At Campus Crusade’s bi-annual Staff Conference this summer, we had the privilege of hearing from Tim Keller, Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. He joked about his topic – the gospel – and how some might chuckle that he would choose that as his message to a group of people who are already committed to spreading the gospel around the world.
But I’m so glad he did. Tim’s opening talk to us was about free justification, “a sharp edge of the gospel that we dull.” He asserted that we all have a VPR – validating performance record. For many of us, even who claim to trust Messiah as our righteousness, that validating performance record is something besides Jesus. We were challenged to look at what we boast in, to see if we are trusting in ourselves or in our performance.
One of the things that struck me in particular was his comparison of our culture and cultures past. In many traditional cultures, you inherited your role. Now, we are a “meritocratic” society, in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement. We have never been more works-based. As a society, that may not be inherently a bad thing, but it does have significant repercussions for those of us who would dare believe in a salvation that is by grace.
Tim continued and I was both blessed and convicted as he explained the difference between forgiveness and justification. One of his examples was that forgiveness is negative: freedom from liability. It is saying to the criminal, “You may go. You have been pardoned.” But justification is positive. It is saying to the sinner, “You may come. You have been accepted.” It is bestowal.
Basically, salvation is sonship. As I thought about that, I had a moment of clarity. “Of course we don’t understand the Gospel.” It is no small wonder that we cannot grasp the gospel when our homes are so broken. For so many, even sonship is dependent on performance. I know relatively few people who would say they were confident of their parents’ love and acceptance even when they failed. In fact, I have heard many stories of exactly the opposite: parents who threatened to disown their children or who consciously withheld themselves when the children failed to measure up, make the grade, or pursue the “right” profession.
How, then, can we even begin to grasp a gospel of not just acceptance, but of lavish love, commitment and the bestowal of all rights and infinite treasures? Based not on our record of performance, but on the love of an extravagant Father.
As I continued to reflect on this, I was overwhelmed with both sorrow and compassion. For my friends, students I’ve met on campus, but also for myself. I had a new patience and understanding toward my own heart, which is sometimes so slow to believe.
From the model of our society, it is wondrous that any of us grasp grace even a little bit. Truly, it is an act of God. I will only claim to have grasped it a little little bit, and yet that morsel has radically transformed my heart.