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The Gospel for Sinners

I’m a big fan of the gospel-centered movement sweeping America. We’re reclaiming the gospel from the hands of legalism. We’re denouncing the lie that obedience can earn you God’s favor. But we must not accidentally make obedience the unofficial enemy of the gospel. I don’t want us to find ourselves explaining away verses that tell us to flee unrighteousness on pain of death. I don’t want to wave around the gospel like it’s a trump card, offering a free pass from any eternal consequences of sin. The Bible speaks about our salvation as if it’s inextricably linked with our obedience.

I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:21)

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)

Jesus talks about obedience as a condition of salvation, but don’t panic. Christianity is a worldview with tons of conditions, and God meets both sides of the conditions. I’m not talking about a works-based view of the gospel. I’m talking about a gospel-based view of works.

The Seriousness of Sin
Don’t think me a legalist. I have nothing to gain by elevating obedience. Honestly, I have a lot to lose. I’m probably the most disobedient, hypocritical Christian I know. I hang out in the pig pen most of the day. Jesus comes and picks me up, and as soon as I’m clean, I return to the pen.

But I believe the Word of God, even the parts that are inconvenient and don’t fit with my worldview, even the parts that seemingly condemn me. In the Bible it’s clear that sin is a big deal to God. As we disciple one another, we must create a culture where sin is a big deal.

How does the seriousness of sin emphasize (rather than diminish) the grace of the gospel?

The Destructiveness of Sin
In the last year, the part of Texas where I live has been ravaged by fires. As a result, our firefighters go nuts if there’s even a hint of flames. A fire the size of my hand will be surrounded by 18 fire trucks dousing it with water. People in Texas right now understand that fire kills – whether it’s 3 feet or 3 miles wide.

If you want to create a gospel-centered culture of fighting sin through discipleship, then you have to accept that the potential destructiveness of sin is not determined by its size. Often we think the fight with sin is a fight to keep it under control. We think that as long as we keep our lustful thoughts to ourselves and don’t let them burst out into adultery, we’re doing okay, but according to Jesus, lust in our minds is just as deadly as outward adultery. Both can kill just as easily.

We can’t fight the sin inside our hearts, and we certainly can’t help the person we’re discipling if we don’t acknowledge that Jesus isn’t kidding when he says that thoughts are as deadly as actions. The secret and acceptable sins are terrifyingly deadly. Like a gas leak, they can be killing us slowly and silently while we carry on with our days.

What would change if we believed that all sin was equally deadly? What would be different in our lives if we viewed a lustful thought in the same way as adultery? How would this impact our discipleship conversations?

The Success of Repentance
There are days when I wake up and stretch and, for 15 glorious seconds, I forget about all the sin in my past. For 15 wonderful seconds, I forget that every inch of my being is covered with burns. Then I’ll feel the twinge of an old injury, or the sting of a fresh scar, and I’ll remember who I am. I am the worst of sinners.

In my moments of insecurity, that realization makes me afraid. But when I’m truly gospel-centered, it fills me with worship. God defines success and failure a little differently than we do.

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32)

Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. Then Peter walked out the door and denied him. What happened? Did Jesus’ prayer not work?

Both Judas and Peter turned their backs on Jesus at critical moments, but only one of them truly failed. Jesus prayed for Peter’s faith not to falter, and no matter what it looks like to us – Peter’s faith won the day. Repentance is the fruit of Jesus’s prayer for Peter. Repentance is success.

The failure we should fear most is not the failure of external sin, but the failure of an unrepentant heart. The thing we should fear most is not our sin, but our inability to repent for our sin. Our merciful God is willing to do what it takes to lead us to repentance so that our faith will not fail.

The Gospel for Sinners
When I first started working for a church, I believed that I had finally ‘arrived.’ I never would have said it, but a part of me thought I was finally a ‘good Christian,’ and now I could lead all those other folks who were still struggling. In His great grace, God ordained that my first months in ministry be dedicated to showing me how tremendously sinful I am. I ran smack into sin that shocked me to my core, but God saved me through that sin.

I remember nights of literally lying on the floor face down. I had no strength to stand. There was nothing left in me to give me any hope. I had trashed my righteous resume. In those moments, the gospel came alive. I realized just how desperately I needed Christ’s resume. I needed the good news of the gospel.  Not the kind of good news that makes us smile. The kind of good news that enables us to breathe and sob and dance and dream and live. The kind of good news that leads us to true repentance.

God saved me through my sin. In John Owen’s book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation he says this: “Here is one, if he could be rid of this lust I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this, or he is lost.”

God ordains that we walk through sin in our lives because He’s not willing to let our faith fail. He lets our sin lead us to true success: repentance.

Why is it hard for us to believe that sin might be a means of perseverance? If you believed that success was repentance, what would change in the way you worked through sin with yourself and those you disciple?

Disciples Need a Savior
Our sin goes deeper than we can imagine. Maturity in a believer isn’t having less sin; it’s seeing our sin more clearly. The more we mature in Christ, the more we can see our sin, and the more we can understand our need for a Savior. The gospel was made for sinners. The blood of Christ is made to heal the scars of our failures – not just past injuries but also the present.

The people who love the blood of Jesus are those disciples who know how desperately they need it. Jesus is our only hope. When we judge the sins of others, it’s because we don’t have eyes to recognize the target demographic for the gospel. Jesus came for the sick.

We cover our self-righteousness with proclamations of gratitude. We praise God that He hasn’t made us screw-ups all the while missing the glaringly obvious fact that we are worse than screw-ups.

Jesus told this story: two men went to church. One thanked God that he wasn’t an adulterer or a thief like those ‘big’ sinners. The other couldn’t even lift up his head to heaven. He just said to God, ‘be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Only one of the two was justified by the blood of Jesus.

May God in His great grace reveal our own sin to us that we may better see the power of the gospel.

Fabienne Harford lives in Austin, Texas, where she serves on staff at The Austin Stone Community Church. You can find more thoughts from Fabs at fabsharford.com