“Beginning with Moses and the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
WHAT ARE CHURCHES SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT, ANYWAY?
In a very real sense, the work of Jesus is complete. When it comes to our standing as beloved, forgiven, delighted-in sons and daughters of God, “It is finished,” just as He said. His sinless life secured for us a new and irrevocable status—holy and blameless in God’s sight. His death fulfilled the requirements of God’s justice toward our sins. Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and He died the death we should have died. Because of this, we are free. What a wonderful and humbling reality in which we now live—God does not treat us as our sins deserve, because on the cross He has already treated Jesus as our sins deserve.
This being true, there is still much work that Jesus intends to do! Acts 1:1 indicates that the work of Jesus on earth was not completed with His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and seating at the right hand of God. Luke writes, “In the first book (the Gospel of Luke), O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Began to do and teach? How could there be more for Jesus to do than He what has already done? That’s where we as Christ’s “ambassadors” come into the picture. We are sent into the world, filled with His Spirit and enriched by His grace and truth, to represent him. In short, the work of Jesus continues through Christians.
As Jesus’ ambassadors, Christians have been set apart to faithfully mirror Him in our neighborhoods, our places of work and play, and our realms of influence. Therefore, our calling is to labor in every way possible to model our ministry and message after His. We are to live as those who are “full of grace and truth,” whose churches and ministries, because we are walking in the path of Jesus, will attract the types of people who were attracted to Him, and, by unfortunate necessity, will draw criticism from the types of people who criticized Him.
This purpose of this essay, then, is to consider what constitutes a ministry that is full of grace and truth. In other words, our task is to align our collective life and ministry to the life and ministry of Jesus.
CULTIVATING AN ATMOSPHERE THAT IS “FULL OF GRACE”
What does it mean to have a ministry atmosphere that is “full of grace” (John 1:14)? We will consider this question from a few different angles.
First, we must address the barriers created by Christians—barriers that have hidden the real Jesus from the world.
Gandhi was once asked why He never became a Christian. His answer was, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Gandhi had an admiration for Jesus, but could not reconcile how Christians were such poor representatives of their master. In his mind, this is what kept him from becoming a follower of Jesus.
If we are serious about being Jesus’ ambassadors, we need to listen very carefully to statements like this one. We must examine the most common barriers that stand between the real Jesus and people’s false impressions of Him—impressions which, unfortunately, have been projected to a watching world by many sincere yet misguided Christians. These barriers include:
Condemnation. Philip Yancey often asks people he meets what they think of Christians. The answer he hears, with very little exception, is that Christians are judgmental, intolerant, and holier-than-thou. When the September 11 terrorist attacks took place on the World Trade Center, one very well-known Christian leader confirmed this stance by saying on national television, “If you are a homosexual, a member of the ACLU, in favor of abortion, or part of the People of the American Way, then I point my finger in your face and say you did this. You made this happen.” A Christian friend of mine who is an actor once invited a gay friend over to have dinner with him and his wife. Their guest soon realized (from the Bible on the coffee table) that they were Christians. He then said to my friend, “You are a Christian, and you actually like me?” This is tragic, yet all too common.
If we are serious about being Christ’s ambassadors, we must humbly own the fact that many people, especially those who are secular or irreligious, believe that Christians dislike them. Whether this is actually true or not, it is our starting point in the minds of most non-Christian people. If we are not guilty ourselves, then we are at the very least guilty by association with believers who have misrepresented the biblical Jesus to our culture. So we must take personal responsibility, as far as it depends on us, to reorient people’s perception of Christians, and especially of Christ Himself.
Separation. In a day when many Christians want to separate themselves and their children from people and things that are considered secular, Christ’s ambassadors must resist this “us against them” mindset. We must do everything in our power to become friends with as many non-Christians as we can—no conditions attached. This must be a central, core value of our Christian communities. It is helpful to look at the life of Jesus in this regard. Luke 15:1-2 says plainly that all of the “sinners” made a habit of hanging around Jesus. They wanted to be near Him, and they wanted to hear what He had to say. Meanwhile, religious folk were accusing Jesus of being a glutton, a drunk, and a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). We know that these accusations were false—Jesus was tempted in every way but without sin. But He was unapologetically a true friend to the least and the lost, to all who were alien to the religious communities of His day. He seemed to prefer parting ways with religious folks if that was necessary in order to get close to sinners. The one who “welcomed sinners and ate with them” now insists that His followers assume the same posture. “God’s grace is for real sinners” must be more than a statement on our church websites. It must characterize the life and practice of our ministries.
Reputation. There is a price to pay if we get serious about cultivating atmospheres that are full of grace. In becoming a friend of sinners as Jesus was, we should expect some resistance. When we pursue friendship with those who are outside the faith, some fellow believers will be suspicious of us. Consider Luke 7, for example, when a “sinful woman” enters the home of Simon the Pharisee. In the name of love, and in the spirit of demonstrable grace, Jesus received her very un-orthodox display of affection toward Him. He breaks with religious customs, allowing the woman to touch His feet (feet were considered unclean—one could not even ask a slave to touch them for this reason). He breaks with social customs also, receiving her as His disciple. It was scandalous in Jesus’ day for a rabbi to receive a woman as a disciple, much less a woman with a scandalous history. Most scandalous, however, is the way that Jesus breaks with moral customs. The woman lets down her hair (this was grounds for divorce in that culture—a woman could do this only in the presence of her immediate family). She touches Him with the tools of her trade…a prostitute’s perfume and kiss Him with a prostitute’s lips…and he allows it! Of course we know the rest of the story—Jesus was shunned as a man of ill repute. Giving positive attention to this woman, who to them was clearly “a sinner,” was evidence enough of moral compromise.
This has serious ramifications for those who wish to follow Jesus in a modern context. We must come to terms with the fact that if Jesus were a 21st century American, He would not associate godliness with membership in a political party. He would not tell a lesbian she was outside of God’s will without also offering her a personal, no-strings-attached friendship. He would not talk about how smoking destroys God’s temple while simultaneously devouring his third piece of fried chicken at a church potluck. He would not condemn adultery as being any worse than studying the Bible for the wrong reasons. If we are accustomed to setting up our own Mishnah, our own set of “clean laws” that define one’s worthiness to be received into Jesus’ company, we need to give serious re-evaluation to our methods and priorities!
Pride. Becoming a friend of sinners begins with the understanding that we are much more like the “chief of sinners” than we are like Jesus Christ. Our approach with all people, no matter who they are or what their history, must assume the posture of “fellow beggars humbly telling others where to find the bread” (Steve Brown). If we really want people to be impacted by the Gospel and to enjoy the riches of God’s grace, they must first see in us the humility of those who have been, and continue to be, genuinely impacted by grace ourselves. Our humility must be authentic and not just an act. Paul was not above humbling himself. In Romans 7 he gives us a window into his personal struggle with the sin of coveting—a sin nobody would see unless he told them—and the ways in which the Gospel heals that sin. In 1 Timothy Paul identifies himself as the chief of all sinners. If we intend to be the aroma of Jesus in our ministries and our messages, we need to move past our love for reputation and image. Without realizing it, we can begin to build our identities on how good we look—on being “model Christians” that people are supposed to admire because of how put-together we appear to be. This is a trap and it will rob our ministries of power. If people in our midst are going to be changed by the grace of Jesus, they must regularly witness the Gospel working effectively in our lives—healing us of our sins and deepest wounds and fears.
This is part 1 of a series of articles by Scott Sauls. Part 2 is Here
Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls
Editor’s Note: Scott was a member of our WDA Campus Ministry (Next Generation Ministry) while at Furman University. We are excited to see our alumni continuing to carry a vision for discipleship!