In a very real sense, the work of Jesus is complete. When it comes to our standing as beloved, forgiven, delighted-in children of God, “It is finished,” just as Christ said. His sinless life secured for us a new and irrevocable status—holy and blameless in God’s sight. His death fulfilled the requirements of God’s justice toward our sins. Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and he died the death we should have died. Therefore, we are free. What a wonderful and humbling reality in which we now live—God does not treat us as our sins deserve, because on the cross, he has already treated Jesus as our sins deserve. This being true, there is still much work that Jesus intends to do! Acts 1:1 indicates that the work of Jesus on earth was not completed with His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and seating at the right hand of God. Luke writes, “In the first book (the Gospel of Luke), O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Began to do and teach? How could there be more for Jesus to do than he what has already done? That’s where we, as Christ’s “ambassadors,” come into the picture. We are sent into the world, filled with his Spirit and enriched by his grace and truth, to represent him. In short, the work of Jesus continues through Christians.
WHAT ARE CHURCHES SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT?
As Jesus’ ambassadors, Christians have been set apart to faithfully mirror him in our neighborhoods, our places of work and play, and our realms of influence. Therefore, our calling is to labor in every way possible to model our ministry and message after his. We are to live as those who are “full of grace and truth,” whose churches and ministries, because we are walking in the path of Jesus, will attract the types of people who were attracted to him, and, by unfortunate necessity, will draw criticism from the types of people who criticized him.
The purpose of this article, then, is to consider what constitutes a ministry that is full of both grace and truth. In other words, our task is to align our collective life and ministry to the life and ministry of Jesus.
CULTIVATing an Atmosphere that is “Full of Grace”
What does it mean to have a ministry atmosphere that is “full of grace” (John 1:14)? We will consider this question from a few different angles.
First, we must address the barriers created by Christians—barriers that have hidden the real Jesus from the world.
Gandhi was once asked why He never became a Christian. His answer was, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Gandhi had an admiration for Jesus, but could not reconcile how Christians were such poor representatives of their master. In his mind, this is what kept him from becoming a follower of Jesus.
If we are serious about being Jesus’ ambassadors, we need to listen very carefully to statements like this one. We must examine the most common barriers that stand between the real Jesus and people’s false impressions of him—impressions which, unfortunately, have been projected to a watching world by many sincere yet misguided Christians. These barriers include:
Condemnation. Philip Yancey often asks people he meets what they think of Christians. The answer he hears, with very little exception, is that Christians are judgmental, intolerant, and holier-than-thou. When the September 11 terrorist attacks took place on the World Trade Center, one very well-known Christian leader confirmed this stance by saying on national television, “If you are a homosexual, a member of the ACLU, in favor of abortion, or part of the People of the American Way, then I point my finger in your face and say you did this. You made this happen.” A Christian friend of mine who is an actor once invited a gay friend over to have dinner with him and his wife. Their guest soon realized (from the Bible on the coffee table) that they were Christians. He then said to my friend, “You are a Christian, and you actually like me?” This is tragic, yet all too common.
If we are serious about being Christ’s ambassadors, we must humbly own the fact that many people believe that Christians dislike them. Whether this is actually true or not, it is our starting point in the minds of most non-Christian people. If we are not guilty ourselves, then we are at the very least guilty by association with believers who have misrepresented the biblical Jesus to our culture. So we must take personal responsibility, as far as it depends on us, to reorient people’s perception of Christians, and especially of Christ himself.
Separation. In a day when many Christians want to separate themselves and their children from people and things that are considered secular, Christ’s ambassadors must resist this “us against them” mindset. We must do everything in our power to become friends with as many non-Christians as we can—no conditions attached. This must be a central value of our Christian communities. It is helpful to look at the life of Jesus in this regard. Luke 15:1-2 says plainly that all of the “sinners” made a habit of hanging around Jesus. They wanted to be near him, and they wanted to hear what he had to say. Meanwhile, religious folk were accusing Jesus of being a glutton, a drunk, and a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). We know that these accusations were false—Jesus was tempted in every way. However, he was unapologetically a true friend to the lost, to all who were alien to the religious communities of his day. He seemed to welcome parting ways with religious folks if that was necessary to get close to sinners. The one who “welcomed sinners and ate with them” now insists that his followers assume the same posture. “God’s grace is for real sinners” must be more than a statement on our church websites. It must characterize the life and practice of our ministries.
Reputation. There is a price to pay if we get serious about cultivating atmospheres that are full of grace. In becoming a friend of sinners, as Jesus did, we should expect some resistance. When we pursue friendship with those who are outside the faith, some fellow believers will be suspicious of us. Consider Luke 7, for example, when a “sinful woman” enters the home of Simon the Pharisee. In the name of love, and in the spirit of demonstrable grace, Jesus received her very un-orthodox display of affection toward him. He breaks with religious customs, allowing the woman to touch his feet (feet were considered unclean—one could not even ask a slave to touch them for this reason). He breaks with social customs also, receiving her as his disciple. It was scandalous in Jesus’ day for a rabbi to receive a woman as a disciple, much less a woman with a scandalous history. Most scandalous, however, is the way that Jesus breaks with moral customs. The woman lets down her hair (this was grounds for divorce in that culture—a woman could do this only in the presence of her immediate family). She touches him with the tool of her trade, a prostitute’s perfume, and kiss him with a prostitute’s lips…and he allows it! Of course we know the rest of the story—Jesus was shunned as a man of ill repute. Giving positive attention to this woman, who to them was clearly “a sinner,” was evidence enough of moral compromise.
This has serious ramifications for those who wish to follow Jesus in a modern context. We must come to terms with the fact that if Jesus were a 21st century American, he would not associate godliness with membership in a political party. He would not tell a lesbian she was outside of God’s will without also offering her a personal, no-strings-attached friendship. He would not talk about how smoking destroys God’s temple while simultaneously devouring his third piece of fried chicken at a church potluck. He would not condemn adultery as being any worse than studying the Bible for the wrong reasons. If we are accustomed to setting up our own Mishnah, our own set of “clean laws” that define one’s worthiness to be received into Jesus’ company, we need to give serious re-evaluation to our methods and priorities!
Pride. Becoming a friend of sinners begins with the understanding that we are much more like the “chief of sinners” than we are like Jesus Christ. Our approach with all people, no matter who they are or what their history, must assume the posture of “fellow beggars humbly telling others where to find the bread” (Steve Brown). If we really want people to be impacted by the Gospel and to enjoy the riches of God’s grace, they must first see in us the humility of those who have been, and continue to be, genuinely impacted by grace ourselves. Our humility must be authentic and not just an act. Paul was not above humbling himself. In Romans 7 he gives us a window into his personal struggle with the sin of coveting—a sin nobody would see unless he told them—and the ways in which the Gospel heals that sin. In 1 Timothy Paul identifies himself as the chief of all sinners. If we intend to be the aroma of Jesus in our ministries and our messages, we need to move past our love for reputation and image. Without realizing it, we can begin to build our identities on how good we look—on being “model Christians” that people are supposed to admire because of how put-together we appear to be. This is a trap and it will rob our ministries of power. If people in our midst are going to be changed by the grace of Jesus, they must regularly witness the Gospel working effectively in our lives—healing us of our sins and deepest wounds and fears.
our communities must be sinner-safe
There was a reason why all the sinners ran to Jesus on a regular basis (Luke 15:1-2). Though they knew he was against their sin—he never watered down the law’s demands—they wanted to be around him because they knew the reason why he was against their sin—because he was for their flourishing! If we want to be his ambassadors, therefore, several commitments must characterize us, our ministries, and our message.
Respecting and valuing all people. People must sense us relating to them on the basis of their God-given dignity, not on the basis of their shortcomings. If we are not careful, we can easily fall into the trap of diminishing the worth of a human being by thinking first of the ways they need to be fixed versus valuing them as bearers of the divine image, made for glory. The following quote from CS Lewis offers helpful perspective:
It is maybe possible to think too much of your own potential glory hereafter. But it is impossible to think too often or too deeply about that of your neighbors. The weight of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back. So heavy a weight it is that only humility can carry it. It’s a serious thing to live in a society of immortals. To remember that millions of years from now, the dullest and most uninteresting person you meet may one day be an incredible creature, who if you saw him now you would be strongly tempted to worship. - CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory
A biblical view of sin. Treating people with dignity does not imply a reluctance to challenge sin. If we are going to love people as Jesus does, we will be committed to their flourishing, which means we will deeply desire that they be obedient to God! So, the question is not, “Will we challenge sin?” but rather “How will we challenge sin, and with what motivation will we challenge it?” We must be on God’s agenda here. God is vehemently opposed to sin both for his own glory and very much for the person. God’s desire is that we live by his design, which is life to us.
A grace-filled posture toward sinners like ourselves. Whenever we challenge sin of any kind, our motivation must be because we care so deeply for those, like ourselves, who sin. Otherwise, we shouldn’t say anything at all about sin. You are no doubt familiar with the group from Topeka, Kansas who picketed the funeral of Mathew Sheppard, a young gay man who was beaten to death by some of his peers, with signs that read “God hates fags” and “Thank God for AIDS,” among other horrible, evil things. This example is certainly extreme. However, there are going to be seeds in our own hearts that are prone to look down on those to whom we feel superior. It is an evil thing to desire or celebrate someone’s harm instead of his or her well-being. As Jesus stood over Jerusalem, which had rejected his love, he wept for them. Do people, especially people who are “not like us,” sense this kind of love from us? Jesus did much more than merely tolerate sinful people in his midst. He cherished them and pursued their hearts that they might become free indeed. We have no option but to do the same.
we must keep first things first
Jesus, and nothing else, must be our “main thing” at all times. Our main emphasis must always be on the person and work of Christ. We must follow the example of the Apostle Paul who decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Therefore, everything else takes a back seat to Jesus. Often, we will equate “outreach” to converting others to the norms of our particular tribe (our political views, our theological tradition, our dress code, our ethics, our parenting philosophy, etc.) instead of converting them to a love and adoration of Jesus. But the norms of our tribe must always be secondary to, and in many cases discarded because of, a greater vision for people to see Jesus and know him for who he really is. Additionally, in all things we must lead with the grace of God versus with the law of God. When we require people to “get their act together” before we give them access to Jesus and his grace, we fail to follow the methods of the Lord, who welcomed and “graced” people before he called them to change (Luke 7:36-50, Luke 15:1-2, John 8:1-11, etc.). A cosmetic, outside-in, second-things-first approach to change contradicts the inside-out, first-things-first approach of the gospel.
Cultivate a Ministry of Grace
In cultivating a “full of grace” ministry atmosphere, we must carefully consider how we are presenting Christ to people who are either not Christian or somewhere along the journey of overcoming sin. That’s all of us, isn’t it?
Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls