Has this ever happened to you? You need something. You go shopping. But once you enter the store, you realize you can’t afford anything they sell.
I can remember a few years ago I needed a pair of dress shoes. So I found myself entering a shoe store at the local outlet mall. At the door, I was greeted by a pair of grandmotherly-types who welcomed me to the otherwise-empty store, and handed me a piece of butterscotch candy to enjoy while I perused their wares. But as I did so, I discovered two things: (1) I thought all their shoes were weird (tassels? People like tassels?) and (2) the cheapest pair they sold started at around $75 or so—though most were significantly more. So there I was. No intention—or financial means—to make a purchase, trying to avoid eye contact with the pair of salesladies, grinning ear to ear as they watched their sole customer enjoy their butterscotch candy, seemingly unaware that he was fake shopping so as not to appear ungrateful.
It was awkward.
And the truth is, I can’t help but wonder if that’s how a lot of people feel about church. I mean, there’s no shortage of churches handing out butterscotch candy, is there? I’ve lived in Dallas—the nightmarish capital of the evangelical world—so I’ve seen some of the absurdity that abounds. Gyms. Ferris wheels. Some churches have even given away things ranging from gasoline to electronics. At tax season, some churches even offer shredding services, sure to cater to those ranging from savvy professionals to corrupt bureaucrats.
Here’s the problem: you enjoy those services for so long, until you start to realize what the cost really is. Soon you begin to hear about what God expects from you, and if the gospel is absent what you’re left with is a pile of moralistic demands. If you’re good, you hear, God will love you.
If I’m good? Well, in today’s evangelical culture that means not just abstaining from the big sins like pornography and Disney movies, but also paying the cost that comes from Christian culture. Christian radio, Christian films, Christian music, Christian coffeehouses, Christian schools, Christian gyms (yes; those exist)—and once you join a small group (usually with a name like JUICE or VOLT or TRANCE or something) you’d better get working on your Christian lingo, ranging from “quiet time” to “guarding your heart,” after which you pray for something called “traveling mercies” even though you live two blocks away.
And I think that a lot of people come, enjoy the butterscotch, but they end up fake-shopping because they don’t want to shatter the smiles of the people that brought them in the door. But deep down, it’s hard to really “buy in” to the culture of the church when you feel like there’s nothing in your pocket that allows you to afford it.
Enter the gospel.
SAVED BY GRACE
Remember that Isaiah is talking about what life would look like if God reigned completely—on earth as it is in heaven, so to speak. And, as we already noted, this is what life will look like in the new heavens and the new earth.
I love this passage, because what better way to illustrate the free gift of God’s grace:
“Hey, all who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come! Buy and eat! Come! Buy wine and milk without money and without cost! 2 Why pay money for something that will not nourish you? Why spend your hard-earned money on something that will not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is nourishing! Enjoy fine food! 3 Pay attention and come to me! Listen, so you can live! Then I will make an unconditional covenantal promise to you, just like the reliable covenantal promises I made to David. 4 Look, I made him a witness to nations, a ruler and commander of nations.” 5 Look, you will summon nations you did not previously know; nations that did not previously know you will run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he bestows honor on you. (Isaiah 55:1-5)
Grace. It’s an incredible gift. Isaiah didn’t even have the full picture in his day. When we pause to consider the way Christ’s blood paid the debt of sin, we easily see how the gospel leads to great joy. I experience God’s blessing not because I could “afford” it, but because it was secured for me through the blood of Jesus.
TRANSFORMED BY GRACE
But, you might object, surely God doesn’t just want us to remain as we are. Surely he wants us to worship him with pure hearts and not stained garments. And you’re right. The problem is, we often think that means working really hard.
Martin Luther, the great sixteenth-century reformer, once compared the Christian life to building a house. We allow Jesus to lay the foundation; then we wait for Moses to come finish the job. In other words, people see Jesus as the ticket “in.” Once we’re “saved,” we rely on God’s Laws to make us better. But if we are saved by grace alone, how can we be transformed except through grace?
6 Seek the LORD while he makes himself available; call to him while he is nearby! 7 The wicked need to abandon their lifestyle and sinful people their plans. They should return to the LORD, and he will show mercy to them, and to their God, for he will freely forgive them. 8 “Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds, 9 for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans. 10 The rain and snow fall from the sky and do not return, but instead water the earth and make it produce and yield crops, and provide seed for the planter and food for those who must eat. 11 In the same way, the promise that I make does not return to me, having accomplished nothing. No, it is realized as I desire and is fulfilled as I intend.” 12 Indeed you will go out with joy; you will be led along in peace; the mountains and hills will give a joyful shout before you, and all the trees in the field will clap their hands. 13 Evergreens will grow in place of thorn bushes, firs will grow in place of nettles; they will be a monument to the LORD, a permanent reminder that will remain.
Everything here is described as a joyous song. Even the trees clap their hands. Isaiah says that the distance between us and God is the same as the distance between the earth and heaven itself. And that’s why the gospel is so beautiful. No one can reach that far. The gospel says that God comes down to us in the person of Jesus.
So what does this have to do with our sanctification—that is, with the process by which we are made into Christ’s likeness? Everything. Because it means that if I labor to obey God out of a need for his acceptance, then I either feel frustrated when I fail, or arrogantly self-righteous when I succeed. But if I trust in God’s gracious power through His Spirit, then I can experience joy as He brings me ever closer to His side, and ever shapes me into someone who resembles His character.