There are many Christians in the church trying to make God love them. They spend their lives doing, serving, witnessing, fasting, judging, performing, and feeling the unbearable weight of condemnation when they fail at these things. They are Charis-less Christians who atone for their sin by grinding out good works from a checklist. Such was the life of my friend Brad Sarian.
Brad was, in his own words, a modern-day Pharisee. He grew up in the church, read the Bible, prayed every day, shunned the very appearance of evil, and had near-perfect church attendance. When his Christian schoolteacher asked the class on Monday how many went to church, Brad shot up his hand like clockwork. “Yes, ma’am, I went to church and Sunday school.”
Brad was a model kid. He never cussed, drank, smoked, or watched R movies, and he never looked at porn (well, almost never). He was not only a good, moral kid but also a gifted leader and an impressive preacher. By his early teens, Brad was teaching regularly in Sunday school, and by the time he was eighteen, he was the regular preacher for a vibrant junior high ministry at a megachurch in Los Angeles. “As for the Law,” Brad told me, “I was blameless. I served the poor, discipled believers, and went on mission trips. And I never missed my devotions.”
But there’s one thing Brad missed growing up. According to his own admission, he never understood grace. “Oh sure, I could give you a textbook definition of what grace meant, but I thought grace didn’t apply to me any longer.” Brad thought of grace as a purely “past thing,” something he needed when he first got saved. “Grace was what I needed for God to get me in the door to discipleship, Bible reading, and mission trips, but it carried no ongoing significance.”
Brad’s testimony is typical. He tells me that every one of his friends at church growing up had the same view of Christianity. Grace – and therefore the gospel – didn’t carry any ongoing importance in their faith. Incidentally, 68 percent of born-again Christians in America believe that the saying, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a verse in the Bible – somewhere, perhaps, toward the end of 3 Kings. Not only is this phrase nowhere in the Bible, but the very idea is offensive to the Biblical gospel. The good news isn’t, “God helps those who help themselves;” the good news is, “You’re wicked, your life’s a mess, and only God can fix it.” God helps those who realize that they can’t help themselves.
“God seemed very distant during those years,” Brad said. “He was like a distant father who would raise an eyebrow and spank me when I messed up but who didn’t take a real interest in me as a person. When I messed up, I thought God was mad at me. So to please him again, I would counter my sin with more good deeds. If I looked at porn, I would just memorize a verse that evening (or a chapter if I watched a lot of porn), and my sin would be covered.”
Brad lived a Christian life of retribution and transaction. When he did good things, God was happy with him. When he did bad things, God was angry with him. Functionally, it was Brad’s obedience, not Jesus’s, that satisfied his guilt for sin.
I’ve met many Brads in my life, good Christians who inch along in a tit-for-tat view of a God who spanks us when we mess up but otherwise remain distant. Whatever we say on paper, we live as if grace is what God did in the past but is something that bears no significance for our ongoing relationship with Jesus.
Our journey through the Old Testament will confront and challenge and ultimately liberate the Brads of the church. It will show us that God not only loves us; he actually likes us. He eagerly dirties his hands with our mess to mold us into masterpieces of beauty. And when we emerge clean from the mud, we owe it all to God. When we fall back into the pit of addiction and lust and greed and selfishness, God is eager to roll up his sleeves and go to work. And God loves to go to work. From beginning to end, our Christian lives – highs and lows, fasting and fornication – are a tapestry of grace.
You can’t make God love you. God loves you because of who he is and because of what Christ has done. His love is not based on what you do, or what you don’t do.
God doesn’t get angry at Christians, because all that anger – 100 percent – was absorbed by Jesus on the cross.
God doesn’t merely forgive us or save us. He actually enjoys us – even in our darkest moments. He doesn’t enjoy our sin, but he enjoys us as redeemed image bearers. Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection enable his pleasure to flow freely to unpleasurable people who have faith in him.
Brad is now twenty-three years old and has broken free, by God’s grace, of his Pharisaic religion. He’s now a fervent preacher of Charis. He understands that he is in need of daily grace, that the gospel is something that never grows old or loses significance. “I still struggle with legalism,” Brad says, “but when I do, I look to Jesus, who forgives even my legalism.” He now knows that any ounce of obedience he spins out of his fragile life has been energized by Jesus and the Spirit. God, not Brad, sits on the throne of his morality.
Charis – it’s the artery of the Bible. And yes, it runs through both Testaments.
So dust off your Old Testament, and let’s take a journey – a familiar journey perhaps, but with fresh eyes. A journey into God’s autobiography, where harlots are hugged, enemies are enjoyed, whores are made whole, and really bad people receive really good things from a Creator who stubbornly delights in undelightful people.