As I talked with Eric, it slowly became clear that his understanding of grace was incomplete. Even though he had attended church for years, he continued to insist that he deserved to be punished by God for his sin. Grace seemed like a good idea to him, but it remained just that: an idea.
When I’m in similar counseling situations, it’s tempting to jump right into clarifying the beauty and glory of the grace made available through the gospel. But with Eric, I had the sense that I needed to wait a few minutes and continue to listen. He talked about his feelings of guilt and shame over drug use and pornography. The guilt of his sins were heavy and real – so real, that it took many counseling sessions for him to dig through his personal history and finally come to terms with his failures and brokenness.
Eric knew he was a sinner. He also knew that he loved his sin, even though he wished he didn’t. He had to be willing to cut off friendships, change his phone number, install accountability software (which he paid for himself), and meet with me regularly. It also meant he would confess these things to a few key people in his life, and it wouldn’t be easy.
Calling him to respond to the gospel was a costly invitation. It always is.
When we proclaim the freedom of the gospel without calling people to repentance, we simply are not presenting the gospel. Without confession of sin and repentance, there can be no newness of life because the person has not honestly considered the seriousness of their debt that has been paid for.
In contrast, consider Jesus’ encounter with a wannabe-disciple in Luke 9:57-62 (a man who sought discipleship on his own terms):
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’”
He approaches Jesus as if he has an offer too good for Jesus to refuse. Like any good youth worker, Jesus shakes his head and replies, “Seriously?!” This man is essentially asking to be Jesus’ disciple and right hand man. He’s willing to follow Jesus, but he wants to do it on his own terms (“let me go bury my father first,” with no indication that his father was nearing death).
Sometimes students, like the would-be-disciple in Luke, need us to clearly show them they don’t understand the cost of following Christ. Students who don’t understand their sinfulness are students who will never repent (because why should they?). In these situations, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction and repentance.
Other times we will sit with someone like Eric and listen. After allowing him or her to marinate in the depths of their guilt, we invite them to receive the even wider depths of God’s grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. Students who struggle with the very real implications of repentance and the iron-clad promise of God’s unconditional love will understand that the grace of God is more than just a good idea.
The first chapter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship has impacted me more than almost anything outside of the Bible. Bonhoeffer describes costly grace by writing,
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
In our desire to see students come to Christ, we can be tempted to minimize the cost of the gospel. Yes, the gospel is a message of grace; but saving faith includes repentance. While confession is easy (confession is simply admission of sin), repentance is another story. Repentance requires change. The biblical words translated as “repentance” both have to do with “a change of mind” or “to turn around.” They involve action, not just admission. This is why the Holy Spirit (and not us) is the true author of repentance; it is inspired by conviction of sin and fueled by the power of God for salvation.
Many of our students may have experienced whispers of conviction (because they know they aren’t perfect), but without repentance there is no salvation. In every Protestant understanding of the “Order of Salvation” (Ordo Salutis), Repentance always comes before Justification. Yet there have been too many times when I’ve heard speakers (usually at Christian camps and retreats) proclaim an invitation to receive the promise of the gospel without clearly calling students to repentance.
Friends, we must not do that! Such invitations only breed false hope and false converts. No wonder so many fall away from faith later in life: they were never converted in the first place.
If there is no change after our students “receive the gospel,” then there was no conversion in the first place. As Martin Luther proclaimed, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Justification begets sanctification. It must be clear that the gospel is a call to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:1-14, 2 Corinthians 5:17). Because we have been forgiven, we are told to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). To share in Christ’s death requires a God-inspired death to our old self (confession and repentance) in order to share in newness of life (Justification, Adoption, and Sanctification).
Eric was finally able to see the beauty of his Savior because he knew the depths of his need and how little he had to offer to God. He grappled with the weight of his sins, and the price that was paid to on his behalf. This knowledge brought him to his knees in authentic repentance. In the end, the gospel of costly grace meant Eric was right: his sin deserved punishment, and it was paid in full on the cross.
This is the first article in our series, “Building a Kingdom Culture in Our Youth Ministries.” In this series, we will address passages from the Gospel of Luke, which demonstrates that the culture of God’s Kingdom is that of grace and mercy for the poor, the weak, and the failing. It’s a culture built on grace meeting humility and vulnerability.