The Great Scandal

The Great Scandal

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The real Jesus of Nazareth is winsome and attractive. When we see Jesus, full of compassion and grace, we're drawn to Him. Finding new life in Christ and following Him launches us into lives of high adventure, purpose, joy, endless discovery, and growth in grace. Asking Christ to fill us with his Spirit, our faith goes into action and we're empowered for pure-hearted living and service to others.

One evening the calm in our home was shattered by a breaking-news report blaring from the television, announcing: "Twenty-four years in the making, justice is served." In punishment for his role in the 1987 murders of two women, Paul Ezra Rhoades had just been put to death by lethal injection in Idaho's first state execution since 1994.

Those words, "Justice is served," stand in stark contrast to news that could have been announced two millennia ago after the execution of an innocent Man on a Cross: "Thousands of years in the making, mercy is served." What good news!

"God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (John 3:17). God is "rich in mercy" (Ephesians 2:4). He "saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:5). I celebrate God's kindness that leads me to repentance (Romans 2:4) and gives me freedom in Jesus my Savior!

That God loves me enough to make a way to cancel what for me is an impossible-to-pay debt for my sins, His Son willingly dying for me on the cross, staggers my imagination. This "wonderful grace of Jesus," is not only "greater than all my sin," it's "setting my spirit free" (Haldor Lillenas, 360, Sing to the Lord).

Bondage to people will keep me from growing in grace and experiencing freedom in Christ. One church had an unwritten rule that in its midweek gatherings everyone would "testify" or else be viewed as having "backslidden." It took time, but usually everyone finally stood and at least said something like, "I'm saved, sanctified, and satisfied." Failure to testify would have produced unbearable pressure. The people longed to be in a grace-based church that was characterized by kindness and joy.

The English word scandal comes from Greek (σκνδαλον). In 1 Corinthians 1:23 it's translated "stumbling block." To Jews, that Messiah would die on a Cross for all people was scandalous.

On an instrument designed shamefully to execute criminals, God's innocent "lamb" turns scandal into miracle.

Christ's death on the Cross unleashes immense mercy.

Sinners, repenting of their sins and trusting in Him for forgiveness, reach out and receive the gift of overflowing life (Romans 6:23b) and begin "living an eternal kind of life now!" (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 35).

God's way to make us right seems too good to be true. We want to earn "right" standing with God, to "measure up," and somehow deserve His favor. Yet it's by grace we are "saved, through faith" (Ephesians 2:8).

We trust in Christ's death on the Cross for us. God grasps us in grace. We grasp the gift of real life. To some, this "power and wisdom of God is scandalous" (1 Corinthians 1:24). No one, regardless how good he or she is, may boast to God that he or she has achieved "righteousness" (1 Corinthians 1:29). Only through God's mercy and grace are we "in Christ Jesus." He alone is our "righteousness" and "holiness" (1 Corinthians 30). By grace we experience "his living presence in our lives" (Willard, ibid, 38).

I trusted Christ as my Savior when I was six years old. People began pushing on me lists of what to do to please God and of what not to do lest I lose my salvation. Reducing Christianity to "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" makes it easy but impersonal and devoid of real joy.

In my transition from youth to adulthood I encountered sub-Christian attitudes and practices that brought me to a "near-death experience" with regard to my denomination. I went to my pastor at the time, Holland Lewis, for guidance. He assured me the problem was not the denomination but the harsh "holiness" that one congregation practiced. By the grace of God, I opted for the refreshing real gospel.

The gospel can be hard to accept. We resist being made right and living in right relationship with God by His grace, a gift. It's counterintuitive. But God's ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9).

Human history records people's relentless efforts to earn right standing with God. It shows up in all the world's religions with their systems of rules to follow and sacrifices to make in order to please their gods.

Jesus shows that the gospel is different from religion. A story He tells reveals God's compassionate heart toward those who are sorry for their sins and ask for mercy.

Two men entered the Temple. One presented evidence to God to prove his piety. The other, in sorrow for his sins, pled for God to have mercy on him. Jesus said he's the one that God forgives and sets free.

God initiates every impulse I have to be right with Him and live a Christ-filled life. It's not "easy-believism" or "cheap grace" — it's divine grace. Even the faith that we put into action to take hold of grace is God's gift to us (Ephesians 2:8).

We put labels on people. I was rushing to hear the keynote speaker, a Wesley scholar and evangelism professor, at a Church of the Nazarene conference. I met a friend who tried to stop me, protesting, "I won't listen to that 'liberal' — he's soft on sin." He reminded me of the Pharisees who opposed Jesus because His message about divine mercy and grace ran counter to their system of achieved righteousness. I admit that I was quick to label my friend a "Pharisee."

Some people's catchphrase is "Repent or perish!" Jesus not only called people to repent so they would not perish but also that they would experience full life in Him. God does not want anyone to perish but everyone to repent (2 Peter 3:9), trust in Christ as their Savior, and follow Him as their Master, experiencing life in His kingdom now.

We become more and more like our concept of God. If I see Him as harsh, that's the way I'll become, but if I see God as compassionate, that's the kind of person I'll become.

This shows up in Jesus' story about a man who was going on a long journey. Before leaving, He entrusted three servants with different amounts of gold for each to invest for Him in order to gain more while He was away. Two of them invested well and doubled their investment. The third, fearful, buried the master's gold coins.

When the master returned and called them in, the fearful one made excuses. "'Master', he [said], 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you'" (Matthew 25:24b-25). What a false idea of what God is like!

Jesus told about a king who began to settle accounts with everyone who owed him money. One man owed him an amount too large to repay in a lifetime. Brought before the king, the man begged for more time to repay all that he owed. The king felt compassion, canceled his entire debt, and sent him on his way — free! (Matthew 18:27)

Sadly, that's not the end of the story. The man who was just forgiven his huge debt saw someone who owed him a little money and refused to show him mercy. In the end, the man who'd been set free, due to his own hard heart, was imprisoned for life without any hope for the future.

Awed by God's lavish love, acceptance, forgiveness, and patience with me, I choose to deal graciously with others (Matthew 10:8). I celebrate Christ's living presence in me in the Person of His Holy Spirit and live and serve with boundless joy, grateful for the scandal of divine grace!

A. Brent Cobb's ministry career stretches across 46 years. He has served as a pastor, missionary to Korea, and the Asia-Pacific Region director for the Church of the Nazarene.

Holiness Today, September/October 2012

Please note: This article was originally published in 2012. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.