I am writing on the day following the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., because I have a humbling confession to make.
For all of my passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been accurate and faithful to the best of my ability, the gospel that I have held so dear has been, in reality, a truncated and incomplete gospel.
If you know me, you know that I have invested my life and ministry in teaching, preaching, and writing about the gospel. I have taught that the gospel not only addresses our past forgiveness and our future hope, but also everything we face today. I have talked and written again and again about the “nowism” of the gospel—that is, the right-here, right-now benefits of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
I have endeavored to hold the gospel as the lens through which we see and understand everything we are dealing with between the “already” of our conversion and the “not yet” of our homegoing. And I have worked to help people see how the gospel sets the everyday agenda for how they see themselves, how they view and relate to others, how they make decisions, and how they live in the place where God has put them.
But as I have taken time to examine the cross of Jesus Christ once again, I have been confronted with a significant area of personal blindness. I am grieved that it took me so long to see this, while being filled with joy that my patient and faithful Savior did not give up on me, but kept working to open my eyes, soften my heart, and give balance to my gospel voice.
You may be thinking right now, “Paul, I understand your words so far, but I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about!”
Let me explain, by giving you the last chapter first and then unpacking what it means.
Gospel of Justice
By God’s grace, I have become deeply persuaded that we cannot celebrate the gospel of God’s grace without being a committed ambassador of the gospel of his justice as well.
From the moment of his first breath, Jesus marched toward the cross, because God is unwilling to compromise his justice in order to deliver his forgiveness. On the cross of forgiveness, even speaking words of forgiveness as he hung in torture, God would not close his eyes to humanity’s incalculable violations of his just requirements in order to extend to us his forgiving and accepting grace.
Jesus never said to the Father, “You know I have lived with these people—they mean well, but they just don’t understand who you are, who they are, and what life is all about. Why don’t we just close our eyes to all of their rebellion, selfishness, pride, idolatry, and inhumanity, act like everything is okay, and welcome them into our family?”
Of course, God would have never have participated in such a negotiation, because he is a perfectly holy God! And if he had, there would have been no need for the penalty-bearing, forgiveness-granting, and acceptance-resulting sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
Think with me for a moment. Grace is never permissive. Grace never calls wrong right. If wrong were not wrong, there would be no need for grace. Forgiveness always assumes some offense against moral law.
You don’t need to forgive a child for being immature, because immaturity is a normal part of development and not a sin. You don’t have to forgive an elderly person for forgetting, because forgetfulness is a condition of old age and not a sin. You don’t need to seek forgiveness for being for being weak, because weakness is not a sin but an indication of your humanity.
But when someone comes to you to confess wrong against you, you should not say, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” Sin is never okay. The person needs to hear you say, “I forgive you,” because communicating forgiveness doesn’t compromise God’s just standard and will help to bring relief to their troubled conscience.
If there is no breaking of God’s just requirements, there is no need for forgiveness. It is vital to recognize and remember that the cross not only extends God’s forgiveness, but it also upholds his justice. On the cross of Jesus Christ, grace and justice kiss. That means we cannot celebrate and proclaim the message of God’s grace while we do what God would never do—close our eyes to the injustice around us. We cannot be comfortable with exegeting his mercy for all people without being an advocate for his justice for all people.
Balancing the Gospel
By God’s patient grace, I am now convinced that I cannot be a voice for one without being a voice for the other. Sadly, I have preached grace and been silent in the face of injustice. The cross forbids me to close my eyes to any form of injustice, whether personal, corporate, governmental, ecclesiastical, or systemic.
There should be no community that is a more present, active, and vocal advocate for justice than the community that preaches the gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ. But how can we advocate for those with whom we have no functional relationship? How can we stand together when we have let skin color, subculture, or leadership and worship styles separate us? How can we stand for justice when we have let prejudice separate us? How can we understand the travail of others who we are never with, never see, and never hear? How can we stand for justice when, because of prejudice, there are those we will minister to, but whose leadership we wouldn’t serve under, for no other apparent reason than race? How can we advocate for the family when we are a broken and divided spiritual family?
You see, forgiveness is costly, but so is justice. It’s right to say God’s forgiveness drove Jesus to the cross, but we must also say God’s justice drove him there as well. It’s vital that this costly pair be held together and never be allowed to be separate in our hearts or in our daily living. Forgiveness without God’s holy justice makes no sense, and is therefore, cheap, unbiblical forgiveness. And justice that is not dyed with forgiveness will soon degenerate into crushing legalism, functional hatred, and various forms of vengeance.
Let me give you a little context about how God has opened my eyes and convicted my heart. About five years ago, Luella and I began attending Epiphany Fellowship Church in Philadelphia. Epiphany is a multi-cultural, but largely African-American, congregation. We have been blessed to sit under the ministry of Dr. Eric Mason and the young black men he has discipled. Every Sunday, we get the gospel of Jesus Christ up one side and down the other.
But there is something else for which we are grateful. As we have gotten to know and love our black brothers and sisters, we have had our eyes opened and our hearts broken by the things they regularly have to deal with that we will never have to deal with just because of the color of our skin. I have had a dear young brother confess that he was afraid of me because he had grown up afraid of all older white men. I have heard numerous stories of bias in education and the workplace, along with heart-rending stories of excessive, abusive, and demeaning encounters with the police.
I hold no office at Epiphany, nor do I exercise any authority. We are there to soak in the gospel and to serve however we can, but we are so thankful that God, in patient grace, led us to Epiphany to open our eyes, to convict and enrich our hearts, and to motivate us to live out the gospel in ways that we had not given ourselves to before.
In the last week I have been motivated to write this confession because I am sure that I am not alone. It’s not just that our neighborhoods and schools are racially segregated; our churches are as well. It’s not just that we have failed to speak and to act, but we have failed to speak and act because we have failed to love one another with the same kind of sacrificial love that God has showered down on us. We have been silent as others have been treated in ways we would not want to be treated and have endured what we would never want to endure. We have been comfortable with talking about Christ’s sacrifice for us while being unwilling to make crucial sacrifices for those different from us.
There will be a day when God’s perfect justice will finally roll down, and every form of injustice will be piled on the ash heap of his mercy. But that day is not yet here. So, until that day, we have been chosen to be his ambassadors, not only of his forgiveness, but equally of the justice that he was unwilling to compromise in order to deliver his grace to us.
Here is God’s plan for his ambassador children: Between the “already” and the “not yet” God makes his invisible justice visible by sending people of justice to advocate for justice to people who need justice, just as he makes his invisible grace visible, by sending people of grace to give grace to people who need grace.
I am grieved that I have been a vocal and active ambassador of one but not the other. Yet I am thankful for the insight-giving and convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit, and grateful for God’s forgiving grace as I have begun to make life choices to position myself to do better.
What about you? How balanced has your gospel been? Have you been an advocate for grace, but silent in the face of injustice? Have you been comfortable with the segregation of the Christian community or with subtle personal prejudice? Where is God calling you to confession, repentance, and brand new ways of living?
It is so wonderful and freeing to know that we don’t have to hang our heads in shame or be paralyzed by regret, because Jesus bore our shame and carried our penalty. And the one who forgives us is right now with us to empower us to live in a new way. He is not so uncaring and unkind as to ever call us to a task without going with us and supplying to us every thing we need.
My prayer is that God would grant us the desire and the ability to speak and act as faithfully for this holy justice as we have for his forgiving grace, until that day when the final enemy is under the foot of our Savior, and our advocacy and action is no longer needed.