Lost & Found According to the Gospel

Stephen A. Trout
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Jul/Aug 2001

He had an unmistakable look of contempt on his face. "He" was a friend, an unfortunate soul in the pew of an evangelical church who had finally admitted to himself that it was time to, so to speak, get out of Denmark. Like so many, he had discovered something rotten when he came to church for some good news. Now he stood there and mused, finally confessing with a sigh, "My goodness, I have looked for hope, but all seems lost, and I believe I too am lost…"

The outcome is predictable enough. The burnt-out and the self-righteous sit together in our churches, and like oil and water, try to mix but always separate. Of course, Jesus said it would happen-even families might split over truth (Matt. 10:34-38). So what's going on?

Honest to God

"Honesty," as popular singer Billy Joel once put it, "is such a lonely word." Despite the fact that God is not the least bit afraid of offending us by calling us all liars (John 8:44, 45; Psalm 116:11), we in the American church have had a long-standing love affair with our own glory. No doubt about it, we are addicted to it. We love our politics, our personal moral code, the compound-style gates around the worship center. Lying about ourselves helps immensely.

If the cultural landscape is changing quickly, we in the Church may alter the trappings, but still seem incapable of the needed realism about our true selves. Where one sees it advancing, strangely enough, is outside the evangelical church. Honesty, as William Willimon and others have pointed out, is actually making a reappearance in the culture! (See his excellent interview in the December 2000 issue of MR.)

Waking Up

Thankfully, our Faithful God brings turning points into our experience, some quite unexpected, and at some odd moment we awaken to view our world, as Calvin said, as if with new lenses. Only later do we learn that it was the seemingly insignificant moments of life that preceded the larger, flashier ones, for God, not just the devil, was in the details. John Bunyan's experience was just such a one; his fascinating allegory, Pilgrim's Progress, is no doubt one of the most important works in English literature. But in his autobiographical classic, Grace Abounding, we discover one of the "unsophisticated" yet seminal events that was behind it all: a simple conversation among poor peasant women in the town of Bedford. They spoke honestl y, with a love that beckoned the thirsty soul of the laborer. Listen as Bunyan recounts it:

But one day the good providence of God called me to Bedford to work at my trade. In one of the streets of that town, I came where there were three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun talking about the things of God. Being now willing to hear their discourse, I drew near to hear what they said, for I was now a brisk talker myself in the matters of religion. I will say I heard, but understood not, for they were far above my reach. Their talk was about a new birth, the work of God in their hearts, and also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature. They talked how God had visited their souls with his love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil. Moreover, they spoke about the suggestions and temptations of Satan in particular, and told each other by what means they had been afflicted, and how they were strengthened under his assaults. They also discoursed about their own wretchedness of heart and their unbelief, and did condemn, slight, and abhor their own righteousness as filthy and insufficient to do them any good.

I mused as I read the words of Bunyan. It seems he saw a vibrancy, a solidness in those women that he envied and I longed for. He wrote later, "I thought as if joy did make them speak…they were to me as if they had found a new world." What attractiveness! How low they were in their own estimation (a concept foreign to the modern mind, and to the Church) and how exalted was Christ! But then I wondered: would they find any common ground, any similarity in discourses if they were transported in time into the current evangelicalism, where the "good news" is so frequently couched in terms of what we ourselves seem to be so able to do (keep our promises, try to lead a "fully surrendered" life, get behind the right moral crusades, etc.) as opposed to what we have actually failed to do, that we may see afresh what Jesus Christ has done? Such is the standard fare served up in the Church in our day. It seems to have the look of Christianity, or so it claims, but it has little or nothing to do with exploring the profound ramifications of the cross.

Dishonest with the World

Remarkably, what we find is that even the world is tired of the moralism and the shallow theology of our day. What secular author Allan Bloom described in regard to education in Love and Friendship could easily be said of the evangelical church:

A good education would be devoted to encouraging and refining the love of the beautiful, but a pathologically misguided moralism instead turns such longing into a sin against the high goal of making everyone feel good, of overcoming nature in the name of equality.

Why must we always feed this desperate "need" to feel good? A related question might also be asked. Has feeling good and the need to be entertained helped the evangelical church avoid honesty about the mess we've got in our hearts, to the extent that we can't even impact our little corner of the world? Surely there can be no cure unless the disease is properly identified. So here is my contention. We have lost a deep honesty in the Church, and it's killing us.

Furthermore, our culture sees right through it. Why do you think Saturday Night Live could pull off their "Church-Lady" skit so well, and everyone immediately got it? Because it's all connected. If you sacrifice honesty with how Scripture diagnoses you, then, ipso facto, you end up finger pointing at your "nasty pagan neighbors" in order to feel better. It works nicely! If you want to maintain your own little Christian ghetto, that is. But let's look instead at what Jesus cared about in his church gatherings.

A Tale of Three Hearts

Turning to Scripture, we see in the story of Jesus and the so-called sinful woman (Luke 7:31-50) a picture of a church that has gone out to lunch-literally. The analogy is fitting in our day. "Pastor" Simon has stood up to announce a nice buffet, with all the saints on the guest list. Oh, and Jesus, you be sure to come too.

There they are, reclining on couches around the table, as Simon, their host looks on. Simon, perhaps an original member of the Jesus Seminar, has not made up his mind about Jesus. Is he really who he claims to be? If so, how will that affect me? Simon's heart reveals a "wait and see" man; he'd rather walk by sight instead of faith. Not unlike me, often.

And then, as we said, God brings in the unexpected to rock their world a bit, for in she walks. In the text, she is just the "sinful woman." Why not a name, do you suppose? I suggest that God is actually saying, "listen, insert your own name here," for we are all the sinful woman and the sinful man. (Ouch, too much honesty? Read on!)

As she enters, eyes are lowered, immediate indigestion is perceived. Perhaps there is even anger in the hearts of some. Again, let's be honest. What "sinner" can you think of that would make you do that? After all, doesn't she know she's in the company of the pure? (Here the reader is free to cough nervously, with appropriate involuntary spasms, as the growing host of fallen evangelical "super-stars" comes to mind.)

What made her show up in the first place? Knowing the kind of guy Jesus was, (a "Friend of Sinners"), he probably had been to her street corner, and preached grace to the town prostitutes. What she heard that day came as unbelievably good news to her heart, and she was never the same. Now, broken in heart and body, she preaches a sermon to the self-righteous-a sermon of gratitude and tears. Grace had helped her get honest about who she was, and now even the fear of man (Prov. 29:25), often so paralyzing to us in the Church, cannot stop her movement toward Jesus. Going to him, she pours out her broken yet thankful heart, like the sweet perfume with which she anoints him. And did you catch this? The only perfume she could really offer was bought with the earnings of her immoral lifestyle. So it is with us all. Is it too much to say that Jesus is probably smiling? One thing you can be sure of, when she looks up into his face, he does not look away.

Looking for Honesty

Cautious Simon said nothing, but Jesus answered his heart of pride (v. 40). The reader of hearts who revealed his heart of compassion to the broken hearted woman also knew this Pharisee's thoughts. What Simon learned that day leaves us, the evangelical church, with a whole host of questions that need to be answered. As we begin to face the mess, here are four "gospel remedies" to be applied:

1. Do we say to people, "go get cleaned up first before I deal with you, before I invite you to church?" Jesus didn't. He said to the woman, as he says to all sinners (all of us), "Come as you are, and taste of my forgiveness and grace. No need to embark on a self-improvement program. Face your sin honestly, and come to me." Remember, the good news is that Christ became a curse for you, bore your shame, and clothed you in his imputed righteousness. (Catch the word "imputed" righteousness there … it will always be what makes you acceptable to God. See 2 Cor. 5:21.) True community, joy, and wonderful freedom is never earned. It's the result of his enduring promise to befriend sinners.

2. O.K., so how do I really do evangelism? Learn weakness evangelism. The world is pretty sure we're all neurotic hypocrites or just plain nonstrugglers. When they really get to know us, they'll have to ask about our dishonesty. The gospel frees us to be honest about who we really are, both to ourselves and others: rebels addicted to the desperate quest of trying to cover ourselves with the fig leaves of our "good behavior." As Dave McCarty has observed in Sonship, "honest people are better lovers. They love Jesus more, they are better lovers of people…honest people know the depths of their need and the even deeper mercy and provision of God. They who are forgiven much, love much." Remember what love the forgiven woman had for her Savior!

3. But what about cleaning up society? You're asking the wrong question. If you mix in moralism or legalism it isn't the gospel. Anyway, preach grace, and people won't be able to help themselves. They may just start helping their neighbor because it's a loving thing to do, and because they know they don't deserve Christ any more than their neighbor does. And what cordial is greater than love for a broken world?

4. But I preach the Bible! What are you saying? You probably know enough about keeping the Scriptures preeminent, especially if you've traveled in Reformed circles. Now start seeing Christ, not your moral agendas, as preeminent in the Scriptures. That's being honest with the Word (Luke 24: 25-27). Take the rest of your life and learn about the dangers of confusing law and gospel (John 1:17, the whole books of Galatians and Romans, etc.). The law of God is the mirror in which to diagnose our sin. As David Powlison writes in The Journal of Pastoral Practice, "modern psycho-dynamic explanations of the heart which have made a strong appearance in the modern Church and which focus on merely fulfilling assumed 'needs' in the person are not adequate. The law must expose the idolatry of false loves; it demands an assessment of how God and others have been loved."

Of course, the "two kingdoms" concept is also strategic, though space doesn't allow comment on that one. The bottom line is, remember how freeing the gospel is!

Now, back to my despairing brother who is pretty sure he'll never darken the door of a church again. If you've read this and are now saying, "Well, if only the church was more like Jesus!" I will say to you my friend, that is exactly why we need him, because we aren't like him. We'll never be saved by "being like Jesus," WWJD bracelets aside. Heck, I'm not exactly sure what Jesus would do in every situation. But I do know what Jesus did do. He called sinful women, sinful men, sinful children to his side. May he give you and me the grace to believe the message, and start being honest about the whole affair.

1 [ Back ] Runner-up for The Modern Reformation Prize in Theology and Culture.
Tuesday, June 12th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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