There’s a woodworker inside us who won’t let the cross of Jesus remain the cross of Jesus. It’s raw material for a new, “improved” creation. And here are two of his favorites.
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