What does it look like to live as a Christian? Being a Christian means that we are assured of our salvation through nothing more than the atoning work of Christ on the cross, yet in the Bible we are challenged to live for Christ who died in our place.
The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? is a book by Richard Stearns who serves a the president of World Vision in which he tells his own story of being a Christian, but living a life that did not reflect his faith in terms of his acts of charity to others. He points out passages in Scripture that show that the life of the Christian is different and that we should be producing fruits that are in line with that change. Admittedly, in telling the story of his life as a Christian, Stearns acknowledges that he is not a theologian. As I critique his book, keep in mind that while I appreciate his challenge I am not especially thrilled with how he comes to his conclusion. Is there a hole in the gospel or is there a worm in our fruit?
I Want to Be a Sheep
I have to admit that I have been very conflicted about this acclaimed book. While it indeed challenges us to live a life that is in line with how the Bible describes a Christian, Stearns confuses some of the ways that he presents those teachings. One such example has to do with the following passage:
[The Final Judgment]
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
(Matthew 25:31-46 ESV)
In a world where nothing comes for free, it is no short matter to read this passage and draw a quick conclusion: the ones who were charitable were the ones that Jesus welcomed and he rejected those who were not. Makes sense that we would get equal payment for equal work: we did something and we are rewarded by being known and welcomed by Christ.
However, this is not what the passage says.
Look back at what happens first: the sheep and goats are separated. They are not assessed for what work they did or the lives that they saved or the people who they evangelized. They are first separated by what kind of animal they are. By no merit of their own, Christ knows the sheep but does not know the goats. Look now at the last verses of the passage. Is it not odd that the sheep, once told what they have done, are completely surprised that they did anything at all? From the passage, nay from the entire testimony of Scripture, we must then conclude that it is not our works, but the grace of Christ that makes us his.
Where Is the Hole?
Does the gospel of Jesus Christ have a hole? Certainly not! Indeed much is required of us to please God, but we cannot ever please God. Scripture calls us “children of wrath” and teaches us that even when we want to do good we continue to sin (Romans 7). What God requires, God provides. All of the work of following the law (“fulfilling the law”) was done by Christ, on our behalf. The glory of the gospel is that whatever we were required to do, Christ already did so we do not have to.
I agree with Stearns that when we are freed by that atoning work of Christ, we are thus free to do what God wants us to do. However, because the weight of requirement is gone we do not have to do what we do perfectly. We do not have to do everything, after all we still cannot.
If there is a hole, it is that assessment of a Christian’s fruit. In a recent sermon, Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, pointed out that we are saved by grace alone, but grace is never alone. When the grace of God permeates the life of a sinner, the aroma of that grace spills out into every area of one’s life. When we are changed by grace we cannot help but live differently.
What Stearns is rightly reacting against is what the book of Hebrews calls “neglecting the gospel.” As we live our lives in light of grace, we easily come to forget the power that grace has had in our lives. It is easy to take the love of God for granted and begin to think that our merit is what saves us rather than the undeserved grace of God. Yet, when we see ourselves in the mirror of God’s law, feel the despair of continuing to fail to meet his high standard, the gospel comes shining through as the only hope we have of a life together with God. And it is in the light of such glory that we cannot think, but to find ways to celebrate and honor God for his everlasting love and grace to us.
Jerry Bridges encourages us to preach the gospel to ourselves, to one another, daily. Perhaps if we continue to abide in Christ and in the light of his grace we will produce beautiful, healthy, and nourishing fruit.