I figured I’d retell this short story because I believe that what occurred is extremely beneficial for all to hear. And besides that, even just recalling it now gets me enthused and excited about the gospel. To provide a little context, the Baptist church my wife and I attend in Jupiter, Florida employs the Awana program for their young people during midweek activities. And while I don’t necessarily agree with everything the Awana curriculum says or does, I commend the folks behind the program for the intent of getting young people excited about God’s Word. Nevertheless, Natalie and I are involved in Awana at our church for the young people in grades 7th through 12th. I’ve always enjoyed engaging youths at that age. Those are some of the most formative times for any young person as they’re developing their own independent views and thoughts and beliefs on an array of subjects, not the least of which is religion. It is critically important that the truth of the gospel is spelled out for people of all ages, but specifically for young people who may not hear it every day.
So often, the pressures of life swell and balloon into astronomical levels during these years, pressures provided by parents, teachers, friends, and, yes, youth leaders. This pressure normally results in a lesser, dare I say, false gospel being presented to them, which is a functional sort of works righteousness, wherein they’re pressured to perform . . . or else. My continual burden is not to castrate or curtail the gospel message, fearing that it’ll be taken advantage of by burgeoning teenagers — rather, it’s to preach with all the more volume and boldness the unadulterated message of grace, which saves, relieves, and restores teens and elders alike. This past Wednesday, such an opportunity to explain the simplicity of the gospel was presented, and even as I remember what transpired, I smile. Not because I said anything super profound or groundbreaking, but because it all finally clicked.
The closing segment of the Awana time on Wednesdays is usually reserved for questions and Scripture memory. At the end of this period, a question was posed regarding juxtaposition between man’s choice and God’s will. In the course of the main lesson, Proverbs 21:1 was quoted, which I’m sure was what prompted the inquiry. That verse says: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” Naturally, then, a discussion of God’s providence, ordination, and man’s decision-making ensued, leading us to all manner of theological quandaries. (Most notably, that of election, predestination, etc., which I don’t intend to touch on today — I’ll leave that for another time.)
But after the Awana activities were over, one girl, Lucy (not her real name), approached me, obviously troubled by course of our discussion. She caught me and posed the question regarding the Fall in Genesis 3 and God’s will in it all. I can’t remember her exact words, but she was really trying to figure out why God would set us up to fail. Did he, in fact, ordain man to fall? What was the purpose behind the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Why would God give us this choice if he knew we would fail?
Lucy was discernibly trying to work all these themes and questions out in her head. Something seemed off to her. She wasn’t just sparking debate, she wanted to understand. I proceeded to tell her that the reason for the tree in the Garden was because God’s not after programmed Christians. God doesn’t want religious robots, he wants relational believers. A robot can only do what it’s programmed to do. A series of commands and complex algorithms are written and installed in the robot’s memory enabling it to respond to events and scenarios in a certain and, indeed, predictable way. But that’s not what God wants.
God’s not after robotic religion, he’s after a relationship. The tree in the Garden represents God’s intense desire for intimacy. He presented Adam and Eve with a choice, with an opportunity for reciprocal love. God’s love isn’t dependent on our reciprocation, yet we do show our love by our reciprocation. Adam and Eve broke this command, severed this relationship, putting us all in the desperate state of needing to be delivered from sin and darkness. We all stand in need of a restoration to the relationship God wanted all along. This is what God’s after, I told Lucy. He’s desirous of a restoration to the Eden-like communion and fellowship and glory he once shared with us. That’s what this is all about.
I then told her that this is what the Ten Commandments are for. The Ten Commandments are there to show us how to properly restore this relationship by showing us we can never do it on our own. I then told her those the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 are not just about actions, but more specifically, about motivations. This is the exact case Jesus was making in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 and following. (Mt 5:17–48) There, Christ shows that refraining from murder, refraining from adultery isn’t enough. The righteousness of the law is much more vast than that.
“When was the last time you killed one of your sisters?” I asked. Lucy sheepishly smiled and replied that she never had. Of course, I knew that.
“When was the last time you were angry with your brother or sister?” I continued. Her face changed. This was a different question, easy to answer but difficult to admit.
“Like, today,” she replied, with a guilty smile on her face. She had, perhaps, been frustrated with one of her sisters that morning, maybe even right before she came to church that night.
“Exactly, and that’s the standard we have to live up to,” I said. “It’s not just about not killing, it’s about not being angry. It’s not just about your actions, it’s about your motivations.”
“So you’re saying it’s impossible?” she rightly asked.
“Yes, exactly,” I responded. “This whole thing is impossible without God’s grace.”
That’s when it clicked. Grace makes the impossible possible. Grace gives you what you could never get for yourself. Grace is the only thing that can span vast cavern between guilt and glory. Lucy realized this, perhaps for the first time. She hugged me and said, “Thank you.”
You see, you can’t save yourself. In the end, any attempt at self-salvation will only result in utter failure. It’s impossible. That’s the point. God wants us to see that this whole thing — redemption, restoration, salvation — it’s absolutely impossible when left up to us. And that’s the precise moment when the God of the impossible greets us. Our omnipotent Father says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Lk 18:27) Realizing the impossibility of self-salvation is the first step towards God’s redemption.
This, obviously, is extremely difficult to come to grips with. We’re so infatuated with the idea that what we do matters, that we shake our fist at God and demand he acknowledge our performances. But so long as we clutch our religious résumé, so long as we dupe ourselves into believing our praise and trust in our own performance, we’ll never be free. This, indeed, is what the Bible’s all about. It’s a divine record of all man’s self-salvation attempts, and God’s one, perfect Savior.
It is the great design of the Scripture to teach the best to despair of being self-saved — the worst not to despair of being saved by Christ — and to offer to all the help they want . . . The design of revelation is to inform mankind that they are in a state of ruin, and under the divine displeasure, by reason of sin, and to propose the means of their recovery to the favour of God, and the hope of eternal life, by faith in a Redeemer, and submission to his teaching and authority.1
By his Word, God would have you see that you are wrecked, you are ruined, you are so diseased with sin. But that he is a Savior of sinners. He’s a Healer of the ruins. By his grace, he will restore the wreckage to its former glory. By the intervention of his Son, every right will be made wrong and all things will become new. The impossible was accomplished on our behalf. For sinners, this is all we need. For sinners, this is all we have.
Thomas Adam, Private Thoughts on Religion and Other Subjects Connected With It (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1843), 90–91.