We had a picketer show up on the sidewalk outside church a couple Sundays back. Zip-tied to his long PVC pole was a sign that read “God will judge the nations.” For effect, he had a big atomic mushroom cloud painted on the other side.
When those of us who saw him from inside got past the shock and confusion of a religious picketer at a Bible-based church, I went out to talk to him.
I’ll admit I hesitated. I felt like I was only helping him accomplish his goal of using an indirect method to invite direct engagement. I thought he’d be thrilled with a chance to have a legitimate conversation with someone who noticed him. And as one of the pastors of the entire congregation he was seeking to reach, I figured that was one of the best things he could have hoped for as he was loading his atomic sign into his car that morning.
I was wrong.
Saint Terry, as he called himself, wasn’t interested in having a conversation–with me or really anyone. I did, however, get what I would call a well-rehearsed but awkward lecture of condemnation. As he fought to keep his sign upright against what may have been a divinely-inspired strong breeze, he was adamant that God would send to hell all of us who love the world in any way.
Not exactly the way I would choose to phrase that one, but I tried to give him a little grace. His message was technically true despite his horrendous method of delivery.
“I understand,” I responded. “But ultimately, each of these cars driving past you are willingly coming to a church to worship and learn more about Jesus, what He did, and what that means for their lives. Are you sure this is the best place for a message like this?”
“God will begin His judgement with His own house,” Terry explained.
As the letters to the churches in Revelation came to mind, I decided not to argue that one either. At the same time, however, something was off. Dozens of other scriptures were coming to mind that I sincerely doubt he had ever highlighted in his Bible–scriptures about being known by our love (for others in the church first and foremost), and about being united as a church despite our different styles as long as the gospel was being preached. I thought about Daniel and the example of ministry he gave us from within the hostile culture of Babylon. He didn’t stand on a corner with a vague, condemning sign. He learned, related, and built relationships so that he could be used by God as an influential catalyst of change.
Each time I tried to ask Terry about these verses, I was quickly cut off so that he could offer more rehearsed judgement. I felt completely unprepared, having approached someone who clearly had a full script ready to dump on me.
But then Saint Terry started down a path that really bothered me. I was trying to roll with him up to this point, but that went out the window when I heard him claim that anyone who continues to have sin in his or her life (despite best efforts of loyally following Christ’s teachings) is not a real Christian. For Terry, forgiveness happened once, and true repentance was a one time thing as well.
Jesus telling the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more” was his go-to verse to explain that true believers should literally never sin again after trusting Jesus and being filled with the Holy Spirit. About here is where I squeezed in my belief that I didn’t think such a thing was possible, and admitted to sometimes struggling with things like pride, greed, or lust. And that’s when Terry’s tone became even more laced with condemnation. He adamantly claimed that he had no sin in his life and was shocked that I could call myself a Christian (he never found out who I was or what role I served in the church). For him, you couldn’t be a Christian without uprooting all imperfection from the heart. I was quickly labeled by Saint Terry as a prideful sinner, whom God actively “resists” despite my emphasis that I was not complacent in my sins, as the context of the verse he dolled out (James 4:6) suggests.
From there, I couldn’t get another word in. That was frustrating.
In hindsight, it would have been helpful (if not entertaining) to ask Saint Terry how he had accomplished the first and Greatest Commandment. Even now, I’m amazed at his confidence that he never–even for a single moment–thinks or does anything except love God with 100 percent of his heart, mind, soul, and strength. Not even an ice cream cone purchased for the sake of satisfying his own desire. It was all for God. We might give ourselves a pat on the back for pretty-easily keeping most of God’s other commands like not killing anyone, but I’m fairly certain not a single one of us can keep the most important one. I could have said that, but then again, I doubt he wouldn’t have acknowledged it. As hard as I tried to have a conversation and ask him more questions, he was far too concerned with reciting a long list of legalism about being perfect and hating the world. This, ironically as his female companion recorded our encounter on her iPhone–one of the most-advanced mobile devices “the world” has ever known.
Logically, this guy’s argument had way too many holes in it. And theologically, I really don’t think Saint Terry’s view of the encounter between Jesus and the adulteress in John 8 was as solid as he seemed to think it was. First of all, the tactic Jesus used to save the woman from execution was to point out the personal sins of theses “holy” men who were about to hurl rocks at her head. If that doesn’t point out the unavoidable presence of sin in our lives, maybe Paul’s Romans 7 confession that he didn’t always do what he knew a Christ follower should do will.
Second of all, this woman had just been caught having an affair, and it was this single sin those teachers of the law and Pharisees asked Jesus to weigh in on. Her re-trial of sorts didn’t seem to also concern that time she became angry with her sister, or the Tupperware container she borrowed and never gave back. Would Jesus have said those “minor sins” didn’t matter? No. But it’s important to recognize that, in this exchange, Jesus was asked to address one sin–one issue of deception this woman had allowed to take root in her relationship with God and her marriage. And it was with this sin in mind that Jesus’ gave her these parting words (again, after he exposed the sinfulness of her executioners): “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.”
In plain English, I think this would translate to, “Hey, I love you. And I want so much more for you than this. So quit doing that!” Saint Terry’s interpretation, however, was something more like, “I’m letting you off the hook this time, but my forgiveness has now run its course and if you ever so much as look at your sister disrespectfully or do anything out of selfish motivation ever again, I’m throwing you into hell for eternity.”
Unfortunately, we don’t have a record of this woman’s life of complete perfection that followed Terry’s version of the story.
It’s actually very much true that Jesus had a good bit to say about perfection. The perfect standard He laid out in Matthew 5 is horrifyingly convicting and I don’t for a second believe it was meant to be ignored. In what is often referred to as the greatest sermon ever given, Jesus warned that hating someone is as good as murdering them and looking lustfully at a woman is as good as having sex with her. He wrapped His message up with removing any chance of confusion: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”
Are we not supposed to take that statement literally and use that as a test for who has true faith and who is condemned? I don’t know about you, but based on that, I’m toast.
But context is always key–in every conversation we have and in every word recorded in the Bible. Everything Jesus said had an eternal purpose at the heart of it. And in this case, Jesus was explaining how high the bar really is when it comes to fulfilling the law ourselves and obtaining our own salvation. He was explaining what we would have to do in order to deserve heaven for ourselves. The only problem is that the entire point of Jesus’ birth was to deliver the amazing grace of God–to do something for us He knew we couldn’t do for ourselves. That’s why at the very beginning of that sermon, before He got into all that “perfection” talk, Jesus explained to His listeners that He had come to fulfill the Law (5:17-20). Again, context is everything.
If Terry’s views about repentance were true, he would be able to sacrifice an unblemished sheep or goat in his back yard and be on great standing with God for the remainder of his days. For the rest of us, not enough Sherpa and goats exist in the world and that system doesn’t save us. We need Jesus every single day.
While those who believe in Jesus and dedicate their lives to following Him are absolutely expected to constantly repent and grow more and more like Jesus, we will never be Jesus. As a believer, the constant glaring reminder of my own sinful nature is ridiculously frustrating. But thanks to Jesus’ life and sacrifice, I am perfect despite my imperfection. Hebrews 10:14 explains this in one glorious and grammatically-void sentence: “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
As confusing as it is for those of us stuck in this pesky created thing called “time,” our salvation has both been done and is being done in the eyes of God.
Already made perfect: a gift through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice.
Being made holy: a forever-growing but never-finished response of love and obedience.
Check and check.
No matter how I tried to rationalize with Terry, I couldn’t get through to him. To add to the frustration, when he saw people coming out from the service, he abandoned his lecture to me, the prideful sinner, and began speaking past me to his real targets with random phrases like “This is a warning” and “God will judge the nations.”
At that point, I didn’t even know what to do. Honestly, I was angry. The things he was chanting were all things that didn’t even make sense without the conversation he was unwilling to have. That wasn’t what he was out there for, I guess. He just wanted to stand at a distance, have people read his sign and vaguely hear his warnings. I wonder if he boasted later on (not sinfully, of course) about going out and “doing ministry” to help people turn from their sin.
I think the most frustrating part about it for me was realizing that his method of “outreach” was literally with a 10-foot pole. To me, that’s as unbiblical as you can get when it comes to ministry. The way the disciples and Jesus Himself did their outreach was by getting to know people, by building and using credibility,which gave people good reason to respect and lean in more to what they were hearing:
For example, Andrew brought his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus. I have a feeling there was a relationship there that made Andrew a credible witness for his brother. Another example is Phillip, who gave Nathaniel an invitation to “come and see.” What we don’t see from Phillip is a warning that if he didn’t come and see, he would burn in hell forever.
And the extreme irony here is that these exact stories of outreach and evangelism were the parts of scripture the sermon message was speaking on that Sunday!
There is truth to what the picketer was saying. Yes, we as a nation should repent, and God will not accept those who have not humbled themselves before Him. Loving the world in all of its inherent sinfulness does put you at odds with God. But I can’t imagine anyone having the fear of God being struck into them from driving by a random and vague sign declaring God’s impending judgement for the nation.
This is part of the struggle as a Christian, especially in “the Bible Belt.” There are people who only make the work of the Great Commission harder because they would rather hold a condemning sign rather than have a conversation, answering questions and getting to know people. I mentioned the story of Daniel before, but it really is a perfect example. Some more irony to offer is that I had just finished re-reading this book the day before in my personal study time.
Daniel was taken captive from the royal family in Israel to the most sinful nation of its time, Babylon. His reaction to living in that sinful nation should be exactly our response to living in the increasingly Godless nation we call home today. Daniel learned all he could, growing in his understanding and skill of all that his captive culture idolized and relied on. The language, astronomy, magic, and wisdom of Babylon became tools on his own belt that he practiced. Eventually, he out-performed even the native Babylonians around him.
Daniel’s motivation wasn’t to win popularity points with his captors or to show acceptance or approval for Babylon’s ruthless, idolistic worship. He did these things so that he could effectively represent the God of Israel to them, in a way they could understand and respect. And represent he surely did–so well, in fact, that even King Nebuchadnezzar openly admitted that the God of Israel was Lord over everything else being worshiped in Babylon. And the next king made the same confession.
Daniel didn’t have a picketer’s sign. He lived a sacrificial and Godly life and was willing to have a conversation whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Hang with me here as I wrap this up:
Legitimate and genuine evangelism has always been through loving other people. That makes sense because we have it on good authority (Jesus) that it would be our love for one another which would allow others to know and see we belong to the one true God. It makes even more sense when you see that loving others was the commandment that Jesus paired with the Greatest Commandment of loving God. Clearly, it’s an important one and the two go hand-in-hand. It starts with love, and love does more than condemn. Some legalists say truth is love, and they’re about half correct. It will not be fully correct until there’s an equal measure of grace mixed in as well. How do I know that? Because the Bible explains that Jesus, God Himself, was full of truth AND grace.
This message we are purposed to spread is called “the Gospel.” And it’s important to point out that, in English, gospel translates to “good news,” not “warning.” Our sinful nature has tricked us into thinking we can be evangelizers without having joy and genuinely treating what we are saying like it’s not just good news, but the good news. It’s the news so good that the rest of our lives are changed by it.
I don’t think Terry had given much thought to parts of scripture like 1 Peter 3:15 where Peter says that we should always have an answer ready to give (a conversation, not a sign) when people ask us why we have so much hope. Hope is something meant to look appealing because with hope comes joy, even in our suffering. And there is also that part at the end of the verse where Peter specifically said that our answer should be given with gentleness and respect.
There is good news to tell the world. Jesus is not only a historical figure, but the one God promised He would send to restore us. A major element of following this Promised One is to trust Him more than ourselves–to repent and be willing to change in order to embrace a much more fulfilling life. But these are changes we do out of excitement for the hope Jesus provided for us, not from fear of condemnation.
Our repentance and lives of faith, love, and truth in action are the most effective signs we can have. Let’s use those.