Jesus > Religion… God’s Scandalous Grace by Jefferson Bethke
Religion says, “God will love you IF…” / Jesus says, “God so loved…”
When I had been following Jesus for almost a year, I was already seen as the token Christian guy on my college baseball team. I didn’t go to parties with the team and didn’t talk about girls the way they did.
It was that year when the real, beautiful, and scandalous grace of God knocked me over.
Sure, I had started to follow Jesus. Sure, I was doing all the “Christian” things. But God still had a plan to expose the filthiness of my sin completely and blow me up with His grace.
When we become Christians, we begin to follow Jesus, but the moments when He completely obliterates our self-righteousness and gives us a potent dose of real, transforming grace is when following Him becomes deeply special.
As soon as I started following Jesus, a lot of my temptations completely disappeared, but there was one that didn’t seem to want to leave: lust. There were still things I wanted to look at and girls I wanted to talk to. There was something especially potent about this temptation. It would call my name, and I couldn’t seem to say no. This would result in an endless cycle of guilt and despair because once I was a Christian, I knew I shouldn’t be wanting those things.
I was under the false impression that Jesus was supposed to make these temptations disappear instantly. The life I had chosen to live for the previous few years haunted me, chased me, and wooed me all the time.
One night during my sophomore year of college, God decided to show me just how inadequate I was to fight my own sin and just how powerful His grace was to break that sin. I was sitting on the couch in my room playing Halo 3, but quickly became bored. Lustful thoughts started to call my name. I knew I shouldn’t give in, but there was still a part of me that thought, Who cares? What’s a little fun? No one will know.
So I texted a girl I had previously had a completely physical relationship with. She said she wasn’t doing anything and wanted to hang out, so I drove over to her house with us both knowing what our intentions were. Even while driving there, I felt this cosmic battle waging in my soul. Part of me deeply wanted it, but another part of me knew there was something better and tried to convince me that sex wouldn’t bring the satisfaction it promised.
Ultimately, I went through with it. Rather than seeing her as another soul made in the image of God, I saw her as an object. Rather than trusting that God actually wanted to bring me deeper joy, I thought I knew better what would make me happy.
I’ll never forget the feeling when I got home. I felt hollow, sick, dirty. I was a Christian now. I knew better. I wasn’t supposed to do that anymore! On top of that, I felt even more shame because I had planned what I did and had many opportunities to say no. I’d never had this happen before, and I’ve never had it happen since. The shame and guilt were so palpable that I literally became sick. I stayed up until six o’clock that morning throwing up, feeling so dirty and worthless and thinking I had completely failed God and that He must hate me now.
I thought, What’s more evil? Being blind and living in ignorance, or knowing what is right and still doing what is wrong? I had known it was wrong, but I did it anyway.
I was just lying there, swimming in my own shame and guilt, when this still, small voice whispered into the depths of my soul:
I love you.
I desire you.
I delight in you.
I saw you were going to do that before I went to the cross, and I still went.
I had a feeling of utter quiet and peace. I didn’t hear those words in my ears, but felt them whispered into the depths of my bones. Immediately, relief and the epiphany that I hadn’t surprised God rushed over me. I hadn’t caught Him off guard. When Jesus went to the cross, He saw all I’ll ever be, all I’ll ever do (including that), and all I’ll ever want outside of Him; but He joyfully came and got me.
He looked down and said, “I want that one.”
I couldn’t earn it, and I don’t deserve it. But He freely loves me and gave me grace. Not only did I not deserve His love in that moment, but if anything, I deserved the opposite. But He chose to let His beauty and splendor pour out of Him and into my ugliness.
That’s when it hit me:
God’s grace isn’t nice and cute. It’s scandalous.
For the first time I realized just how inadequate I was. I realized just how incapable I was of freeing myself from sin. I was sitting in this filth and couldn’t get out when grace came and got me. It didn’t wait on the outside, but it entered into my struggle. We don’t have to hide the fact that we are messy because God doesn’t hide the fact that that’s exactly the type of people He came to save.
God doesn’t hide sin. In fact, he put it on display two thousand years ago in a splintered T-shaped piece of wood. Jesus came down to earth, lived the perfect life we never could have, and died the death we should have. And every drop of blood that poured from Him was another drop of love falling on us. Have you ever felt like your sin should be paid for?
It has been.
All our sins. All our filth. All our guilt. All our shame.
Jesus paid the price on our behalf.
That type of grace is dangerous. Looking someone right in the face and saying “forgiven,” with no conditions and no contract to sign is dangerous. That type of grace, when understood, turns people’s lives upside down.
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. — Romans 4:5
. . . . Only people who see God as their judge, not their father, try to take advantage of grace. People all the time ask themselves, “How close can I get to this line without getting in trouble?” when it comes to a lawful or judicial relationship, but rarely does someone ask that question when it comes to an intimate relationship. How stupid would I look if I asked, “How close can I get to not loving Alyssa without her divorcing me?” No, I ask how close can I get to Alyssa. I’m pursuing her, not running from her.
I fully believe that as a Christian you can take advantage of grace, but when you’ve truly tasted it, you never will. When you’ve experienced the joy and life of Christ in you, then nothing is as satisfying anymore. It’s not that you want to use His grace to do all the things you used to love. Those things no longer are attractive to you, and you love Him now!
There is something about that grace, though, that just rubs some religious people the wrong way. It used to rub me the same way too. True grace can’t be controlled. It can’t be tamed. It can’t be used by the leadership as a social construction to manipulate the people. It’s wild. And you have to trust it will do its job.
God’s grace is an alluring, compelling, stunning, and powerful force that invites us to get lost in it.
The best part about that type of grace is that it changes people. Real grace loves us right where we are, but it loves us too much to keep us there. Cheap grace — which is not really grace at all — is like a horrendous version of love that sees its loved one in danger and simply says, “I love you.” That doesn’t cut it. We need rescuing. And God does exactly that. We know we’ve accepted God’s transforming grace if we begin to look different. Don’t think grace is beyond your grasp. God is offering it to you.
And it’s life-giving. Will you trust Him?