Once upon a time, there was a promising start-up company. The CEO of this company was looking for investors, and a few people came forward who were willing to buy in. Nine months later the CEO asked for more investors, and several new people responded.
A year and a half later the company’s market value had skyrocketed, and the CEO wanted to expand again and asked for another round of investors. This time the CEO raised the needed capital so easily he actually had to turn some potential investors away.
Ten years later, the CEO called a business meeting of all the company’s investors. A couple hundred men and women from all across the country traveled to their common destination, wondering what this meeting was all about.
“This will come as quite a shock to many of you, but in three weeks our company will be absorbed into a large multi-corporation,” the CEO shared with the room of investors. “We are selling the company. We accomplished what we set out to do from the beginning, and our top analysts agree that in a few years there will be much less demand for the services we provide. In addition to that, our current market value has never been higher, and the board has decided it’s the right time to sell.”
“I want to thank you all for believing in us, some of you from the very outset, and I am extremely excited to tell you what I have decided to do when the board sells off our stocks: each and every investor will receive one billion dollars.”
Gasps and murmurs rippled through the crowd. There were mixed reactions. Most were speechless; their investment had not been that large, and they never imagined they could be billionaires. Others seemed confused, and a handful seemed upset.
One man stood up and addressed the CEO: “Hold on a second, I was one of your first investors. The risk I took was way bigger than those investors in the third wave. It’s not fair that they get the same as me. I deserve more.”
A woman near the man also stood and said, “With all due respect, I know I was one of your biggest backers. Why, I gave one-thousand percent more than some of these people! To only be getting one billion after twelve years of waiting… it’s not ethical. And I’m fairly certain it’s not legal. You’ll be hearing from my lawyers.”
“Please wait just a minute,” the CEO calmly said. “This might not seem ethical, but I assure you it is legal. The papers each of you signed when you made your investment had a clause clearly stating that I alone would have full discretion as to the parameters of paying back my investors. The only stipulation was you would receive back at least double your original investment, and I assure you that is the case for each of you.”
“It is fair. Who are you to say you deserve more and another deserves less? Do not forget, this has always been my company. The money you are receiving is due to my hard work, my ideas, my risks; there would be no payday if it was not for me.”
And so, many who felt like they themselves had given so much, were disappointed to only get back what they deemed little; while those who knew they had only given little, were overwhelmed with joy to be receiving so much.
(Based off of Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard Workers, Matthew 20:1-16)
What do you think is the point of the story?
Do you ever find yourself comparing your Christian service and devotion to others’ and looking down on them?
Do you ever catch yourself acting like you deserve the blessings and grace of God?
Why do you think we can be like that?
What does Jesus mean when he says, “those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last”?
I recognize that the title of this post is bold, and it is somewhat silly to say I definitively know the three most important words in the entire Bible. I recognize there should be an addendum to this title, like ‘IMHO.’
So, in my humble opinion, let me offer what I see as the three most important words in the Bible…
“It is finished.”
The phrase itself is a highly significant one. It’s a statement you might make after wrapping up a term paper, or a major project; or words you quietly utter with relief at the conclusion of an incredibly awkward conversation; or something your Mom might have said at Thanksgiving when the turkey was finally done and it was time to eat.
It is even more significant because of who is saying it. Think about it like this: replay your favorite tough guy movies and their corresponding famous movie lines. Picture John Wayne with his slow drawl, saying, “Go ahead. Make my day.” Clint Eastwood, his hand hovering over his holster, “Ask yourself, do you feel lucky?” The Terminator peering over his 80s sunglasses warning, “I’ll be back.”
Those guys made their lines credible. Try to imagine Pee Wee Herman or Justin Bieber saying, “I’ll be back.” It just doesn’t work. It’s not believable. Sometimes the person speaking is more important than the words being said; the person, by virtue of who they are, gives what’s being said greater gravitas.
But what I believe makes these the most important words in the Bible is not only the words themselves or who said them, but the circumstances in which these words are spoken.
Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man who left heaven and lived a sinless life on earth, is being crucified by his creation. He has gone to the cross willingly, knowing this is part of God the Father’s plan to reconcile humankind to himself. He is taking upon himself the sins of the world, becoming as it were a liar, thief, adulterer, rapist, and murderer. As one theologian put it, “On the cross Jesus became everything that’s bad about us, so we could become everything that’s good about him.”
Right before he dies, he breathes out these words, “It is finished.”
It’s finished. It’s taken care of. You can’t do anything because everything’s already been done for you. But can you believe that?
Can you believe in the finality and totality of Christ’s work on the cross on your behalf? Even when you want to earn it or at least play some small role in getting it, can you just believe? Even when you keep sinning and don’t seem to be progressing, can you still believe?
It. Is. Finished.
Those three words changed the world. They’re still changing the world.
How have they changed your life?
Sometimes it’s good to listen to dead white guys. Such is the case regarding these words on grace and justification from Martin Luther, posted yesterday at Mockingbird. This is an excerpt of Luther’s commentary on Galatians; here he is expounding on the third verse of chapter one:
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The terms of grace and peace are common terms with Paul and are now pretty well understood. But since we are explaining this epistle, you will not mind if we repeat what we have so often explained elsewhere. The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.
The greeting of the Apostle is refreshing. Grace remits sin, and peace quiets the conscience. Sin and conscience torment us, but Christ has overcome these fiends now and forever. Only Christians possess this victorious knowledge given from above. These two terms, grace and peace, constitute Christianity. Grace involves the remission of sins, peace, and a happy conscience. Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. The Law reveals guilt, fills the conscience with terror, and drives men to despair. Much less is sin taken away by man-invented endeavors. The fact is, the more a person seeks credit for himself by his own efforts, the deeper he goes into debt.
Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God. In actual living, however, it is not so easy to persuade oneself that by grace alone, in opposition to every other means, we obtain the forgiveness of our sins and peace with God. The world brands this a pernicious doctrine. The world advances free will, the rational and natural approach of good works, as the means of obtaining the forgiveness of sin. But it is impossible to gain peace of conscience by the methods and means of the world. Experience proves this. Various holy orders have been launched for the purpose of securing peace of conscience through religious exercises, but they proved failures because such devices only increase doubt and despair.
We find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the word of grace.
It was true then, and it’s no less true today. Rest in the truth of grace today.
I’d like to share a conversation I had with my daughter, our oldest who is now a first grader, that took place two weeks ago. I was putting all three kids to bed and decided we would try something different to pray. I got us all in a circle and said we were going to pray for the person on our right. Then I showed the boys which direction was right.
The boys prayed silly prayers, imagine that, but when it was Addi’s turn she said she didn’t want to pray. Thinking she was just too nervous, I offered some encouraging, fatherly words that would surely convince her she could pray.
Then she said, “I can’t pray… I did too many bad things today.” That got my attention, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Then she looked at me and said, “I want to feel clean inside.”
That floored me. Instantly, my heart was both full and broken. I was a mess of excitement and nerves. This was the kind of conversation starter pastors live for, and here was my little girl opening that door.
I pulled her over to me, sat her on my lap, and gave her a big hug. I said a couple of things to her, then realized we needed to be able to have a real conversation. So I put the boys to bed, grabbed my Bible, and we sat on Addi’s bed and talked.
I read 1 John 1:9 to her: “If we confess our sins, (God) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I explained that to confess simply meant to admit to God she had done bad things, which she had done. I told her because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, we are clean on the inside. I desperately wanted her to understand that this is what grace is all about, that she didn’t need to do anything, that because of Jesus she is forgiven and clean.
She said she understood. I prayed, and she repeated what I said. I asked her if she understood what she had prayed, and again she said she understood.
I wonder how much she did understand. I wonder how deeply a six-year-old can grasp amazing grace. I’m not sure how deeply I grasp it! I constantly find myself slipping back into old ruts of approaching God based on what I’ve done lately rather than because of what Jesus Christ did for me 2,000 years ago.
And I remember when I was about Addi’s age I prayed the sinner’s prayer to receive Jesus over and over and over again. I couldn’t tell you how many times I prayed it, but I know I had it memorized.
My constant fear was that I had not prayed all the right words, that I had left out a part, or that I had not been 100% sincere. Ironically, in my prayer asking Jesus to save me from the eternal fires of hell, my focus was completely on my own efforts to be saved. I did not get grace. My faith was pretty weak; I wasn’t able to simply trust in Christ alone.
From a developmental view, maybe I was unable to mentally and emotionally grasp the concept of grace at that young age. Maybe the same is true for my daughter. Less than a week ago, again at the end of the day, Addi said she did not want to pray. Then she said, “I think I need a new heart again.”
She felt bad for something that had happened earlier, and I love that she feels bad about being bad; I hope she never loses that! We had another conversation, and I explained how in a relationship it is important to say sorry when you recognize you’ve done something wrong. Then we prayed together.
I think her statement is also indicative that she doesn’t get grace yet. As we go on from here and have more conversations, this is what I want to try to bring down to her level: that she is saved by grace and that her “job” is to believe that when Jesus said, “It is finished,” it really is.
As Paul Tillich wrote, “Faith is the courage to accept acceptance.” Faith is believing that God’s grace is real and is for me. That’s what I want to be convinced of in the depths of my soul, and what I want for my kids as well.
I do believe that God is hearing the heartfelt cries of my little girl, and it pleases Him to extend His Son’s righteousness to her. She might not fully get it, but in Christ she is forgiven and clean. She is His.
We were spoiled rotten on this mission trip.
The mission organization we worked with in the Dominican did not have adequate housing, so teams stay at a nearby hotel. It is not necessarily the nicest hotel on the island, but it was the nicest place I’ve ever stayed on a mission trip!
It was clean, the rooms were nice, the water was usually warm and sometimes hot, the food was great, and the view was spectacular.
We were right on the ocean. Literally thirty feet away from the waves crashing on the shore.
We were spoiled rotten.
They also had a very nice pool, which was greatly enjoyed and used by all. But by the end of the day, it was a bit messy.
By the end of the day, bugs had found their way to the pool. Sand had been tracked into the pool. And plenty of leaves, twigs, and flowers were not only in the pool, but by nightfall the whole area around the pool was covered. You could hardly take a step without landing on something. It wasn’t a big deal; it was just the way it was.
One of the first mornings there, as I was walking past the pool on my way to breakfast, some of the workers were just putting the finishing touches on the pool and the area around it. The work they were doing was nothing short of a miracle; they were making the pool brand new again.
Each day this was the routine. We dirtied the pool, the wind dirtied the pool, but by morning it was brand new again.
It struck me that this is what God does for us.
Lamentations 3:22-23 tells us God’s mercies are new every morning. We dirty up our lives during the day, and then while we are sleeping, God is at work cleaning us up. Extending his mercy to us so when we wake up, God says to us, “You and I are alright. Things are good between us. Let’s spend the day together.”
We inevitably mess things up, but it’s not a big deal. God is faithful despite our unfaithfulness, and He says to us again (and again and again and again), “You and I are alright. I’ve taken care of it. I’ve made things good between us again. Let’s spend today together.”
That’s amazing grace. Grace that can change our perspective, change our understanding of how we relate to God, change how we live our lives.
Are you trusting in God’s daily mercies? Are you able to lean into and embrace this gift God brings to the table? This gift that does not depend on you or I in any way? Can you believe it is true? And that it is for you?
I recently got back from a missions trip to the Dominican Republic with a group of students and adults from my church. The experience impacted us greatly: seeing the widespread poverty, interacting with the people there, those living with joy and hope and those not, doing our best to love the Haitian and Dominican children we met, getting to know each other better, worshipping God in another culture. It is hard to articulate all we experienced or what we are processing or how we are different, but here are some snapshots that have stayed with me.
The first snapshot is Pastor Joe sharing his story of growing up in Mexico and being sponsored so he could attend school as a young child, and then leading the schoolchildren in a prayer asking God for help to be the best students they can be, that their story might take a similar path as his did.
Twice a day, we spent time playing with kids and their families, holding babies, doing crafts, blowing bubbles, playing baseball and soccer and frisbee. And sweating… a lot. At one of these neighborhoods, a Dominican pastor walked up trying to get our attention, trying to gather all “the missionaries” around him. He did not speak any English, but with the help of Pastor Joe he prayed for us and shared Psalm 121 with us:
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
One of the most unique things we did was go in groups into homes, visit with a family, and actually pray for them with the help of a translator. These were, in essence, pastoral visits that our students got to experience. One student later shared with us about visiting the home of a woman with 10 kids who was a former prostitute. She had a picture of Jesus hanging on her wall and pointed to it and said, “Jesus is the only man for me now.”
A couple other impacting statements from students included one sharing how she hoped when she went back home she could continue to be who she had become here. What a great prayer!
Another student said he learned everyone just wants to be loved. What an insight for a 16-year-old to grasp!
And one student wanted to bring home one of the Haitians he met, a boy his age with great basketball talent. He recognized that basketball was this young man’s ticket out, and he also recognized that the only difference between the two of them was where they were born. He desperately wanted this new friend to have the same opportunities and privileges he had always enjoyed.
Not only did we have these holy moments in the Dominican, but a holy moment also broke out on our way home, in Miami International Airport of all places. We had two hours to make our connecting flight. Two hours to get 43 people through all the hoops amidst the chaos and confusion of customs and security checkpoints and needed bathroom breaks and long lines to get food for dinner. We all did get onto the plane in time to sit down, get our seat belts on, and be told by the pilot we wouldn’t be leaving for two more hours because of bad weather in Chicago.
But before that, on our way to the plane, myself and a small group were bringing up the rear, weaving our way through the airport, when I looked ahead and made eye contact with a very large, intimidating TSA agent. He waved us over to him, and I’m just thinking, “Perfect! What’d we do wrong now?”
He walked right over to us and said, “Thank you. Thank you for being missionaries and doing what you did.”
He shared with us that he’s unable to go on mission trips himself, but he always has an eye out for large groups all wearing the same T-shirt and makes a point of personally thanking each group on their way through the airport.
What an unexpected blessing! And what a blessed trip!
One more from our friend, Brennan Manning. Here, he is talking about Rich Mullins (google him if you’ve never heard of him) and Rich’s deep understanding of grace.
Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people… We read, we hear, we believe a good theology of grace. But that’s not the way we live. The Good News of grace has not penetrated the level of our emotions. What’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey (quoting counselor David Seamands) (ht to Rhett Smith)
Every Christian knows we are saved by grace, that we can’t earn righteousness in God’s eyes. We know it, and we laugh at the silliness of someone trying to work their way to heaven.
But then, far too often, we catch ourselves trying to earn favor with God, trying to earn God’s approval, striving to work our way into God’s good graces. Ironic, isn’t it?
Brennan Manning, one of my all-time favorite authors and speakers, gives us some critical insight into this.
(Transcript below the video.)
In the 48 years since I was first ambushed by Jesus, in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains of Western Pennsylvania, and in literally thousands of hours of prayers, meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day the Lord Jesus is going to ask each of us one question and only one question,
“Did you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day? That I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”
The real believers there will answer, “Yes, Jesus, I believed in your love and I tried to shape my life as a response to it.”
But many of us who are so faithful in our ministry, in our practice, in our churchgoing, are gonna have to reply, “Well frankly, no, sir. I mean I never really believed it. I mean I heard a lot of wonderful sermons and teachings about it. In fact, I gave quite a few myself. But I always thought that was just a way of speaking, a kindly lie, some Christian’s pious pat on the back to cheer me on.”
And there’s the difference between the real believers and the nominal Christians that are found in our churches across the land.
No one can measure like a believer the depth and the intensity of God’s love, but at the same time no one can measure like a believer the effectiveness of our gloom, pessimism, low self-esteem, self-hatred and despair that block God’s way to us.
Do you see why it is so important to lay hold of this basic truth of our faith? Because you’re only going to be as big as your own concept of God.
Remember the famous line of the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal? “God made man in His own image, and man returned the compliment.” We often make God in our own image and he winds up to be as fussy, rude, narrow-minded, legalistic, judgmental, unforgiving, and unloving as we are.
In the past couple three years I’ve preached the Gospel… (all over the world) … and honest to God, the God of so many Christians I meet is a God who is too small for me, because he is not the God of the Word, he is not the God revealed by and in Jesus Christ who this moment comes right to your seat and says,
“I have a word for you.
I know your whole life story. I know every skeleton in your closet. I know every moment of sin, shame, dishonesty and degraded love that has darkened your past. Right now, I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship.
And my word is this:
I dare you to trust that I love you just as you are and not as you should be, because you’re never gonna be as you should be.”