November 15, 2013

Loving Others Well - Part 1

This is the fifth in a series of posts regarding communicating about the gospel. Each post will be a section from a booklet called "Gospel Conversations" that was printed in September at Northview Community Church. This post is an adaptation of the booklet's fourth chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.

My life changed when I met Claude on a rainy February afternoon in a coffee shop on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.  My senses were overwhelmed.  I was tasting lukewarm coffee, sitting on a rickety chair, smelling the musty odour of unbathed bodies and unwashed clothes, looking at a man in desperation, and hearing a story that I would not soon forget.  I heard a bit of Claude’s story and couldn’t help but think how these experiences were unique to him while also at the same time not altogether uncommon.

He grew up in an abusive home in Quebec.  He made some serious mistakes in his life which led to his imprisonment for almost ten years, and currently lives a lonely life.  When he was finished serving his time in prison he ventured from the snowy streets of Eastern Canada to the rain soaked streets of Vancouver.  Claude was stuck in a cycle of addiction that he had not been able to pull himself out of by his own strength, and he did not seem to have much of an appetite to seek the help of others either.  

I didn’t know how to respond.  Claude must have sensed my discomfort because he asked me how I was doing.  He didn’t mean it in the way we ask others when we walk by them in a hallway.  Claude wanted to know how I was doing with this overwhelming experience I was in, at that very moment.

I told him I was scared.  I was scared of him, the other people around me, and the whole situation in general.  After what seemed like an hour of silence, Claude responded:  “I’m scared too. We’re all terrified down here.”  Claude thanked me for the conversation, took a last sip of his now cold coffee, and walked back onto the rain soaked streets of the Downtown Eastside.

His situation was unique to him but not altogether uncommon.  His life was full of pain, guilt, and hopelessness.  He needed to be released from the cycle of addiction and poverty.  More than that, he needed to repent and believe the gospel so he could be reconciled with the God who formed him in his mother’s womb.  As I reflect on that encounter with Claude, my heart breaks.  I don’t know where he is at now.  I missed an opportunity in that moment to talk about the hope of new life in Christ.  I hope someone will love Claude enough to winsomely share the gospel with him.

Motivated by Love

When the heart of a follower of Jesus is soaked in the truths of the gospel, conversations about Jesus are motivated by an extravagant love for people.  This audacious, overflowing, gospel-speaking love for others is formed in Jesus’ disciples through the work of the Holy Spirit.  God is motivated by love to save sinners and Christians ought to be motivated by love in their gospel proclamation.

Luke 15 contains three of the most beloved parables in the New Testament.  In the ESV, the parables are given the following titles:  The Parable of the Lost Sheep; The Parable of the Lost Coin; and The Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Out of these three beloved parables, the most popular of the three is almost certainly the parable of the prodigal son.  The background to this story is that Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, and the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling about Jesus’ actions.  Jesus responds to the Pharisees by sharing the three parables.  First, he tells the parable of the lost sheep:

4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Secondly, Jesus tells the parable of the lost coin:

8 “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? 9 And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Thirdly, Jesus tells this parable:

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

The first two parables make a similar point:  there is much rejoicing when what was lost has been found.  The third parable is most often thought of as a story of one lost son being welcomed back into a family.  The brilliant and respected scholars that translated the ESV even give this passage the title, The Parable of the Prodigal Son.  There is no doubt that the return of the reckless son is a major aspect of the passage.  However, if we think this story is about only one son, we miss Jesus’ introduction and conclusion to the passage.  In the story, the father has two sons.  In the context for this passage, Jesus is talking to religious leaders about his acceptance of sinners and tax collectors.  He is talking to the “older brother” about his heart for the “younger brother.”  What makes this parable a bit different from the previous two is this parable doesn’t end with the reckless son’s return.  The parable ends with the father talking with the older son.

The parable Jesus tells in Luke 15:11-32 is really a story about the father’s heart to see the licentious younger brother and the legalistic older brother enter the banquet.  God wants a relationship with people who are far away from him because of their sinful-licentious lifestyle.  God also wants a relationship with people that are far away from him because of their sinful-legalistic lifestyle.  At the end of the parable we know the younger son is at the party.  We never find out if the older brother entered or remained outside.  This passage has many implications for readers, but for our purposes these two emerge:

  1. God wants both the reckless and the religious to get over themselves and accept the free offer of the gospel so they can enter into the banquet he has prepared.
  2. We should be eager to engage in gospel conversations with all people because both the reckless and the religious need to repent and believe the gospel to join the banquet.

A Farmer or a Salesperson?

It’s clear that God wants us to talk about the gospel with all kinds of people.  That God wants everyone to be reconciled to him is something followers of Jesus love and appreciate.  However, for some people who have spent many years involved in the local church, any discussion on talking about the gospel conjures up thoughts of a shady salesperson.  Engaging in gospel conversations is not about closing a sale.  Christians are called to be proclaimers of the gospel not converters of the heart.  It is up to God to soften hearts, convict sin, and transform lives; it is up to us to articulate as faithfully as possible the gospel of Jesus.

It is very important to be confident in what we believe, and to know why we believe what we do.  That said, people don’t often repent and believe the gospel because they were convinced in an argument.  When we talk about the gospel, we need to make sure we are having legitimate conversations with people, being as clear and humble as we can and recognize that it is God who works on their heart, not us.

When we engage in gospel conversations we do so with the hope that our conversation partner would repent of their sin and follow Christ as their Saviour and King.  This is our hope. However, it isn’t our job to close any sales for Jesus.  If we approach gospel conversations like a sales pitch then we are missing the point.  We don’t want to fabricate the truth to make it more palatable and less offensive just so people will turn to Jesus.  We don’t want to manipulate people into just making a decision.  Being a Christian is an all or nothing, life-altering commitment.  It isn’t merely about trying to get people to pray a prayer.  Approaching a conversation with the mindset of trying to close a sale shows that we want to close the sale so that we feel like our obedience has fruit.  However, just like a farmer that works hard preparing for a crop but can’t force it to grow, so too we work diligently to try to articulate the gospel well while also refusing to coerce or manipulate someone to follow Christ.  Only God makes the fruit of repentance and belief grow.  We hope and pray for repentance and belief, but we do so in the manner of a farmer not a salesperson.

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