(Painting: "Gothic Cathedral with Imperial Palace," by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1815)
(Note: the piece below was written as a devotional column for my local area's newspaper)
This past week I had a young man in my office who wanted to explore a very good question: Even if we accept that there’s a God out there, what reason do we have for believing more than that? Why believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as opposed to one of the many other systems of belief out there? In my answer, I’m not going to denigrate any other religious systems; but rather, as a Christian, I’m going to describe what I see as the special wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we get the notion that religion is our attempt to reach God—to understand him, to communicate with him, to try to enter into relationship with him. Sometimes we act as if going to church is our attempt to give something back to God. Unfortunately, these notions are dangerously misleading. It’s not so much that they’re flat-out wrong, but that they’re looking at the practice of Christianity upside-down.
Our faith isn’t an attempt on our part to find God—quite the opposite! The Bible teaches that God has already reached out to find us, long before we were even born. Christianity isn’t about what we do for God, it’s about what God has already done for us. God has taken the initiative in this relationship; he has sought us out. He is pursuing us with the relentless force of undying love. We know this because he has revealed himself to us—not just in a book or a set of practices, as many other religions might hold—no, he has revealed himself to us in an actual person, in a set of actions at a particular place and time in history. The truth-claims of Christianity are ones that can be studied, researched, and encountered within the scope of verifiable human history. Two thousand years ago, God entered our story. And he did so not just to show himself to us, not just to teach us the way he wants us to live—he came into our story to do something for us that we could not do for ourselves. Through his death and resurrection, we believe that Christ has dealt with our failings, our brokenness, our many sins—he has drunk down the suffering and the spiritual disease of humanity, taken it upon himself, and shattered its power on our behalf. Because of the actions he undertook for us, we now have the possibility of becoming more than what we were before—we can grow in virtue and love, we can be morally transformed from the inside out, we can enter a new life of joy and purpose, and—most of all—we can know God intimately and personally.
Our faith is all about what God has done for us, not really about what we do for God. God doesn’t need us to do things for him; he’s God! But even if he doesn’t need us, he does want us. He loves us with an unshakable, unending, unbelievable love—each one of us. All that Christianity is, at its root, is our joyful response to his immense love for us. Everything that we do—going to church, singing praises, doing good deeds, keeping the commands of Scripture—all these things are simply the smile, the laugh, the sheer joy of the beloved when she notices the gaze of the One who loves her. Being a Christian, fundamentally, is not really about the things you have to do. There are things you’ll want to do, certainly, once you’re connected to Christ—you’ll want to pursue him in church fellowship, in worship, in Scripture, in obedience and good deeds. But what we do is not the heart of the Gospel. The heart of the Gospel is all about what God has done, in pouring out his extravagant love on us in a real, this-world, here-and-now way, and allowing us to respond to it with joy. God’s love is for everyone, and so the invitation is open to absolutely anyone to come and discover the delight of being God’s beloved, made possible through Jesus Christ.