Rain fell softly as we waited in line among ten-thousand of our neighbors from the Nashville area. Music was promised inside Bridgestone Arena. Music different from what normally is heard in that huge venue. Music that would reach out and woo the seeker, hopefully, into surrendering their lives to Jesus Christ.
My daughter and her friend were all smiles, excited to see artist whose music they loved to sing along with on the radio…Mandisa, Danny Gokey, The Newsboys, Rend Collective, etc…while my friend and I enjoyed their bubbling excitement.
I had dropped them off at the entrance so they could get a place in line while I parked the car two blocks away. I walked quickly in the rain, the hood of my raincoat pulled over my head. As I spotted my friend waving from near the front (yay!) I noticed a loud yelling coming from my right. I turned to find the source and my heart sunk as I realized what was going on.
Two men, dressed in black and white, one standing on a platform with a megaphone to his mouth and the other on the ground beside held large signs with red and black letters reading “SIN NOT” among other messages urging people to turn to God.
But nothing about the way these men were evangelizing would ever be effective.
There was so much anger.
“DO YOU PARENTS NOT FEAR THE LORD? DO YOU NOT TEACH YOUR CHILDREN THE FEAR OF THE LORD?”
My friend shook her head as I joined them in line. “Do they not realize we are taking them to a Christian concert?”
But I knew they did. Unfortunately, I knew the place from where these men spoke…and sang.
Oh, yes, one was singing. He screamed out, like a curse, “Oh how I love Jesus, because He first loved me.” I never dreamed that song could sound angry or vicious, but somehow this man managed to make it so. Over and over, his voice grinding in anger and hatred, he screamed every word of every line to the crowd who, for the most part, ignored him.
We finally got inside and found good seats, spending the next four and a half hours hearing one band after another share their gifts and their stories. Stories of brokennes, redemption, and hope. Stories shared in humility with the desire to see the young people in that arena grasp the life-giving truth of God’s perfect love. Stories that caused hands to raise in surrender and eternities to be forever changed.
And I thought, as we left singing and smiling, that is the difference between legalism and grace.
I grew up in a legalistic tradition. Rules were expected to be upheld in order to achieve salvation. One wrong move and, poof, you were back to square one and you’d better confess and repent or else.
I went to sleep at night afraid. I prayed God would forgive me for anything I didn’t know I had done wrong on top of all the things I was aware of. I saw God as an angry old man “up there” who was checking off my sin-boxes as I committed them. One after the other the list of my sins piled up and I knew I would never measure up.
Might as well give up.
Oh sure, I went to church each Sunday just in case that would help. If I died in a car accident on the way home at least I’d been in church, right? I did not understand how God could love me.
I didn’t even like me most of the time.
But He did, and He does.
Truth flooded my heart when I was twenty-one years old. The realization, at last, that Jesus had paid it all and that I was free would completely change my life.
It would take more than ten years for me to shake the bondage of legalism, though, and I admit I still struggle with it as I raise my kids because, well, that is our fleshly default. We like things to look “right” because if the appearances are good we can pretend that everything is in alignment in our lives even when what is under the surface is so very confused, possibly even lost.
But you cannot force the heart.
You cannot fake faith.
Screaming and yelling hellfire and brimstone will only change behavior. It will never save souls.
I wish I could have spoken to those men. I know they did what they did out of concern for that crowd. I wish I could have explained to them a life changed, a heart set free, a holy calling gladly pursued out of gratitude and love for the One who died for me. I wish I could have explained to them that legalism only breeds sin. I wish I could lead them here, to Romans 8:1-11, to read for themselves God’s heart for them so they could be set free to lead others to Christ in love, humility and grace, trusting the Holy Spirit to change hearts and lives instead of their own angry, accusatory screams.
Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through His Spirit who lives in you. (Emphasis mine)
Should we fear God? Absolutely. In the great words of C.S. Lewis, “He is not safe but He is good.”
Is there consequence for sin? You bet. God is love and out of that great love he disciplines us. Without acknowledging Him as Father and Savior we are hopeless and lost in sin. He does not want anyone to perish, and gives every human being opportunity to know Him, even on a mustard-seed level. But a healthy fear of God leads us to the throne of mercy. It is surrender, it is the realization that we need Jesus, that without Him we cannot overcome sin, serve God and impact this world for Christ. It is ALL on Him. We are only vessels.
He who raised Christ from the dead is the one who brings us to life through His Spirit who lives in us. The first step is inviting Him in, giving Him the reins, stepping back and asking the simple question…”What now, Lord? I’ll do whatever you want. Just speak, for your servant is listening.”
And the Law? It will remind us of our great need. It will give us the boundaries within which we can live. It will frame our understanding of all of Scripture. And as we learn and grow in faith we will be brought to our knees in gratitude more and more for the One who perfectly fulfilled the Law because we simply could not.
His righteousness is exchanged for our sin.
His grace, for our failures.
His life forever traded for our death.
And from that place of mercy we cry out praise to the One who loves us completely. We share our stories of redemption with the world who desperately needs hope. We humbly take the hand of our friend and say, will you come with me? Will you let me lead you to the feet of Jesus?
“Oh, how I love Jesus…because He first loved me.”
(If the video doesn’t load, just click on the words above. You’ll be glad you did.)