

Now, have I not a right to say, Christ is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by Him? Behold the proof of it. If ever sinner was too far gone to be saved, it was this thief. Yet he was plucked as a brand from the fire.

The thief on the cross should give us hope for those we know who are far from Christ. They may be caught up in the darkest of sins. They may be fully committed to their love of darkness. They may have scoffed and rejected Christ at every opportunity. But there is still hope. As long as they still have breath, there is an opportunity for their heart to be transformed by Jesus, and for them to turn from their sins in faith.

No one is too far gone for him.

So let’s not lose heart as we seek to share the gospel with all. Instead, let’s hold fast to our confidence in Christ. If he could save the thief on the cross, and if he could save people like me, then he can save anyone. And that is all the reason for hope we need.

That time Christopher Hitchens shared the gospel

Crown of thorns on top of an open Bible

If I could sit down for an hour with anyone, one person would be the late Christopher Hitchens. Everything I read about him, and much of what I’ve read by him, is fascinating to me. He was a passionate proponent of atheism and openly skeptical of the Christian faith in particular. But as skeptical and as strong a voice for the cause of unbelief as he was, what I’ve found is that he was a greater advocate of rationality—especially among the religious.

In December, 2009, Hitchens was interviewed by Marilyn Sewell for Portland Monthly. Sewell, a Unitarian minister and self-described liberal Christian, recognized his tendency to cite “fundamentalist” sources in his books. As one who doesn’t take the stories of Scripture literally and doesn’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (keep reading, we’ll get there), she wanted to know if he made a distinction between “fundamentalist faith and liberal religion.” His response was breathtaking:

I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Cue the altar call, y’all.

Seriously, though. Years ago, probably around the same time this interview was being conducted, I watched a video with a hipster (now ex) pastor who was delivering a message about the gospel. And at the end, he said the gospel is you. You are the gospel, he emphatically declared as the indie rock swelled.[1. Which probably would have made Hitchens do a spit-take.] Which is probably the most depressing message you’ll ever hear, because I’m a pretty lousy gospel. I might be an okay witness at times, but I’m not the good news.

But what is so powerful about Hitchens’ statement is that he actually got it. He knew exactly what the gospel was, even if he didn’t believe it.[2. Whether that changed prior to his death, only God knows.] The gospel is that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Messiah, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. Fundamentally, this is the gospel at its core.

If Christopher Hitchens could get the gospel right, surely we can, too. Let’s not get wishy washy about it. Let’s not hide it under a rock. Let’s keep boldly proclaiming this good news that is the foundation of our faith until there’s no longer anyone who needs to hear!

When worldviews collide

saskatchewan road

When I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s, there was an intentional confrontation of traditional values in the media. Specifically, same sex relationships. It was a then-shocking kiss scene in Roseanne, then Ellen coming out on her sitcom, and even a couple of episodes of Star Trek. And then, of course, Will & Grace. No surprise, it worked. It shifted our larger cultural view on this issue. But it did more than this: it reshaped our understanding of what it means to be human.

This is something that I didn’t fully grasp until I was listening to John Stonestreet at the ERLC National Conference on Thursday night. And what made it make sense to me was when he shared how, historically, what it meant to be human is that we are metaphysical beings—that is, we are creatures that ask big questions about the world around us: is there a God, why is there evil and suffering, and so on. Behavior flowed from our understanding of the answers to these questions.

But in recent years, as more and more individuals—particularly celebrities and athletes—began openly identifying, this coming out was met with the message, “Now they can finally be themselves.” Behavior became the answer to the metaphysical questions. What do you do is who you are, and ideas that don’t affirm this view are untenable.

That’s when it all clicked. This is something every Christian has experienced at one time or another, although we might not have understood it for what it is, or at least in this specific way. We know that evangelism is important. Many of us understand the concept of worldview, and recognize that there are multiple views out there that are often in conflict. And when worldviews collide, as we so often see in discussions of human sexuality and gender identity, that conflict escalates because we’re challenging those most deeply held beliefs.

So here’s the challenge for us: how do we meaningfully engage others and not have it blow up in our faces? Ultimately, we have to compassionately challenge the narrative. We need to show that the gospel tells a better story of humanity—of a richer, fuller meaning to existence. In our lives, in our words, in our homes… in every area of our lives, we need to graciously, compassionately, and respectfully demonstrate this reality. It’s slow work. It’s hard work. But it is the best work. May God give us the grace we need to see it to completion.

The heart I desire in sharing the truth

Heart on a log

Years ago, Emily and I would joke about me wielding a mighty theological hammer of truth. We did this mostly because I was kind of a jerk bag who hadn’t mastered tact, especially in theological conversations. (I’m still working on that.)

Though change has been slow and faltering, looking at the truth behind our joke convicted me deeply. This not a behavior I look back on with pride, but with regret. How many times have I assisted in hardening someone’s heart to the truth of the gospel by presenting facts thoughtlessly? How many times have I hindered someone by speaking out of turn or with the wrong spirit?

The truth is, I don’t know. And I’ll probably never know. But what I do know is this: that the motivation behind sharing the truth is love. Paul, as J.I. Packer reminded us in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, was made “warm-hearted and affectionate in his evangelism” by love. His heart broke over their spiritual condition. And so he shared the truth with this in mind: that his hearer’s greatest need was reconciliation with his or her Creator.

I pray the same thing will be said of me someday. That love for God and others will continue to transform how I communicate the truth. That those who hear would experience Christ’s love for themselves. And that they, too, would be motivated by that love to share the news with others.

It’s scary to tell your story (but do it anyway)

speech

For ages, I’ve been working on a proposal and sample chapters on a book I desperately want to write. But it’s also one I’m terrified to write. Why? Because it is very personal. I’m not a “write a memoir at 37” kind of guy, and this book wouldn’t be that (at least, I don’t think it would). But discusses aspects of my own story—my life—in ways I’ve never really written before.

And that freaks me out.

It doesn’t scare me because it’s too personal, of course. It freaks me out because I know what people have a tendency to get a little weird when they hear about parts of my life, or how I came to faith.  I know what it’s like to have events questions and picked apart. And it’s not fun. (You know you’re in for it when people ask “how do you know it wasn’t just…?”)

But regardless, I need to tell my story anyway. So I do. It’s been told in blog posts here and there. It’s been told in videos, and in person countless times. And I tell it because people need to hear it. But they don’t need to hear it because they need to hear how great my life is with Jesus in it.

But they don’t need to hear it because they need to hear how great my life is with Jesus in it. They need to hear it and be reminded of how great Jesus for saving knuckleheads like me.

Maybe you resonate with what I’ve just written. Maybe you’ve been avoiding telling your story to anyone, or to too many people. There’s something holding you back—fear, anxiety, a desire for a peaceful existence…

But the thing is, just as much as people need to hear my story, they need to hear yours, too.

Both Christians and non-Christians need to hear what God has done in your life. Believers need to be encouraged by what God is doing. Non-Christians need to be challenged by what God has done. You might not change their minds, but you will at least plant a seed, which is all we need to do.

So, tell the story. Be honest and unashamed. Tell what God has done. Tell what God is doing. Plead with him to give you the words you’ll need to speak, and trust him with the results.

What we need to know to stop fighting to hold onto unbelief

Misty Moring

On Friday night, I had a conversation I didn’t expect at the ERLC conference. A man came into the exhibit hall and started talking to me at my booth. The first thing he said: “Do you really believe all this stuff?”

The conversation was long and kind of all over the place (and in areas downright odd), but it was an opportunity for me to share the gospel. I definitely didn’t expect this when I arrived at the conference that morning!

One thing that sticks out is how this man, in some ways seemed to be trying to convince himself not to believe. He wasn’t willing to believe because he didn’t want to believe it. He was doing all he could to fight for his unbelief. To protect it and strengthen it. Which, of course, makes sense given the whole people “loving the dark thing and hating the light” thing and all… (see John 3:19-20)

I’m not sharing this to be self-righteous or look down on this man. At least, I hope I’m not. Instead, the whole conversation reminded me of my own unwillingness to believe before Jesus wore me down. I wasn’t anymore willing to believe the truth than the next person. In fact, I was probably worse because this man shared a desire to go back in time (or have God send him back in time) and change the past. I didn’t really have that. Before coming to faith, I had no desire to believe. Which is a problem, because as Spurgeon wrote, “The entire willingness to believe is nine-tenths of believing.”

Inasmuch as to will is present with you, the power which you do not find as yet will certainly come to you. The man is dead, and the hardest thing is to make him live; but in the case before us the quickening is accomplished, for the man lives so far as to will: he wills to believe, he yearns to believe, he longs to believe; how much has been done for him! Rising from the dead is a greater thing than the performance of an act of life. Faith in Christ is the simplest action that anybody ever performs. It is the action of a child; indeed, it is the action of a new-born babe in grace. A new-born babe never performs an action that is very complicated. We say, “Oh, it is such a babyish thing,” meaning that it is so small. Now faith comes at the moment that the child is born into God’s family; it occurs at the same time as the new birth. One of the first signs and tokens of being born again is faith; therefore it must be a very, very simple thing. I venture to say that faith in Christ differs in no respect from faith in anybody else, except in the person upon whom that faith is set. You believe in your mother: you may in the same way believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. You believe in your friend: it is the same act that you have to do toward your higher and better Friend. You believe the news that is commonly reported and printed in the daily journals: it is the same act which believes Scripture and the promise of God.[1. C. H. Spurgeon, Advice for Seekers (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 43–44.]

I read this, and I thank God. Not because I’m better, but because he gave me the willingness to believe. I read and and I hope he will give that same desire to the man I spoke to on Friday night. That he would come to know that “faith in Christ is the simplest action that anybody ever performs,” and that he would believe. Because unbelief is so much harder. Convincing yourself that the truth is a lie wastes so much energy. Honest belief is simple because it’s true. And when we believe, it changes everything.

What does it mean to “make your life better and richer?”

Crown of thorns on top of an open Bible
At ERLC 2016, Andy Stanley and Russell Moore had a lively discussion on their divergent approaches to Scripture’s place in their ministries, language, and basically everything else.  One of the conversations centered around whether it’s easy or not to preach repentance. Stanley is a strong believer in taking a gentle approach, taking steps toward following Jesus. His idea is that it’s a better approach to invite to become a follower of Jesus, because following Jesus leads to a life that will be better and richer.

It was a lively discussion, and delved into all kinds of difficult and touchy subjects, and I appreciated Stanley’s candor throughout.

As I listened, I kept wondering, “what does it mean to have a better and richer life?” What exactly does that mean?

Now, before anyone thinks this is a hit piece on Stanley, it’s not. He had a lot of really helpful things to say (even if I wish they were things he said more consistently). So, I’m not accusing him of anything, ‘kay?

Instead, I’m thinking about this question. What is a richer life? What is a better life? There are two ways to look at it:

The first is to believe that it means your life will become materially better. That your relationships will improve; your bank account will be full; you will magically drop those 20 pounds you’ve wanted to lose since 1997… It’s the Christian life as defined by the American life. The message that, I think, many people in my circles probably think guys like Stanley preach. (Again, not saying he does.) This is the kind of message that leaves people disillusioned with Christianity, or a distorted version of it anyway. But as has often been said, when this is our understanding of Christianity, they’re not trying the faith and finding it wanting, but leaving it untried.

Then there’s the other view, what I believe is the biblical view: it’s the recognition that your life might actually kind of stink once you start to follow Jesus. You might lose your job. You might experience relational difficulty, or perhaps you’ll even get a terminal illness.

But what do you get? Jesus. You get God. You are brought into the family of God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and given an inheritance that will never fail. A place in the new creation, before the throne of God, and the promise of hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” as Jesus wipes the tears from your eyes.

That’s what you get. That’s what you get to look forward to. I can’t imagine a richer or better life than one with that as its foundation.

The time is short (and getting shorter)

Hope statue in New York

A few weeks ago, I was sitting on an airplane and found myself with an opportunity to share the gospel.[1. Thank you, new job.] It was a moment I was grateful for, especially as one who has often described himself as a timid evangelist.

Evangelism doesn’t come easy to me. It’s awkward. It’s sometimes uncomfortable. It’s kind of scary at times.

But it’s so important.

It’s something God wants from all of his people. He wants each of us to make the most of every opportunity—to share the good news of Jesus as long as there is still a “today”. And I am so thankful every time I learn of someone new who has come to faith in Jesus. Every time we celebrate baptisms. Every time someone else moves from darkness to light.

It is such a wonderful gift, one I probably don’t make the most of (despite knowing better). You can probably relate. You’ve heard all the rationales before. You’ve heard all the good and bad appeals. You’ve tried to share your faith. You stumble and fail more than you succeed. But you still try.

And I think there’s a degree to which that’s enough. You’re trying. You’re not quitting.

You’re recognizing that the days are, in fact, short. That Jesus is really coming back, and you want people you care about to join you in worshipping him when he does. But there aren’t unlimited opportunities, are there? We don’t know when the end will come for anyone. We don’t know if the conversation we had with this or that person is going to be followed by another.

The time is short—and it’s getting shorter

I’m reminded of this every time I turn on the news—especially as terrorists attack and militaries attempt coups. I find I’m wandering more and more to Jesus’ teaching on when he would return, that during the birth pains and as we moved closer to the time, there would be wars and rumors of wars. That turmoil and strife would increase.

And while I’m not the sort who is trying to interpret the times according to a specific ideology, I can’t help but feel like the time is getting shorter.

That, Lord willing, Jesus will be back sooner than any of us think.

Nineteenth century preacher J.C. Ryle once wrote,

[Our] time for doing good in the world is short and limited. The throne of grace will not always be standing–it will be removed one day, and the throne of judgment will be set up in its place. The door of salvation by faith in Christ will not always be open–it will be shut one day forever, and the number of God’s elect will be completed. The fountain for all sin and uncleanness will not always be accessible; the way to it will one day be barred, and there will remain nothing but the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.[2. From Ryle’s commentary, The Gospel of John.]

Use the time we have

Reading this gives me a sense of urgency, even as it makes me thankful that there is still time. Although our time “for doing good in the world is short and limited,” we still have that time. The door is still open. There is still time to take advantage of every opportunity to share the good news. And I want to take those opportunities. I want to be able to tell people about what God has done by sending Jesus into the world. I want more people to be joining me with him when he finally does return.

I suspect you do, too.

So take those opportunities. Take the moments God gives you to share Christ. Take the opportunity to stick a rock in someone’s shoe. Don’t let any moment pass. The time is short for us to do good in this world. Let’s make the most of it.


Photo credit: New York 2016 via photopin (license)

Reading Writers: Joey Shaw, All Authority and taking notes

Reading Writers featuring Joey Shaw, the author of All Authority

Welcome to the fourth episode of Reading Writers. Each week, I’ll be speaking with Christian authors and writers about what they’re writing, but also about what they’re reading—and how reading widely can help us grow as believers, as creators and disciple-makers.

What you’ll hear in this episode

This week, I’m joined by Joey Shaw, author of All Authority: How the Authority of Christ Upholds the Great CommissionJoey is the International Field Office Director for the Austin Stone Community Church, living with his family outside the United States to serve unreached peoples and bring the hope of Christ. Listen in as we discuss:

  • The (maybe not so) surprising fact that motivates Joey as a missionary;
  • How he uses Evernote to process what he’s reading;
  • The life-changing power of thoughtfully and slowly reading John Owen; and
  • What happened when he felt he should speak up and magnify God at a high school dance.

Books and resources mentioned in this episode

You can also follow Joey on Twitter at @Joey_Shaw_SDG.

Who will be on the next episode of Reading Writers?

Next week, I’ll be joined by Stephen Miller to discuss his new book, Liberating King, what we mean when we talk about worship and consuming audiobooks as reading. It’s a fun one!

Sponsoring Reading Writers

If you are interested in sponsoring a future episode of Reading Writers, let’s chat. Send me a note and we’ll get started.

Subscribing, sharing, and your feedback

You can subscribe to Reading Writers via iTunes, Google Play, or your favorite podcast catcher. If you like what you’ve heard, please consider leaving a rating and share it with your friends. It takes only takes a second and will go a long way to helping other people find the show.

You can also connect with me on Twitter at @aaronstrongarm, on Facebook or via email to share your feedback.

Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Reading Writers!