January 1 marks the day I first caught a glimpse of the most profound truth in the universe. I was 18 years old. I was fighting tooth and nail with God. And He showed me, finally, through one the weirdest acts ever performed on the human body, that He and He alone makes me His son. Here's how it all went down.
A baby’s first words—they’re adorable, they’re cute, they make moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas beam with pleasure. Maybe it’s “momma,” maybe it’s “dada.” Whatever it is, it’s what the baby has been hearing. And it’s an amazing confession. He doesn’t even know it, but in forming that word, the infant is making a profound statement about his place in the world. He is a son, or she is a daughter. There’s an identity affirmed, a relationship confessed. I am your child; you are my parent. First words may be simple, but they affirm a deep, abiding truth. Our God’s first words—they too are short and simple. In uttering them, He too is making a profound statement about His place in this world. And while He is affirming His identity, more importantly, He is confessing our identity. We learn who God is, and who we are, in the very first words He speaks. Even more, as these words echo down the hallways of the great house of Scripture, we hear in that distant echo the clear sound of grace. God’s first words may be “Let there be light,” but He had just as well said, “Let there be Gospel.” Here’s what I mean.
God Speaks into Darkness. Before God spoke those first words, “the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep,” (Gen 1:2). Years ago, I took my children to Carlsbad Caverns. Deep within that cave, our guide sat us down and told us he was going to turn off the lights for one minute. When he did, the darkness that flooded us was complete. We could squint, stare, blink all we wanted, but we could see nothing. Total, crippling, crushing darkness. So was our world before God spoke. And so were we before God spoke the light of His grace into our hearts. Paul says, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” (2 Cor 4:4). But what did our good and gracious Creator do? “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” (2 Cor 4:6). Read that verse again, savoring each word this time. Did you taste the sweetness in God’s first words? Here is the grace-bestowing, gift-giving, life-bestowing Lord. Our Father who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who continues to let light shine out of darkness. That darkness is our blindness, our sinful, lost condition in this world. That light is the Gospel; it is the light of knowing that the glory of God shines from the face of Jesus.
God Does All the Doing. If God had not said, “Let there be light,” our world would still be bathed in night. It would be formless and void. The dawn would not somehow evolve into being from the stuff of midnight. The world would not wake up and decide it would create the sun, moon, and stars. If God had not acted, if God had not spoken, there would be no light. He had to do all the doing. And because He did all the doing, it is not only good but perfect. It is no different when God speaks, “Let there be light,” into the midnight realm of our hearts. “Our foolish hearts were darkened,” Paul says (Rom 1:21). We were dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1). Dead people don’t resurrect themselves. Darkened souls don’t create light within them. But God does. Our Father has shone into our hearts. The light of His Spirit has beamed the rays of grace within us, dispelling the night. Off the face of Jesus shines the light that creates faith within us, the knowledge that we are God’s children in His Son. He does all the doing. And because He does all the doing, it’s perfect. We don’t decide to believe, we don’t wander about in the darkness of unbelief until one day we find a match and light the candle of faith within us. While we’re dead, darkened, lost, God says, “Let there be light.” And there is. By His word, by His Son, we are enlightened to life.
God Creates Light for You. There is a reason that our Father does everything He does in Genesis 1. He creates light, separates the waters, forms the animals, puts the sun and moon and stars in their place—all for you. The culmination of creation is on the sixth day, when the Lord says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” (1:26). Everything that our Lord had done up to that point was in preparation for this day. He was like a rich groom getting everything ready for His bride. He builds the mansion of the universe for her, decorates it with the beautiful things of creation, hangs the sun and moon from the ceiling to give it splendor, then finally He brings His bride to the home He has constructed for her. We are that bride. All creation exists not for God but for you. He didn’t need it. God created you to have someone upon whom to bestow His blessings, a bride upon whom to lavish gifts. And there is a reason that our Father speaks light and life into our dead and darkened hearts: because He loves us. He lavishes upon us the gifts of hope and absolution and rest because we mean more to Him than anything else. Christ remakes us into His image, into His likeness. And He presents to us all His saving work. He gives us the cross, He gives us the resurrection, He gives us Himself. He makes us bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh. And He does so because He is love, and that loves spills over from Him into our world, onto us.
“Let There Be Gospel”
The deep, abiding truth in God’s first words are that He is a God who gives. He gives through His word. He gives in His Son. And He gives it all to us. “Let there light” means “Let there be saving light in my Son for a world darkened by sin.” It means, “Let the light of Christ shine in their hearts so they might see my glory in the face of my Son.”
In the third verse of the Bible, as those words echo down the hallways of Scripture, “Let there be light” resounds as “Let there be Gospel.”
Sometime it’s helpful to point out the obvious. You see, sometimes the obvious is so obvious, sometimes it stares us smack in the face for so long, that we forget it’s even there. It’s like that coffee table we’ve bruised our shins against a thousand times. It’s right in the middle of the family room, but we obviously don’t pay enough attention to it. So let me remind you of an obvious fact: most people who believe something about God don’t get their beliefs—certainly not all their beliefs—from the Bible. They operate with what we might call a comparative theology. Who God is, what God is like, and how God interacts with us humans is based upon a comparison with who we are, what we are like, and how we interact with one another. The Bible people read is the chronicle of human experience, the Gospel according to Me. And by virtue of comparison, folks come up with their ideas about divinity. On the one hand, this kind of comparative theology makes perfect sense. And, on the other hand, this kind of theology makes for a perfectly disastrous way of thinking.
Let’s focus in on just one very common belief that, in human-to-human relations, is well and good, but in God-to-human relations, leads to all sorts of problems. Anyone who’s ever been in any kind of relationship, especially marriage, knows that it can’t be one-sided. Like an old country song puts it,
I’d start walking your way, you’d start walking mine. We’d meet in the middle ‘neath that old Georgia pine. We gained a lot of ground cause we both give a little. Ain’t no road too long when we meet in the middle.
In marriage, as in any human relationship, both parties have to be willing to “meet in the middle.” Not just when it comes to compromise, but also to sharing duties, loving, caring for one another, doing those things that get the relationship going and keep it going. If only one person does all the giving, and the other person does all the receiving, the relationship is doomed.
A comparative theology would say that since that’s how human-to-human relationships work, then that's probably how God-to-human relationships work, too. God starts walking our way, and we start walking His. God gives his 50% and we give our 50%; or even God gives his 95% and we give our 5%. Whatever numbers you want to plug in, ours must be greater than zero. We’re in a partnership with God, after all. We both do our part. We’ve got to meet the Lord halfway. If only he does all the giving, and we do all the receiving, the relationship is doomed to fail.
Not only does this make perfect sense; it is also perfectly wrong. And, I hasten to add, the opposite is not only true, but one of the most beautiful, comforting, soul-refreshing truths you will ever hear.
God started walking our way, not when we were walking toward him, but when we, like lost sheep, had gone astray (Isaiah 53:6). God started to make us his friends, not when we were warming up to him, but when we were by nature children of wrath, enemies of heaven (Ephesians 2:3). God made us alive, not when we were barely breathing or sick or weak, but when we were stone, cold dead (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:1, 5). To blend together all these Scriptural images, we were dead, wandering, foes of God when He pursued us, called us, wooed us, and made us his beloved children. I am a Christian today, and everyone else who is a Christian, is so not because we were born in the right family, or acted the right way, or made the correct decisions, but because God the Father made us Christians in his Son, Jesus Christ. He did all the doing, and we did all the receiving. He gave 100% and we received 100% of him.
But there’s more; it doesn’t stop there. It gets even more beautiful. Not only did God alone initiate our relationship with him; he alone keeps us in that relationship with him. I know, this is not how human relationships work. But God does things his own way, and his way is the way of grace. He doesn’t say, “Okay, I’ve made you my child. Now, you need to work for me, doing this or that task, for by so doing you will remain my child.” He doesn’t say, “I’ll do my part from now on, but you need to do yours as well.” What he does say is this: “You are completely mine. I have made you my child in Jesus Christ. I have washed away all your sins in Baptism. I will feed you the body and blood of Jesus. I will be with you every day, every hour, upholding you with my own strength and grace and love. You will never be alone. I will live my life through you. I will be a father in and through you to your children. I will be a husband in and through you for your wife. I will be a plumber, firefighter, pastor, doctor, truck driver, in and through you for those whom you serve in your vocation. You will be giving, to be sure, but what you give is nothing more than what you receive from me. I don’t need you; your wife does, your children do, your coworkers do, your enemies do. I will give my love to them through you. I will give my obedience to them through you. You have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer you who live, but my Son who lives in you.”
This is one of the most beautiful, comforting, soul-refreshing truths you will ever believe, that God does it all for you, from beginning to end. He gives, you receive. And whatever you give, is actually him giving through you, working in you, for others. All he asks from you to make this relationship work, all he demands from you to keep this relationship going, is nothing. Not 50%, not 5%, not .000000005%. As the title of one of Tullian Tchividjian’s books puts it, Jesus + Nothing = Everything.
This is why the Bible calls this message the Good News. And it’s the best news anyone has ever heard, for it declares that God in Christ has done it all, continues to do it all, and will forever do it all for you.
One of the hardest things for us to do is to keep things simple. For humans, easy comes hard. Take relationships. Some people complicate every relationship they’re in, as if drama is their drug. An easy, uncomplicated bond with a beloved bores them, so they stir up mistrust or jealousy where it need not exist, as if they need a mess to control or manipulate in order to be happy. Or take jobs. People with very easy, straightforward jobs often complain about how challenging their duties are, or make their responsibilities more difficult than they need to be, because the harder they perceive their work to be, the more important they feel about themselves. Instead of accepting simplicity and ease as gifts, we complicate matters, make them harder than they need to be, for it makes us feel more in control.
A while back a friend of mine told me that Christianity seems “too easy.” And I couldn’t agree more. It does seem too simple, too easy. In fact, it has seemed that way from the beginning, so from the beginning believers have found ways to make it harder.
It cannot be that God looked down upon an evil, ugly, hate-filled world, reeking with iniquity, rotten to the core, and loved every single person on it. Love doesn’t work that way. Love sees someone worthy of love, and then loves. Evidently, there were at least some specimens of humanity worth divine love, and for their sake His love fanned out to the entire world. But, no, it really is that simple: God loved a world at enmity with Him.
It cannot be that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to atone for the sins of the world which He loved. That would mean this Jewish man died even for Adolf Hitler. That would mean He was conceived for abortionists. The would mean He lived for murderers. That cannot be; it’s not that simple. Everyone cannot mean everyone. It must mean He died for the elect, or people with at least a spark of goodness in them. But, no, it really is that simple: God died for every human who’s ever existed.
It cannot be that God does all the work to bring people into His family, that He makes the unwilling willing, replaces unbelief with faith. The Lord does His part, and people must do theirs. They must make a conscious decision to become a Christian. They must exercise their will to choose Him. God may begin the process of conversion, but a sinner needs to complete it. Otherwise, becoming a Christian is too easy, as if God does all the work. But, no, it really is that simple: everyone who is a believer, is a believer solely because the Holy Spirit called, gathered, and enlightened that person, for no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.
It cannot be that God does all the work to keep a person in the faith, to keep them faithful in their Christian walk, and to fulfill their life of sanctification. The Lord may do all the work of saving us, but surely it’s up to us to see it through. We begin with grace, to be sure, but there are now commandments to fulfill, vocations to pursue, temptations to avoid, good works in which to engage. It’s too easy if we give God all the credit, even for our good works, as if we have died and it’s no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, loves in us, labors in us. But, no, it really is that simple: all our good works are the works of Christ in us, as He lives out His life in our lives, even as our lives are full of life because of Him.
Have we made Christianity too easy? No, God has made Christianity “too easy” because He has made it pure gift. That gift is Jesus Christ, God’s gift of God Himself for the life of the world. He loved us when we were seemingly unlovable. He saved us when we were unworthy of being saved. He made us believers when we were captive to unbelief. He keeps us believers though we still struggle with a sinful nature. He does our good works in us, for “it is God who is at work in [us], both to will and to work for His good pleasure,” (Philippians 2:13), for "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me," (Galatians 2:20).
Yes, for us, easy comes hard. Simple seems too simple. Such good seems too good to be true. But that’s the beauty of the work of God in Jesus Christ. It’s easy. It’s simple. It’s true. And it is all for you.
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30