What I Wish I’d Said

After speaking to a group of youth ministers at the 2018 Rooted Conference about filtering our teaching through the crucial distinction between the Law and the Gospel, one of the session attendees approached me with a question. The class had stressed that both the Law and the Gospel are good, that both are God’s word, and that they do not contradict one another, but have very different roles. Where the Law shows us that we need forgiveness, the Gospel declares that we have been forgiven; where the Law demands that we love perfectly, the Gospel proclaims that we are perfectly loved; where the Law is unable to produce the beautiful life it demands, the Gospel creates as fruit what the Law wants as prerequisite.

This youth minister was clearly eager to see his kids set free by a vibrant and saving relationship with Jesus Christ. He wanted to preach the Gospel, but he had a problem. He didn’t believe that his students really felt the weight of their sins. He wanted the Law to do its work, driving them first to despair of their own works, and then to the saving work of Christ.  

Whether we serve children, or youth, or adults, we know this youth minister’s conflict. We know the longing we have to see our people live lives of holiness – both for the glory of God and for their own safety and satisfaction. We also know the apathy of half-hearted conviction, the confused shoulder shrug that is inevitably followed by “nobody’s perfect.” You can look at this kid’s life and know full well that there ought to be shame there; there ought to be despair, driving them to cry out for their glorious Savior. But it’s crickets.  

“How can I get them to feel the weight of their sin?” he asked sincerely.  

It’s a great question. I was trotting off to another session, so I rushed my answer. I think I said something safe about conviction being the Spirit’s responsibility. Which is true, but not particularly satisfying, especially since it was stated hurriedly, and not thoughtfully.

So, here’s what I wish I’d said…

A helpful way to fortify our understanding of conviction as the Spirit’s responsibility is to remember and believe that Jesus is the Light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5). Our teaching is not the Light itself; our teaching points to the Light. Christ may graciously choose to use our teaching as an instrument of His light, but our teaching is not the Light. Students will feel the weight of their sin only when the true Light shines into their darkness. The problem these youth had was far less that they didn’t understand their darkness, and far more that they didn’t understand the Light.

At night, when the light is turned off, my garage looks awesome. It’s only when the light gets turned on that you can see what a mess it is. Our hearts are the same way. When we’re in the dark, we can’t see the mess. It’s normalized and unnoticed, even when we’re tripping over it. It is only the Light of Christ that exposes, then convicts, then cleans up the mess in our hearts.

My friend, keep pointing them to the Light, and pray for the patience to let Jesus expose the mess that sits in the dark of their hearts. Use the Law in your teaching as the description of holiness, and as proof that we need a mediating Savior. And in the same breath, offer the Gospel of Grace through the saving work of Jesus. Keep giving them Jesus, keep preaching grace, keep teaching the Gospel. Don’t bring a mountain of legal conviction with a trickling stream of grace at the end. Let the weight of your teaching be not on what we are to do, but on what has been done for us. For example, before we are to be the Good Samaritan, we are to understand ourselves as the one bloodied and left for dead by our sin, saved by Jesus the true Good Samaritan, placed on the mule of his own righteousness, and carried to our healing.

We want to continuously lift up the person and character of Jesus as far superior, far more welcoming, far more loving, and far more satisfying than anything the world can offer (especially when they’ve just tested out what the world has to offer!). We examine our hearts daily that we are resting in that Grace ourselves. And when we are not, we return with glad repentance and gratitude. We pray to have a daring trust that over time, by the work of the Spirit, the Grace of God will in fact bear as fruit – in us and in our people – the beautiful life of holiness which the Law describes, but will never produce.   

Joe Gibbes is the Rector of the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Jacksonville, FL.  He and his wife Amy have been married for 20 years, but they don’t feel as old as that makes them sound.  They have 3 beautiful children who give Joe every opportunity to pray without ceasing.

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