It happened again: I was reading through a gospel passage I’d been through a hundred times before, and the Holy Spirit emphasized two words—just two words!—that completely set my mind going in a new direction: “Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.’”
For my entire life I’ve read that passage and taken tremendous consolation, and rightfully so, in knowing that Jesus came to call a sinner like me. “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.” But this morning, what jumped out at me was the two words my mind didn’t seem to register, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners.” It’s something we all know from various other places in the New Testament, but it’s also right here in one of the great announcements of mercy.
Yes, God loves us, even in our sin; but He loves us too much to let us stay there! And the sad truth is that we’d often be more than happy to remain in the mud. But that’s not the life of heaven. We’re called to union with a Being whose beauty, purity, and greatness are beyond all our powers of comprehension. And for that very reason we must, “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). God takes this incredibly seriously. Because He love us as His children, He disciplines us. Scripture tells us, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (Heb 12:11-13). Take in that image: God is pushing us forward, toward heaven; if we dig in our heals, the force is such that our limbs will be dislocated!
And what happens if we continually fight Him, if we refuse to be changed by the action of His grace? Jesus, in his loving mercy, was terribly blunt: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (Jn 15:1-4). Jesus comes to us sinners and calls us to “repent” – to literally (in Greek) turn around and begin walking with Him in the opposite direction. We don’t earn this call, this mercy; it is all grace. But it is not cheap; and there is this terrible, prevalent distortion that grace is.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the great German pastor and theologian who did so much to oppose the Nazi regime wrote:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. The essence of grace, we [wrongly] suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…. [It] means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before… Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….
Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace, [on the other hand], is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him… It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. (The Cost of Discipleship, p.45-48)
So today the Holy Spirit reminded me – and I dare say wishes to remind you – of Jesus’s beautiful, merciful, sober words: “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners.” That’s me, that’s you – but, thanks be to God, it doesn’t have to be for all eternity. Lent is the perfect time for the Spirit to remind us.