Have you ever considered the scandalous grounds of Christ’s invitation?
We are raised in a world where invitations are given to those who successfully reach a standard or excel in accomplishment. If you are a student and your GPA and ACT/SAT scores meet a certain standard, you are given an invitation to attend a college or university. If you are an athlete and your excellence performance on the field or court qualifies you for an athletic scholarship, you are invited to play for the team. If you apply for a job, and your resume indicates from your previous experience you are qualified for the job, you are invited to join the company or business. That’s the way it works in the world no matter what arena you find yourself in life.
But not so with Jesus.
Jesus undermined the world’s way of thinking with the first words of his first sermon. Talking to a culture dominated by those seeking to be rich in spirit, Jesus declared that the kingdom of God belonged to those who were poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3). By inverting the standard, he was showing the kingdom of God is upside-down and inside-out. Those who are qualified to inherit the kingdom of God are those who know they are unqualified in and of themselves spiritually to do anything to earn their acceptance with God. The riches of heaven are given to the spiritually bankrupt, not the religious elite.
Jesus confirmed the inverted nature of his invitation at a dinner party with a bunch of tax collectors. The spiritually “healthy” had major problems that Jesus would be spending time in an intimate setting with such spiritually “sick” people. And yet, Jesus made it clear that he is not interested in the sacrifices of hard-working religious people, flexing their legalistic muscles. Rather, he came as a physician to heal those who were sin sick and had nothing to vouch for except sovereign mercy. As a subversive insult, he told the religious intellectuals to “go and learn what this means.” Apparently with all their learning, they had not learned the ways of God with men.
Finally, leading up to his invitation, Jesus expresses himself in prayer to the Father, thanking him that he has hidden “these things” from the wise and understanding but revealed them to “little children” (or babes). These things–the kingdom of God and the saving purposes of Christ–are a gracious revelation granted by the Father’s will to save those who are “child-like.” They are those who understand themselves to be needy, helpless, dependent, and with no accomplishments or successes to bring to the table. The only thing they can do is cling wholeheartedly with confidence and trust in the Father who loves them.
It is at this point Jesus makes the remarkable invitation, “Come to Me.”
Come those who are poor in spirit.
Come you who are sin sick and need a merciful great physician.
Come all who are helpless and needy, looking alone for the heavenly embrace in the arms of Jesus.
The invitation of Jesus inverts the invitation of the world. He invites us not because we meet a certain qualification or level of deservedness, but because we don’t. The scandalous grounds of Christ’s invitation is the sheer grace of God. Grace says to the poor in the Spirit, Jesus is rich in righteousness and will clothe you with his royal garments. Grace says to the spiritually sick, there is more mercy in the bloody wounds of Christ than there is sin in your wicked heart. Grace says to the helpless children, you will not be left as orphans in the world but have the right to be called “children of God” and adopted into His family. The grace of God alone is the hope of sinners, for when sin abounded, grace abounded all the more!
The great hymn “Come Ye Sinners” concludes with this marvelous truth:
Let not conscience make you linger,
Not of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
The fitness, the qualification for Christ’s invitation is simply to feel your need of Him. It is to look away from yourself as though you had anything to warrant His invitation and to look toward the cross. Look to the cross, for that is where the gracious invitation is extended with arms open wide for sinners to know there is abundant pardon and full redemption in the life and death of our great Savior.
I’ve been browsing through Randy Newman’s book, Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Your Family Members, Your Close Friends, and Others You Know Well. This is an incredibly important topic as I have come to find it harder to share the gospel with family members as it is with an unknown person in my community. I imagine this is true for most if not all Christians.
In the conclusion of his introductory chapter, Newman provides four steps for sharing the gospel with your family. I thought they were very thoughtful and practical. Check them out.
1. If you don’t already have one, develop a system for prayer for your family. Perhaps you can set aside a section in a prayer journal.
2. Begin your prayers for your family with thanksgiving. This may be more difficult for some people than others. Regardless of your family’s well-being, thank God for the family you have and all the accompanying benefits you can identify.
3. You may need to include prayers of confession as well–confession of your lack of love for your family, your idolatry of control in trying to change them, your reliance on your ability to convict them of their sin instead of trusting the Holy Spirit to do that, your coldheartedness, haughtiness, and self-righteousness, etc. Ask the Holy Spirit to shine his light of truth on your darkness of sin.
4. If you haven’t already done so, “come out of the closet” as a Christian to your family. Pray for gentle words and a gracious demeanor mixed with bold confidence. . . . Aim for your announcement to be informational rather than evangelistic. You can trust God to open evangelistic doors later.
#3 nailed me.
One thing I might add, especially if you have a large family: look for opportunities in the course of the day when it is not so hectic where you might be able to enjoy a sustained conversation with a family member who is not a Christian. In a large group setting, conversations tend to stay on a superficial level, but if you can get alone with one or two family members for 10-15 minutes or longer, you will have a greater opportunity of magnetizing the conversation to the gospel and how Jesus has changed, and is changing your life.
Last Sunday, in my disciple-making training, we did a little excursion from our normal schedule to think about Christmas. As disciples of Jesus, we should seek to leverage every opportunity to make much of Him, including (or especially) the season of Advent. However, not everything is as “wonderful” this time of the year as we think. For many, it is the most stressful, demanding, and overwhelming time of the year, with challenges awaiting from all facets of life.
On a cultural front, we are constantly hearing news about the culture war, in particular how the tide of our culture is washing away any remnants of Christianity. Whether it be nativity scenes in the square, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” or the marginalization of Christmas carols that have anything to do with Jesus, each Christmas is another incoming tide of secularism in our country.
On a financial front, we are faced with the onslaught of consumerism. Covetousness is the fuel, and our credit cards are the engine. Materialism is king. The season begins with “Black Friday” and ends with bank statements of higher levels of debt. In the end, Christmas, especially for little children, is a season about me . . . and all the stuff that I think I deserve.
On a relational front, we are faced with potentially volatile situations when we gather in close proximity with relatives we usually don’t see throughout the year. Some have differences in traditions and particular ways Christmas is celebrated (or not). For others, debates and arguments may arise over things like politics or other preferences they are passionate about. Or, it could just be the awkwardness of the moments when you know you should be closer to one another than you really are, and you kinda just go through the motions, doubling down on your pretending, and anxiously await the absence of such awkwardness.
On a personal front, we are often faced with frustration and stress. We are busy with more shopping to do, more parties to attend, more food to cook, more people to entertain, more of just about everything. The intensity of the season leaves little room for margin to think about anything else than the next thing you have to do. For others, the personal complexities are filled with grief, sadness, and loneliness. For all the years together and traditions made with the ones you love, they have died, and each little moment brings back the memories once shared together and now seems like a constant stream of tears.
If I could sum up the complexities of Christmas then, Christians are faced with idolatry from within (covetousness) with regular, intensive temptations to identity themselves as a consumer of material goods rather than an adopted child of God. Christians are also faced with the going, going, going of a fast-paced schedule rather than the slow, pregnant anticipation of the coming of the Lord. Christians are today living in a time where cultural Christianity is losing and secularism is winning, and the modern-day Herods are attempting to drive Christianity into the wilderness of obscurity.
If we are not guarding our hearts and lives, we could find ourselves with a disposition of being culturally and politically angry at secularism, financially indebted compounded with stress and guilt (for either buying too much stuff or wishing they could buy more but lacking the means to do it due to reduced income), relationally distant and closed off for fear of conflict, and personally pretending to be happy when there is sorrow or grief in your heart.
When I think of these complexities, I cannot help but think of the role of disciple-making and gospel community in addressing these challenges. For instance, if you are discipling another believer and seeking to model an example for them to follow, then should not the way you spend money be on the table for discussion or examination? If you are making a big deal about whether the department store greeter says “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” as opposed to seizing opportunities to engage the hurting and grieving with the hope of salvation, then should that not be addressed? If you, who has been reconciled with God and are seeking to live in reconciled relationships with others, are intentionally avoiding redemptive moments of humble interaction with estranged family members, is that not something we should be concerned about? All too often we go into default mode, justify our anti-gospel behavior with “that’s just the way I am” phrases, and fail to embrace this season where Christ comes alive in our hearts with life-giving grace.
Instead of simply going through the motions or allowing ourselves to be tossed back and forth by the waves of culture, I believe we should focus on slowing down than speeding up. We should meditate on the Incarnation of Christ, and having consequently seek to embrace and model the humanity of Christ (humble service, unhurried presence, gracious acceptance, etc). We should guard our hearts from idolatry and covetousness and unleash our affections on the hurting, needy, broken, and grieving. We should remember that the real battle is not found in the cultural war but the spiritual war. At a time when many family members and friends are held captive by the enemy, we will perhaps have unprecedented opportunity to shine the light of Christ to unbelieving hearts and see captives set free.
In all the complexities of Christmas, may we remember the simplicity of Christ’s life, who came down from heaven to earth to save sinners and satisfy us with Himself as the greatest gift of all.
I grew up in a churched culture. From the time I left the hospital until I graduated high school, I was put through every program, participated in every activity, and was faithful to every event our local church had to offer. Children’s church, R.A.’s (Royal Ambassadors), Bible Drill, Children’s & Youth Choir, Puppet Ministry, Youth Group/Ministry, Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Christmas/Easter Dramas… you name it, I was in it.
I was converted at the early age of 8, right in the middle of all the busy life a committed church-goer. Looking back, however, one of the most glaring (and I would add scandalous) omissions is that my church never taught me how to live. I knew how to do a ton of religious things, not the least of which was checking off the boxes on my tithe envelope, but when it came to living out my faith as a disciple of Jesus, I really had no clue. I just knew how to get in the system and let the system do its thing.
The System and Spirit Within Christendom
What this system has produced, rather unintentionally I might add, is a spirit of consumerism through the culture of Christendom. In this system, who you are (identity) is defined by what you do (performance). I am a Christian because I go to church, and the fruit of my faith is manifested in my participation and religious performances. This system works within Christendom because Christianity and culture has been syncretized so that being religious or good is tantamount to being a disciple of Jesus.
The metrics for this appraisal of religious devotion are the church’s programs, activities, and events (think gatherings and special services). Instead of teaching disciples of Jesus how to live in the world, we take them out of the world and teach them how to be busy in the church building/campus. The centralizing effect made the church like the indoor shopping mall, servicing the needs, wants, and preferences of all within Christendom. The consumer was in control, and the church was there to make sure their product was good enough to have them buy into their church.
But just like the indoor mall has seen its day, so has Christendom. There has been a great divorce between Christianity and culture in recent years, and fewer and fewer people are attracted to this religious marketplace mentality. Ironically, many proponents in this system are lamenting the lack of enduring fruit from this well-oiled, efficient system.
Why is it that around 1% of Christians ever share their faith? Could it be that they do not know any unbelievers? Could it be that they have never been taught how to love their neighbor? Could it be that their understanding of evangelism is exceptionally gifted leaders using an extraordinary platform rather than ordinary people doing ordinary things with gospel intentionality?
Why is it that there is little qualitative distinctiveness between disciples of Jesus and those in the world around them? Could it be that we have assumed the gospel and replaced it with behavioral modification? Could it be we have substituted repentance and faith with try harder and do better? Could it be that we have trained people to value programs and activities in place of authentic community and missional living? Could it be that we have measured religious activity and assumed that is the same thing as pursuing holiness?
The Bottom Line for Living Now
Here’s the bottom line: Jesus has called all who believe in Him to be His disciples. Our goal is to become like Him and represent Him in the world. Our identity is not defined by what we do but what He has done on our behalf. Our identity as a disciple does not turn on when we are in a “house of worship.” It is on all the time because “this is my Father’s world.”
Disciples of Jesus need a biblical metric for evaluating their lives, and church programs, activities, and events do not meet that standard. One of the roles I lead in during our gatherings is connecting with new people who attend for the first time. Occasionally, new people will ask the question, “What kind of programs do you offer? What kind of activities can we get involved in?” These are the questions of consumers from the culture of Christendom. Churches do them no service by giving them a way to be busy and yet experience no life change. Churches do themselves no favor by thinking they need to “sell their church” to such people. What these people need is to be taught how to live by a church who are committed to living out their identity as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession”.
When churches replace activities, programs, and events with gospel, community, and mission, the efficient system will be replaced with a glorious mess where Christ is in control, not the consumer. Instead of feeling the need to be the “best show” in town, churches are freed to offer the best grace of our beautiful Savior. Religious people in the system of Christendom know that it is a safe place to hide, a sure place of never truly being known. Disciples who live by repentance and faith have no fear of being known for who they truly are because they are living in the good of the gospel, not the shaky goodness of their religious checklist. For the church, we are not so concerned about disciples attending our stuff as much as we seeing them live their lives in the world around them. Let’s get rid of celebrating the props of religious performance and celebrate a life well lived through humble praxis!
Show Them How to Live
I am convinced that most churches are missing the point at the most fundamental level of Christian living. For most of my life, I was never taught how to live as a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps that is because no one else around me was taught that either. We just did what everyone else did and got busy at it. But it does not have to be this way! Christians learn to live by living out their lives in light of the gospel with a gospel community on mission in the world around them. Enough with teaching Christians how to act as Christians on Sunday. We need a view of disciple-making that trains Christians how to walk “in his steps” wherever and whenever that journey takes them.
Consider the questions that are being asked, especially about what is not being asked or talked about. How much of our lives are “off the table” because we have divorced everyday living from our identity as a disciple of Jesus? Consider the content of Christian conversation, especially if people are talking about how they are discovering new areas in their lives that are being brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ as they grow in repentance and faith. Consider the subject of people’s prayer requests, especially if they are about matters tangential at best to their life, relationships, and involvement in the world. And consider what followers of Jesus are satisfied with, especially if they are more comfortable with being a consumer of religious activities than a disciples consumed with Jesus.
There are teenagers right now in your life who need to know how to live in a world full of temptation, peer pressure, and acceptance. There are young professionals in your life who need to know how to live in a world telling them life is about making a living, being successful, and moving up the ladder. There are young families in your life who need to know how to raise their children not to be Pharisees, but disciplined and trained in a gospel-formative way. I could go on. But this kind of living does not get accessed by taking the pill or checking in once a week on Sunday. They need to be shown how to live by people who are living it out. It’s messy. It’s hard. But it’s glorious. Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it in full (John 10:10). Let us teach disciples to know what that means and live that out!
Tim Brister has served as a pastor and elder at Grace Baptist Church since June 2008. Tim's passion is to demonstrate a life that trusts God, treasures Christ, and triumphs the gospel. Tim is the Director of PLNTD, a church planting network in association with Founders Ministries. He's also the director of The Haiti Collective, organizer for Band of Bloggers, and creator of P2R (Partnering to Remember) and the Memory Moleskine.
You can read more about Tim on his blog, Provocations and Pantings.