I turned around, “Um, yes,” I replied a little shaky.
“Well, could I get a ride from you? You see I was working on the pipelines in the construction area back there (pointing back behind our church) and all the other guys left for lunch. I was just finishing up some things and my cell phone died. I really need to get back into town because my girlfriend has to get to work and I told her I would be back to watch her son before then, and she doesn’t have a phone and…” His story went on for a few more sentences.
Classic story I thought to myself. In the next 10 seconds I began picking through his words in my mind to see if the details measured up. I believed that he probably was working on the construction behind our church because a bunch of workers have been out there for the past year working on stuff. He had on dirty work boots and construction looking clothes. However, I was little confused about why all the other workers would have left him there, and I was also confused as to why he didn’t just walk into our church into the office and call someone for a ride. Hmmmm….while I worked through these details the guy got up from the ground and stood there waiting for an answer. So, I said a quick prayer to God that went a little something like this Dear God, I am thinking about giving this guy a ride. If I should not do this, please stop me right now. Otherwise, please protect my life as I help him out. Please don’t let me wind up dead in a forest somewhere. Amen. A laughable prayer, but I was
So, I said I would give him a ride and off we went. We headed into Ames and I realized that this guy had a lot to say! He started asking me a few questions about our church. Then, this led him to say, “Yeah, I really need to get back to church. My life’s kinda messed up.” From that point on, for whatever reason, this guy went on to tell me his entire life story in the matter of about 10 minutes. I listened as he spoke about his past mistakes, and how his life was currently in shambles because of his poor decisions. As he spoke, I could see guilt spread across his face as he shared certain details with me and continued to say, “I hope you don’t think I am a bad person. I know I need to get my life in order. I need to get back to church.”
I started feeling awful for this guy and the burdens of guilt that he was carrying around. Eventually it was my turn to talk. He had mentioned multiple times this idea of ‘getting back to church’, so that’s where I started. And the first thing I said was “It’s not your church attendance that God wants. He wants your heart…”
In talking with my new friend, I had realized quickly what his impression of ‘the church’ from the outside looking in was. It seemed as though he thought that if he could add in a little ‘religious’ stuff to his life then his ‘bad’ could be outweighed by the good of doing ‘religious’ things – like going to church. I *totally* could relate to his way of thinking, because I used to believe this exact thing.
However, in the Bible, God makes it clear that this is NOT the way we can get right with Him. In Matthew 15: 7- 9 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for this.
"You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men.’"
Basically Jesus called them actors. They appeared to honor God because they looked ‘religious’ on the outside with all their traditions and rituals and church-going and worship. But they were so concerned with their outward appearance of looking religious that they neglected the one thing that God really wanted – their hearts.
This is where we need to understand the difference between ‘religion’ and the gospel. ‘Religion’ is about behavior modification. It’s about observing certain behavior policies, and refraining from others. It’s about cleaning up your act, and obeying rules, and following standards and displaying good behavior. The truth of the Bible - the gospel – makes it clear that God does NOT operate on this sort of points system that ‘religious’ acts promote. He doesn’t chalk up a point for us when we do something good, and then erase it when we do something bad. In other words, we don’t have a certain amount of points that we must score with Him in order to be on his ‘good side’. Interestingly, Jesus spoke about this exact thing over and over in the Bible during His ministry on earth. There is a perfect section of scripture that displays this in Luke 18:9-14~
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Pharisee had it all wrong. Getting right with God (termed justification in the Bible) isn’t about banking on the things we can do and our own ideas of how to get right standing with Him - like adding in some religious things or right living. That sort of heart attitude is prideful, and only trusts in SELF – an idea Jesus abolishes. In Isaiah 64:6 the Bible says all our righteous acts are like FILTHY RAGS.
The tax collector had it all right. His prayer showed the overflow of his heart. He stood there, praying to God, so ashamed of his sin that he couldn’t even look up to heaven. He was overwhelmed by his recognition that he was a sinner. He confessed that he desperately needed God’s help. He cried out for mercy. The Bible terms this heart attitude repentance.
And mercy is what Jesus came to give.
A repentant heart is ready to receive the awful-beautiful act of the cross. As the nails were pounded into the cross, so was our sin. As His blood poured out, so did His mercy. As His breath ended, He took the punishment we deserved for our sin. MERCY. FORGIVENESS. ATONEMENT. JUSTIFICATION. RIGHTEOUSNESS. GRACE. FREEDOM FROM THE SLAVERY OF SIN. ETERNAL LIFE. That is what He gave us. All of our supposed ‘religious acts’ that we try to chalk up in order to be on His good side are a bunch of junk in comparison. The gospel isn’t about us – what we have or haven’t done. It’s about what Jesus has done for us. One man. Son of God. Jesus Christ. Mighty Deliverer. Prince of Peace. Savior. He came to die. So we could be in right standing with God.
Ephesians 2:8-10 ~ God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.
John 14:6 ~ Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Until we realize that we are dependent people, who have NOTHING to give to God other than repentant hearts who are sickened over our sin and pasts, and ready for our Savior to rescue us, then we’ve missed it. We’ve missed the gospel and we’ve missed salvation. We’ve missed the point of Christmas and Easter and the whole entire point of our life. We can add in a bunch of ‘good’ acts to our life, but we’ll still miss it. We will continue to be God’s enemies, until we have hearts that trust in Jesus.
Jesus came first not to make bad people good, but to make dead people alive. ~Tullian Tchividjian~