Our theme this week is the often painful path to perfection.
In our sermon passage, we are told that Jesus expects us to be willing to give up everything, including family, for his sake.
Spiritual Risk Assessments
Luke 14:25-33 (ESV)
“An untenable risk.” This is the term used to define the point at which a given course of action should no longer be pursued, or perhaps actively worked against. Companies performing risk assessments are expected to define untenable risks to their operations. For a powerplant, those risks might define the point of balance between operating safely and operating efficiently. For an investor, it’s when the risk of failure for a given project is too high to justify the cost of investing. For an individual, it could be when an exciting job opportunity is eclipsed by the upheaval the move would cause.
These risk assessments are examples of why it’s important to consider the implications of your actions and choices. They are perceived in Western culture as examples of prudence and responsibility. And they are reflections of a challenge that Jesus gave to his disciples 2000 years ago.
Speaking to his disciples, Jesus warns that complacently following Jesus is not enough — we need to think through the implications of that course of action. Let’s read what Jesus said to them.
Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’
Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-33 ESV)
It is hard to read this passage of Scripture and not think of your siblings, parents, or spouse. It references those we love and asks a heart-piercing question, are you ready to place Jesus above all of them? In the risk assessment of our spiritual lives, is the cost of following Jesus more than we could bear? If you feel yourself thinking that it might be, it might reassure you to realize you’re not alone.
Even after decades of Christian living, this question will continue to lead passionate followers of Christ to a place of doubt. The cost seems too great, yet the reward is incalculable. The scale of our spiritual risk assessment teeters back and forth wildly. We know it will land on the side of our eternal relationship with God (Jesus has shown us that), but this doesn’t reduce the anguish caused at the thought of the sacrifices he is calling for.
So, let’s take a moment to break the text down a little further. What is it that Jesus is asking of his disciples in this passage?
Setting the bar high
Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-27 ESV)
Jesus does not mince words when he presents the disciples with his expectations. Jesus wants everything from us. He is presenting us with a core biblical teaching, the primacy of God. The Ten Commandments declared that we were to have no other God before him, and Jesus teaches us the heart of that law – there should be nothing in our lives set before God.
When Jesus tells us to hate our family, he does not mean literally. We know this from looking elsewhere in Scripture. For example, he shows love for his mother and provides for her on the cross by charging John with her care. Furthermore, 1 John 4:20 tells us that the person who hates his brother cannot love God! So where does this leave us?
Jesus has shown us he desires love not hate, so we can say with confidence that here he is using exaggeration to stress the importance of a teaching. The extreme reaction we feel at the idea of hating our family is the intent behind Jesus’ teaching here, that aversion to hating them, should be reflected by an even greater love for God.
By setting his bar so high as to be unattainable, Jesus is setting out for us a lifelong goal of loving God more and more. The Christian walk is a constant struggle to put God in the proper place at the center of our lives. As long as he’s not there yet, we haven’t achieved the goal of loving him so much as to hate everything else.
Jesus does set within his example an achievable goal. Contrasted with the call to reject our family is a call to reject ourselves, take up our own cross and follow Jesus. Jesus has demonstrated we can follow through on this call. And that call to a sacrificial love that endures much is core to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus has called us to an often- painful path to perfection and he wants us to be aware of all that could come with it.
Doing the assessment
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” (Luke 14:28-30 ESV)
For anyone who has done some renovations or overseen construction, the fear of unknown costs and setbacks is an ever-present reality. Common advice is to take the quote given to you and add at least twenty percent to determine your budget for the project. Falling short of the financial needs of such a project can have far-reaching consequences. A botched renovation can put the whole home at risk, and a half-finished building is a danger to those who enter it.
And it’s not a process that ends once the project begins. Progress reports, inflation costs, and fluctuation in markets are all things that seem irrelevant until they affect the things one must purchase. A change in the cost of lumber can have dire consequences when you’re building a wooden house!
It is an equally agonizing process for our spiritual lives. And it is appropriate to point out that while many of the would-be disciples Jesus was speaking to in this passage were new, some had been with him throughout his ministry. But that doesn’t reduce the need for these moments of introspective spiritual self-assessment. No doubt Judas did not always intend to betray Jesus, but at some point, he began to value something more than God. Perhaps it was money, or as portrayed in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, perhaps it was the ideal of a Jewish nation that did not jive with who Jesus was revealing himself to be. Regardless, something led him to conclude that the cost of discipleship was too great.
This call from Jesus to carefully assess the cost of following him is not completed the moment we declare him to be Lord. Rather, it should become a regular practice to think about the depth of the call God has made to us.
A forecast less dire than it might seem
Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:31-33 ESV)
Everything that we’ve discussed so far could lead us to the conclusion that the Christian life is one of joyless introspection and confessions of inadequacy. Indeed, taken alone, this passage could lead us to the conclusion that since we fall short of perfection, perhaps we should just give up. Thankfully this passage does not sit alone. Luke takes pains to emphasise to us that the calling of Christ is one that requires complete and utter devotion, a devotion we are unable to provide.
Our passage today comes before the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son. All these parables speak of the incredible love of God that is present amid the failures of his children. Where there is a gap in our ability to relate to God, Jesus steps in and fills that gap. An allusion to this can be seen in the final example Jesus gives in this passage: the king who is not capable of fighting the enemy coming toward him. In this example, a cost is going to be paid regardless – the other king is coming to wage war on him. While the man thinking about building his tower can simply decide not to build it, the king cannot simply decide to ignore the army that is approaching his lands.
Counting his cost, he realizes he comes up short. But that is not the end of his narrative; the parable does not conclude with his defeat and death. Instead, the king realizes his need to seek the mercy of his opponent. Like this king, we found ourselves in conflict with a foe impossibly beyond us. But this foe is not Satan, or sin, but rather God himself. In our past rebellion, we found ourselves aligned against the Creator of all things. Jesus refers to this when he tells the apostle Paul in a vision “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14b). Opposition to God is an exercise in futility, much the same as this king’s war.
If the king had insisted on his own rule and way, he would have found himself not just without crown or country but also without his life. Instead, he must sue for peace, he must give up the crown and country, he must “renounce all he has.”
On the path to salvation, destruction is found in every direction except the narrow path that leads to Jesus. (Counting) The cost of discipleship is not just about counting what we must give up to follow Jesus, it is also about recognizing how much greater
is the loss of not following him (is). This is the point of Jesus’ lesson. Without him there is no life, no resurrection, no hope, and no future. Without him you would have no mother, father, brother, or sister. Without him there is no narrow path to keep to.
When we count the cost of discipleship, we will consistently find we are incapable of providing what is required. We too need to realize our need for mercy and grace. Counting the cost does not lead us to the conclusion that we will pay and sacrifice what is needed—it leads us to the conclusion that we cannot pay or sacrifice enough. But we do not despair. Our inability is contrasted
by (with) the Holy Spirit’s ability and desire to take hold of us and lead us back to the foot of the cross. It recalls the costly price that has been paid for us by Jesus, and the horrific cost we would endure if it had not been paid. And it is in light of his loving sacrifice that we once more commit to acknowledging him as the center of our lives.
Let’s conclude with the powerful words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship:
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.
Any takeaways …?
Personal Takeaways …
- Salvation is free … but Discipleship is costly
- Counting the Cost is not only about assessing the cost of FOLLOWING Christ … but is also about assessing the cost of NOT FOLLOWING Christ.
- Re: Renouncing all possessions to follow Christ … from the transcript of a sermon posted on the bible.org website …
- Does Jesus mean this literally, that we must get rid of everything we own and take a vow of poverty in order to be a Christian? What does He mean?
- I believe that Jesus is getting at the fact that there are two possible lords that we can serve and the two are exclusive: God or Mammon. Most of us think that we can combine them, with God taking the lead: “I’ll serve God mostly, but I’d also like to serve money.” But Jesus says that won’t work: “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13, emphasis mine). In other words, you can’t just add Jesus to your already materialistic lifestyle as a way of rounding out your spiritual needs. To be a Christian means that you have been bought with a price and you are not your own (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Nothing you own is your own. You become the slave of Jesus Christ and He owns everything.
- I like the way Juan Carlos Ortiz tells the story of the pearl of great price . . .
- A man sees this pearl and says to the merchant, “I want this pearl. How much is it?”
- The seller says, “It’s very expensive.”
- “How much?”
- “A lot!”
- “Well, do you think I could buy it?” the man asks.
- “Oh, yes,” says the merchant, “everyone can buy it.”
- “But I thought you said it was very expensive.”
- “I did.”
- “Well, how much?”
- “Everything you have,” says the seller.
- “All right, I’ll buy it.”
- “Okay, what do you have?”
- “Well, I have $10,000 in the bank.”
- “Good, $10,000. What else?”
- “That’s all I have.”
- “Nothing more?”
- “Well, I have a few dollars more in my pocket.”
- “How much?”
- “Let’s see … $100.”
- “That’s mine, too,” says the seller. “What else do you have?”
- “That’s all, nothing else.”
- “Where do you live?” the seller asks.
- “In my house. Yes, I own a home.”
- The seller writes down, “house.” “It’s mine.”
- “Where do you expect me to sleep — in my camper?”
- “Oh, you have a camper, do you? That, too. What else”
- “Am I supposed to sleep in my car?”
- “Oh, you have a car?”
- “Yes, I own two of them.”
- “They’re mine now.”
- “Look, you’ve taken my money, my house, my camper, and my cars. Where is my family going to live?”
- “So, you have a family?”
- “Yes, I have a wife and three kids.”
- “They’re mine now.”
- Suddenly the seller exclaims, “Oh, I almost forgot! You yourself, too! Everything becomes mine — wife, children, house, money, cars, and you, too.” Then he goes on, “Now, listen, I will allow you to use all these things for the time being. But don’t forget that they’re all mine, just as you are. And whenever I need any of them, you must give them up, because I am now the owner.”
- (Adapted from The Disciple [Creation House], pp. 34-35.)
- A man sees this pearl and says to the merchant, “I want this pearl. How much is it?”
- That’s what Jesus means when He says that we must give up all our possessions in order to be His disciple. He isn’t just Lord of a tenth; He is Lord of all. We are just managers of it for Him. Of course, in return we gain all the riches of heaven for all eternity. But, still, we need to sit down and determine if we’re willing to follow Jesus as Lord of everything from our families, to our possessions, to our very lives.
THE GOSPEL REALLY IS GOOD NEWS
When people gather in churches after a disaster, they come to hear words of comfort, encouragement and hope. Yet, try as they might to bring hope to a grieving people, some Christian leaders unwittingly proclaim a message that amounts to despair, hopelessness and fear for people whose loved ones died without having first professed faith in Jesus Christ.
- Why? Why do you think their messages cause hopelessness?
Many Christians are convinced that everyone who did not profess Christ before death, even those who never so much as heard of Christ, are now in hell, being tortured by God — the God the same Christians ironically proclaim as compassionate, merciful, loving and full of grace. “God loves you,” some of us Christians seem to be saying, but then comes the fine print: “If you don’t say the sinner’s prayer before you die, then my merciful Savior will torture you forever.”
- Why do you think many/most Christians would be convinced some loved ones might be in hell?
- See Isaiah 49:8 and 2 Corinthians 6:2
The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. It remains forever, good news, the best news imaginable, for absolutely everybody and everything. It is not merely good news for the few who came to know Christ before they died; it is good news for the whole of creation — even for all who died before they ever heard of Christ.
- Why is the Gospel good news … contrary to what some/many Christians might think?
- Answer … what the Scriptures really say about “day of salvation”
- Check biblehub.com re: Isaiah 49:8 and 2 Corinthians 6:2 .
- Note the next paragraph in Mr. Feazell’s article …
Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice not merely for the sins of Christians but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). The Creator is also the Redeemer of his creation (Colossians 1:15-20). Whether people know that truth before they die is not the thing that determines whether it is true. It depends entirely on Jesus Christ, not on human action or human response of any kind.
- 1 John 2:2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
- 1 Timothy 4:10 For to this end [a]we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.
- Colossians 1:15-20 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by (in) Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or [a]principalities or [b]powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
- 1 John 2:2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version in this article). It is God who loved the world and God who gave his Son, and he gave him to save what he loved — the world. Whoever believes in the Son whom God sent will enter into eternal life (better translated “the life of the age to come”).
The verse does not say that belief has to come prior to death. In fact, it says that believers will not perish, and since even believers die, it is obvious that “perish” and “die” are not the same thing. Belief keeps people from perishing, but it does not keep them from dying. The kind of perishing that Jesus is talking about here, translated from the Greek word apoletai, is a spiritual death, not a physical one. It has to do with utter destruction, with being abolished, put an end to, or ruined. Those who believe in Jesus will not come to such a final end, but will, instead, enter into the life (zoe) of the age to come (aeonion).
Some enter into the life of the age to come, or kingdom life, while they still live and walk on the earth, but in the grand scheme of things, this happens to only a small percentage of those who make up the “world” (or “kosmos”) that God loves so much that he sent his Son to save it. What about the rest? This verse does not say that God cannot or won’t bring to faith any of those who die physically before believing.
The idea that death is a barrier to God’s ability to save, or to his ability to bring a person to faith in Christ, is a human interpretation; the Bible states no such thing. We are told that everyone dies, and then they are judged (Hebrews 9:27). But let us remember that their Judge, thank God, is none other than Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb of God who died for their sins — and that changes everything.
Creator and Redeemer
Where do people get this notion that God is only able to save live people and not dead ones? He conquered death, didn’t he? He rose from the dead, didn’t he? God doesn’t hate the world; he loves it. He didn’t create humanity for hell. Christ came to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:17).
One Christian teacher (and probably many others as well) said that God is perfect in hate as well as perfect in love, which accounts for why there is a hell as well as a heaven. He went on to explain how dualism (the idea that good and evil are equal and opposite forces in the universe) is a false doctrine. But doesn’t he realize he posited a dualistic God with his explanation of God holding in tension perfect hate and perfect love?
God is absolutely just, and all sinners are judged and condemned, but the gospel, the good news, lets us in on the mystery that, in Christ, God took that very sin and its judgment on himself for our sakes! Hell is real and horrible. But it is precisely that hell, the hideous hell reserved for the ungodly, that Jesus bore in humanity’s stead
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin (?) for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
- Matthew 27:46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
- Psalm 22:1-2 My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning? 2 O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent.
- Psalm 22:19-24 But You, O Lord, do not be far from Me; O My Strength, hasten to help Me! 20 Deliver Me from the sword, My[g] precious life from the power of the dog. 21 Save Me from the lion’s mouth And from the horns of the wild oxen! You have answered Me. 22 I will declare Your name to My brethren; In the midst of the assembly I will praise You. 23 You who fear the Lord, praise Him! All you [h]descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And fear Him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from Him; But when He cried to Him, He heard.
- Galatians 3:13 Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
All humans are under condemnation because of sin, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ (Romans 6:23). That’s why it is called grace. In Romans 5:15, Paul puts it like this:
The free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass [this “many” refers to everybody; there is no one who doesn’t bear Adam’s guilt], much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many [the same “many” — absolutely everybody]. (Romans 5:15)
Paul is saying that as bad as our condemnation for sin is — and it is bad (it deserves hell) — it can’t even hold a candle to the grace and the free gift in Christ. God’s word of reconciliation in Christ is incredibly louder than his word of condemnation in Adam — the one completely eclipses the other (“much more surely”). That is why Paul can tell us in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “in Christ God was reconciling the world [that’s everybody, the “many” of Romans 5:15] to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”
So, then, what about the family and friends of those who die without having professed faith in Christ? Does the gospel offer them any hope and encouragement about the fate of their dead loved ones?
Indeed, the Gospel of John records Jesus declaring, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). That’s good news, the gospel truth. Jesus didn’t lay out a timetable, but he said that he would draw everybody to himself, not just a few who find out who he is before they die, but absolutely everybody.
Then it is no wonder that Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Colossae that in Jesus Christ, God was pleased, pleased, mind you, to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). That’s good news. It is, like Jesus said, good news for the whole world, not just for the limited few.
Paul wanted his readers to know that this Jesus, this Son of God raised from the dead, is not just some exciting leader of a new and improved religious concept. Paul is telling them that Jesus is none other than the Creator and Sustainer of all things (Colossians 1:16-17), and more than that, he is God’s way of fixing everything that has gone wrong with the world from the beginning of history (verse 20)! In Christ, Paul was saying, God has moved once and for all to make good on all his promises that he made to Israel — promises that he would one day act in pure grace to forgive all sins everywhere and make everything new (see . . .
- Acts 13:32-33 And we declare to you glad tidings — that promise which was made to the fathers. 33 God has fulfilled this for us their children, in that He has raised up Jesus. As it is also written in the second Psalm: ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.’
- Acts 3:20-21 and that He may send [a]Jesus Christ, who was [b]preached to you before, 21 whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things (apokatastasis) , which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since [c]the world began.
- Isaiah 43:19 Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; Shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness And rivers in the desert.
- Revelation 21:5 Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” And He said [a]to me, “Write, for these words are true and faithful.”
- Romans 8:19-21 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of [a]corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Only for Christians
“But salvation is only for Christians,” some people howl. Yes, of course it is. But who are “the Christians”? Are they only the people who repeat the sinner’s prayer? Are they only those who are baptized by immersion? Only those who belong to the “true” church? Only those who are absolved by a duly ordained priest? Only those who have ceased sinning? Only those who come to know Jesus before they die?
Or does Jesus himself, the one into whose nail-pierced hands God has given all judgment, decide who is and is not ultimately to be included among those upon whom he will have mercy? And while he is at it, does he, the one who conquered death and gives eternal life to whomever he wants, decide when he might bring a person to faith … or do we, the all-wise defenders of the true religion, make that determination for him?
Every Christian became a Christian at some point, that is, was brought to faith by the Holy Spirit. But the common assumption seems to suggest, however, that it is impossible for God to bring a person to faith after that person has died. But hold on, Jesus is the one who raises the dead, and he is the one who is the atoning sacrifice, not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
“But the parable of Lazarus,” someone will argue. “Abraham says that there is a chasm fixed between his side and the rich man’s side” (see Luke 16:19-31).
Jesus did not give this parable as a textbook on the afterlife. After all, how many Christians would want to describe heaven as “Abraham’s bosom” with Jesus nowhere in sight? The parable was a message to the members of the first-century Jewish privileged class who rejected their Messiah, not a portrait of the resurrection life. Before we take that further than Christ intended, remember what Paul wrote in Romans 11:32.
In the parable, the rich man was unrepentant. He still saw himself as Lazarus’ superior. He still saw Lazarus as existing only to serve his personal needs. Maybe it is not unreasonable to think that the rich man’s persistent unbelief is what kept the gulf fixed, not some arbitrary cosmic necessity. Remember, Jesus himself bridges the otherwise impassable chasm from our sinful condition to reconciliation with God. Jesus underscores this point, the point of the parable — that salvation comes only through faith in him — when he says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
God is in the business of saving people, not torturing them. Jesus is Redeemer, and whether we believe it or not, he is awfully good at what he does. He is the Savior of the world (John 3:17), not the Savior of a fraction of the world. “God so loved the world” (verse 16) — not merely 20 percent.
God has ways, and his ways are higher than our ways. Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43). Surely we believe he loves his own enemies. (Or do we believe that Jesus hates his enemies while he calls on us to love ours, as if we are supposed to be more righteous than he is, and that his hatred accounts for why there is a hell?) Jesus asks us to love our enemies precisely because he loves them. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Jesus prayed of those who murdered him (Luke 23:34).
Those who continue to refuse Jesus’ grace even after they understand it receive the fruit of their own stupidity. There is no place left for people who refuse to enter the Lamb’s banquet, except outer darkness (another of the metaphors Jesus used to describe the state of alienation from God; see Matthew 22:13; 25:30).
Mercy to all
Paul makes the amazing assertion in Romans 11:32 that God “has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” The Greek words here mean all, not some, but all. Everyone is disobedient, and in Christ the same everyone is shown mercy — whether they like it or not; whether they take it or not; whether they know it before they die or not.
What can you say to such a marvelous thing, but what Paul says in the next verses:
O, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)
It seems that his ways are so unfathomable that many of us Christians simply cannot believe that the gospel can be that good. Some of us think we know the mind of God so well that we just know that everybody goes straight to hell if they aren’t Christians yet when they die. But Paul’s point is that the extent of God’s mercy is beyond our understanding — a mystery revealed only in Christ: God has done something in Jesus Christ that nobody would ever have guessed in a million years.
In his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul says that this is what God had in mind all along (Ephesians 1:9-10). It was the whole point of God’s calling of Abraham, of his choosing of Israel and David, and of the covenants (Ephesians 3:5-6). God is saving even the aliens and strangers (Ephesians 2:12). He is saving the ungodly (Romans 5:6). He really does draw all people to himself (John 12:32). The Son of God has been at work underneath all of history from the very beginning, bringing about the redemption, the reconciliation of all things to God (Colossians 1:15-20). God’s grace has a logic all its own, a logic that often seems illogical to religious-minded people.
Only path to salvation
Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation, and he draws everybody to himself — in his way, in his time. There isn’t anywhere in the universe except in Christ, since as Paul said, nothing exists that isn’t created by him and upheld by him (Colossians 1:15-17). Those who finally reject him do so in spite of his love; it’s not that he refuses them (he doesn’t — he loves them, died for them and forgave them), but that they refuse him. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says, in the end, “THY will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened. (The Great Divorce, chapter 9)
Heroes in hell?
As I listened to Christians preach about the meaning of September 11, 2001, I thought of the firefighters and police officers who sacrificed their lives trying to rescue victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. How can Christians call these people heroes and applaud their self-sacrifice on one hand, but on the other hand declare that unless they confessed Christ before they expired, they are being tortured in hell? Their good works cannot save them, but Christ can.
The gospel declares that there is hope for those who died in the World Trade Center without yet having professed Christ. They will encounter the risen Lord on the other side of death, and he is the Judge — the one with nail marks in his hands — eternally ready to embrace and receive all his creatures who will come to him. He forgave them before they were born (Ephesians 1:4; Romans 5:6,10). That part is done, just as it was done for us who believe now.
All that remains for them now is to throw down their crowns before him and receive his gift. Maybe some won’t. Maybe some are so committed to loving themselves and hating others that they will see their risen Lord as their archenemy. That would be a shame — no, more than that; it’s a disaster of cosmic proportions, because he’s not their archenemy . . . because he loves them anyway . . . because he would gather them into his arms like a hen gathers her chicks, if they would only let him (cf. Luke 13:34).
It is safe to say, if you believe passages like Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:10, that by far most of the people who died in that attack will jump into Jesus’ forgiving and merciful arms like a puppy runs to its mother at mealtime.
“Jesus saves,” Christians put on their posters and bumper stickers. It’s true. He does. He is the author and finisher of salvation, the beginning and goal of all creation — including all dead people. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, Jesus said. Rather, he sent his Son into the world to save it (John 3:16-17).
Regardless of what some people say, God is out to save everybody (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), not just a few. And guess what? He never gives up. He never stops loving. He never stops being who he is, was, and will always be for humanity — their Creator and their Redeemer. Nobody falls through the cracks.
Nobody was created for the purpose of sending to hell. If anybody winds up in hell — the tiny, meaningless, dark, nowhere corner of the eternal kingdom — then what causes them to stay there will be nothing but their own stubborn refusal to receive the grace God has for them. It will not be because God hates them, because he doesn’t. It will not be because God is vindictive, because he isn’t. It will be because … 1) they hate the kingdom of God and refuse his grace, and 2) God won’t let them spoil the fun for everybody else.
The gospel is a message of hope for absolutely everybody. Christian preachers don’t have to resort to threats of hell to coerce people to turn to Christ. They can proclaim the truth, the good news:
God loves you. He isn’t mad at you. Jesus died for you because you’re a sinner, and God loves you so much he has saved you from everything that is destroying you. So why should you keep on living as though this dangerous, cruel, unpredictable and unforgiving world is all you’ve got? Why don’t you come and start experiencing God’s love and enjoying the blessings of his kingdom? You already belong to him. He’s already paid for your sins. What are you waiting for? He’ll turn your sorrow into joy. He’ll give you peace of heart like you’ve never known. He’ll bring meaning and purpose to your life. He’ll help you improve your relationships. He’ll give you rest. Trust him. He’s waiting for you.
This message is so good that it bubbles out of us. Paul wrote in Romans 5:10-11: “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Talk about hope! Talk about grace! Through Christ’s death, God reconciles his enemies, and through Christ’s life, he saves them. No wonder we can boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ — we are already experiencing in him what we are telling others about. They don’t have to keep on living like they have no place at God’s table; he’s already reconciled them, they can come on home. Christ saves sinners. It really is good news. It’s the best news anybody can hear.
Author: J. Michael Feazell
Here are some other GCI articles on the topic of THE GOSPEL . . .
- Believing the Gospel
- Here’s Good News for Everyone (a gospel tract)
- Good News for Ordinary People
- The Kingdom of God