--- The Practical Sense ---
There is a didactic (teaching) game that I like to play now and then in Bible Class. I ask the question, "What does it mean that your sins are forgiven?". The answer is usually offered as a definition of some sort of forgiveness. I will then ask, "And what does that mean?" This usually elicits a certain amount of confusion, and the class tries to make the point clearer. Then I will ask something like, "So what? What difference does that make?"
Those of you who have sat in Bible Class through one of these exercises will probably recall both the exercise and your feelings of confusion or frustration at part of the game. Until I explain that I am asking what it means in terms of your thinking and living and such, people seem to grow more and more frustrated with answering. The point of the exercise is to force the class to think about the question in the title of this newsletter article, What Does the Gospel Mean? This month, I thought I would take a shot at the question, admitting right from the start that there is no one correct answer.
The Gospel means that my sins are forgiven. Theologically, that means that there no longer stands anything between myself and the love of God for me. It means that I am saved, that death has been overcome and I have been given the free gift of everlasting life. It means I will rise from my grave in far better shape than I enter it, and will never know sorrow, pain, sickness, or death - or any other consequence or symptom of sins - again. It means that I am now the beloved of God. Of course, any one of you may take these statements as true about you as well, I am simply using the first person in this answer because the two words that make all of the truths of the Gospel truly good news are, "for me".
All that Jesus did and endured, He did and endured for me - and for you, of course. His life and death were done because of His great love for the Father - and for me. He died for me. He rose from the grave for me. He ascended into heaven for me. He instituted the Lord's Supper for my blessing and strengthening and forgiveness. He gave the gift of prayer for my comfort. He has made wonderful promises of guidance and protection, for me. So, the question is, what does that mean? How does that change anything or color life and so forth?
Since God loves me and since my sins are forgiven, the world is mine. I know the Bible says that all things are ours - and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God, 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, but that was not precisely the sense of what I was saying. The world is mine because I have nothing to lose. God is with me to protect me and keep me and guide me. As bad as things in life can get, and they can get pretty bad sometimes, nothing can take the love of God from me, and nothing can rob me of the eternal life which God has given me. Since I am under His care and protection, nothing can go wrong. I might not like the direction things go at times, but that is because I cannot seen the end of the story from here, just the part I am playing out right now. The present moment may be a delight or a real pain, but God is with me, and the final chapter is my sharing in the victory of Christ, in resurrection, and in everlasting life. When the worst thing that can happen in this life (which is what most people consider death to be) is also my gateway to everlasting life glory in the presence of my Lord, how much should I worry about it?
The hardest part of the Gospel is that we must walk by faith and not by sight, as it says in 2 Corinthians 5. It is not just difficult because we wish it were the other way, but it is also difficult because so many times life will tempt us to see the favor of God only in the outward blessings, and cause us to question how we truly stand in God's eyes when things get rough and life becomes painful. There is something about the human experience that teaches us to measure things by how it seems to be going. God, on the other hand, tells us that we just have to take Him at His word. He loves us, we are forgiven, and He is on our side.
The Gospel means that whatever sickness we have to endure, He is still with us, and the sickness is not a sickness unto death. The very worst it can be is a sickness unto life eternal. I can tell you that these words can be comforting even when you are shaking so hard you cannot pick things up (like the pills you need to take) and you are feeling nauseous. It doesn't make you shake less, or feel any more well-connected to your last meal, but it just silences the fear that naturally springs to one's mind as one wrestles with an illness. A difficult situation is only compounded by fear about what is happening or what may result. Without the fear, it is just a situation to be endured and observed, even though it cannot be enjoyed.
The Gospel also means that whatever I am facing, I am not facing it alone. The good things in life that I enjoy are gifts and God is watching me enjoy them. The difficult things I am facing are also from the hand of God, so I know that they cannot be meant to destroy me. God has a reason, and a purpose for everything in my life.
This is where thinking about this becomes challenging. God does send difficult times into the lives of His people. These are not times of pretend trouble or only-seeming pain or sorrow. The history of the Church shows us that. The earliest Christians faced persecution and even death at the hands of people like Saul of Tarsus and the Temple leaders in Jerusalem. People really suffered and people really died under this persecution. Our perspective in time makes it easier to see that God was pushing His Church out into the world. God scattered them by means of their fear of the persecution and their flight from the immediate enemies. When they fled, they took their faith with them, and the Church grew.
So, the troubles of our lives may not end with a story-book ending. While death is not something we are to actively seek, it is not the end, nor a sign that God has abandoned us. When we die - and let's face it, everyone will die unless the Lord returns before their time has come - we do not face the unknown. We face the Lord and His final accounting. For us Christians, that means that we go to heaven and live in bliss with the Lord. The Scripture says, "It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this, the judgment." However God has that arranged, the first thing we shall know after closing our eyes in death, is the presence of the Lord.
There is speculation among some that we do not know anything between the time of our falling asleep and our resurrection before the Lord. Scripture appears to indicate that our bodies rest and souls go to be with the Lord immediately upon our death. The human mind can conceive of a number of scenario's, and some people like one and other people like another. All I can say is that the Bible tells us that we finish our course here and then we go to be with the Lord. The mechanics of how God will handle all of that are fun to imagine and debate, but what we do not know, we do not know. We do know, however, that for the Christian, death is the door to eternal life, and there is no intermediate state. The reality of how this will work is one the things I look forward to learning as I personally pass through that portal.
But I pass through that portal with confidence. I know that my Redeemer lives, right along with Job. Death is neither the end nor a terror, but a step I will take in my turn, and I know that the Lord will be my Keeper from life through death and into life again. And I will get my body back, outfitted for eternity and in the proper shape, the one that God intended if there had been no sin.
As we contemplate the vicissitudes of life, and wonder how this or that difficult thing could be a blessing, it is instructive to consider how we personally might never have existed if the world had not known sin, death, war, and so forth. Buried deep in our personal ancestry are often bitter consequences of human sin: people taken captive in times of war, intended marriages that never took place due to death, unintended marriages put in place as a result of circumstances someone somewhere at some time did not like and considered a terrible evil. This is not intended to justify those evils, but I do marvel that my "Heinz 57" ethnic background came together because God could take evil circumstances and bring something good out of it. Most of us have such terrors in our family history, but far enough back that we cannot remember even the stories of the pain. But God used those situations to works blessings and to bring us about as well.
God knew us from the foundation of the world. The Bible clearly teaches that. He could see what was coming, and through it all, graciously choose us. Our being chosen by God is more than just picking names off of a list, but He also so ordered human history that our ancestors met and had children to lead up to us, and so brought us into being that we might enjoy His grace and favor. The Gospel makes me think about that, and then look at the situations of my life and wonder how I could question God's will or ability to see me through whatever He has set before me in life today?
The Gospel means that I've got nothing to worry about. Oh, I have plenty to think about, and pray about, and give thanks for. Worry is just one of those things that I do not have to do. "Cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you." I am not facing life rudderless, or under the sway of forces I cannot comprehend. God is in charge; of me and of the world and all of history. In every time, God gives all men their circumstances and invites them to live it in faith and trusting in Him and doing what is right and good. They don't, much of the time, but He is still there, fiddling with the mix and making things go just the right way. He has His eyes on the big picture, leading up to the day of the Parousia - the Return - of Christ and the resurrection of all flesh, and He has the divine skill, knowledge, and wisdom, to oversee history for each and every one of us that calls Him Father and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ. Actually, I think He manages for even those who do not know Him or trust Him, but I know that He is managing history for me.
The Gospel means that when I pray, God is actually listening to my prayer, and that He will answer it just as He has promised. While I sometimes wish that God would answer my prayers more like I think I would like - you know, do what I asked and give me what I want, I am comforted in the knowledge that He will measure my requests against His wisdom and only do for me what is right for me, and give me just what His will specifies. My will is too often selfish and self-centered, and short-sighted. I would have bungled things up a number of times already, and missed out on some great blessings, if I had simply had my way.
It is good to know that God is filtering my requests through His wisdom. But I find it good just to know that He listens. I have made it through a number of hard times simply because I could talk to Him. I know He has strengthened me and blessed me over and over again - but just being able to pour out my heart to Him and know that He is listening and that He cares has made the burdens bearable. Time and again, Christians have said, "What do people who don't believe in God do in times like these?" My only answer is, "Without". I, too, cannot imagine how one bears the burdens alone, or carries the guilt over sins, or faces the prospect of the grave, or the loss of those they love without the comforts of the Gospel or the hope that God gives. I am simply thankful that I do not know that answer, and do not need to know.
The Gospel also means that I need to be patient and forgiving, just as God has been patient and forgiving with me. I know that I am far from perfect in that regard. Try as I might, I catch myself holding grudges and being angry when I should forgive. Like all of the other things the Gospel makes me want to do, this is a work in progress. I want not to sin, but I find myself doing so anyhow. I want not to worry, but I have to keep reminding myself of the love of God for me, and His promises. I keep building up this feeling of guilt and shame that I am not more of what I should be, which makes me remember that I can repent and lay all my sins before the Lord, and be forgiven, and so I do.
The Gospel means that I can. I can come back time and again and confess that I am but a poor, miserable sinner, and He graciously forgives me. He feeds me with His body and gives me to drink of His blood, and refreshes me and tells me to go out there and do it, live for Him, and confess Him, and rejoice in the life He has given me. Go then, eat your bread in happiness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life, and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:7-9.
Well, that's one answer. What's yours?
Yours in the Lord,
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