“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Through my teens and twenties, I faced many struggles and questions about my faith, but my belief in the reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus never really wavered. I attended an apologetically-driven Seminary where it was further confirmed in my own mind that the things I believed about Jesus were based firmly in truth and reality. I can speak in detail about the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts, which in my opinion (and the opinion of many scholars more learned than myself) are the best historical record of any events in all of antiquity. The eyewitness testimonies, the early writing dates, the fact that nearly all of the 12 apostles went to brutal deaths never wavering in their witness that they had seen the risen Christ...I could go on, but let me stop there for now. Believing in Jesus was never my problem. However, following Jesus presented a much larger challenge for me in my day-to-day life. Let me explain.
Sometime around Junior High I began to hear a message that was repeated several times over as I attended bible studies and contemplated what my Christian faith was all about. It went something like this: “It’s not enough to just believe in Jesus, you need to follow Him as well!” Okay, great. “But what exactly does that mean?” I asked. Usually the answer was something to do with daily bible reading, prayer, evangelism and staying away from sin. I wasn’t much of a reader in those days, but I did go through spurts where I would pick up my bible for a short time each day. However, these spurts usually only lasted a few days or weeks at the most. While there were parts of the Bible that I enjoyed, there were other parts I found confusing or even disturbing. The gospels were particularly interesting to me, but much of the Old Testament was shrouded in mystery.
My prayer life was also extremely inconsistent. I remember taking a few moments to pray as my head hit the pillow to go to sleep at night. I have a very vivid memory of praying that the members of Guns N’ Roses would get saved. Doesn’t appear as though that prayer has yet been answered...however, I digress. Like my bible reading, my prayer life was very inconsistent. My plan to pray as my hit head the pillow at night was often interrupted by sleep, and there were too many important things to accomplish during the day, like saving Princess Peach from the clutches of the evil Bowser (or King Koopa if you’re old school, like me).
Evangelism was never a strong suit for me. As an very introverted kid, the thought of standing in front of my peers to proclaim that they ought to repent of their sin and turn to Jesus for salvation was terrifying. Who was I, anyway, to proclaim repentance to them when I could only inconsistently carve out 10 minutes each day to read my bible and pray? Most people would have looked at my life and thought I was a generally moral kid, and I suppose in some ways I was. But I knew the inner workings of my thoughts and intentions, and I knew that there were sins that I struggled with consistently. So that was strike 3, or strike 4, I guess.
I began to see this chasm between the fact that I was a believer in Jesus, and yet had failed in many ways to follow Him consistently in the manner I had been told. Somewhere along the way, this idea arose in my mind that Jesus was not pleased with me because of my weak Christian life. After all, didn’t Jesus tell the church in Laodicea that He would “spew them out of His mouth” because of their lukewarm, mediocre Christianity? I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant for Jesus to spew you out of His mouth, but I had a sinking feeling that I may one day find out. At times I would think, “just try harder, be more consistent, stay at it!” And maybe for a time I would, but after a while I would get lazy and fall back into old habits. The fear of the “great spew” would then return. It was a pattern that was repeated several times over. I believed in Jesus, but found following Him to be a daunting task that was largely driven by fear even when I was at my “best.”
The turning point for me did NOT come through finally getting a consistent Bible reading plan underway (although hardly a day goes by anymore where I don’t spend a good deal of time reading the Scriptures). It did not come through daily laboring in prayer (though my prayer life is more vibrant than ever). It didn’t come through evangelism or achieving a high level of personal holiness either (though as a pastor I consider both to be high priorities in my calling). For me, the transition from believer to follower came about through a radical change in belief and thinking about who Jesus is and who I am in Him.
Let me make a bold statement here to all believers in Jesus. He is not mad at you. For some, that may come as a surprise. If you’ve walked around with the sneaking suspicion that you may get “spewed” at some point, let me offer a few thoughts from the Scriptures to combat this idea. One of my favorite bible passages is 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. It says:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come! Everything is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf: “Be reconciled to God.” He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The first and the last verse of this passage are the keys. You have been made a new creation in Christ. You have been born again, renewed, restored, redeemed and cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Your sin was placed upon the shoulders of Jesus, and His righteousness has been placed upon you through the New Covenant that God instituted by His blood. That means when God looks upon you, He sees the righteousness and beauty of Jesus because by His grace He has made you a new creation. Martin Luther called this the great exchange. Will God the Father ever be mad at Jesus, His Son? Of course not. Then how is it that we often walk around wondering about God’s love for us even when we are at our “best”? We have been cleansed of all sin-past, present, and future. That doesn’t come about through any amount of Bible reading or prayer. It comes about through the finished work of Jesus’ blood.
The next truth that has transformed me from a believer to a follower of Jesus is this: God’s love for us is perfect. John makes the amazing statement in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.” He is the very embodiment of what love truly is. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus showed this kind of love when he hung upon the cross for our sins, and even interceded for those who condemned Him to death. If Jesus prayed for those who spit on Him and mocked Him while He suffered the greatest agony ever known in human history, I am confident that He intercedes for us and loves us even at our worst. God’s perfect love is unwavering and it never fails us even when we fail Him (which, if we’re being honest, happens all the time).
One of the songs we sing often at church is “Good Good Father” by Chris Tomlin. The chorus of the song says:
“You’re a Good Good Father
It’s who You are, It’s who You are, It’s who You are
And I’m loved by You
It’s who I am, It’s who I am, It’s who I am”
So simple, yet so powerful and so true. Our God is a good and perfect Father. As an imperfect earthly father, I know that I truly want my children’s lives to be blessed. My love for them is so strong even when they are at their worst. The thought that I would ever stop loving them because they disobeyed one of my commands is ridiculous. So how is it that as Christians we often think that God’s love and favor are directly connected to our obedience and ability to be consistent in our walk with Him? I’m not sure where this idea comes from, but it’s certainly not in the pages of Scripture. We have been loved with a perfect love from a perfect God. This love is unconditional, is given freely apart from works, and is received by grace and grace alone.
There is much more I could say about the amazing grace and love of God. Certainly a few paragraphs aren’t enough to do it any sort of justice. But the point I want to make here is that as I began to discover just how loved I am by God, something within me began to change. I believe the Holy Spirit was able to remove the scales that legalism and fear-based thoughts and ideas had formed over my vision of Jesus. Paul tells us in Romans 8:14-16 that the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to make us adopted sons and daughters of God, and then to remind us that we are children of God. The Holy Spirit comes into our lives to comfort us and bring us peace. He is not there to condemn us and make us feel that we are a disappointment to God. I think we are often pretty good at doing that to ourselves.
As I meditated upon this great love and favor that God placed upon my life, I found a new desire welling up within me to read my Bible and learn more of this Jesus who gave Himself for my sin. I began to pray with great fervency knowing that a loving God always hears and listens to my prayers. A genuine desire to speak to others about the great love of Jesus took hold in my life because I wanted others to know just how loved they are by Him as well. I also began to see that every imperfect act of kindness and mercy preaches the gospel about the God who loves us with a perfect love. My desire to live a life of holiness increased as I began to see the destruction that sin had brought into my life and the lives of others. I began to find it much easier to simply say yes to God and no to sin knowing that God’s commands are not meant to be a burden, but to bring me greater freedom. In short, I went from a believer in Jesus to a follower of Jesus, and it all came about through an encounter with the great love of God.