I was in Ethiopia a few years back, and I had the incredible privilege of preaching in some churches. After one of the services, I was asked if I wanted some coffee.
I looked down and saw a small, badly stained pot and some tools I didn't recognize, sitting next to a tiny fire. I agreed to have a cup, so one of the ladies went and picked some coffee beans off of one of the plants growing beside the church and began to roast them.
Soon I was holding a small cup of coffee. It was black as night. No cream. No sugar. No vanilla shots. No nothing. I braced myself for a bitter experience, but it was an incredible experience.
I'd never had a coffee like that. I was ruined.
Once you taste the real thing - nothing compares.
Tasting the real thing and being ruined for everything else is what it was like when Susan and I got our first taste of pure gospel about six years ago. By pure gospel, I mean...
Salvation by grace and faith alone. Full stop.
His mercy minus our merit. Full stop.
Assurance based on Christ's work, not ours. Full stop.
Our Gospel Backstory...
Our journey into the gospel began in 2010 when a friend gave Susan and me a book by Timothy Keller and the Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd Jones for our kids. Keller continually put the grace of Christ, not the exemplary Christian life, at the center in his teaching and Jones' tag line for the kids bible nails it: "every story whispers His name."
For the first time, we saw that the gospel of grace in Christ was more than simply the entrance into our Christian faith, but the power by which we lived it out.
Jones' book had Susan in tears at night as she read it to the kids and realized for the first time that the grace of God was from Genesis to Revelation. Keller's book ended up being Susan's gospel gateway. She began reading both modern day reformers who continually pointed her to the grace of Christ, and she was also drawn to explore the doctrines of justification by faith that provoked the Protestant Reformation.
For the first time, Susan's heart found rest. Knowing her salvation was secured by Christ's perfect obedience silenced her fears about needing to secure her salvation through her imperfect obedience. We both grew up learning & later teaching that Christ's obedience was what got you into God's grace, but your obedience was what kept you in His grace. Our understanding of obedience was not that it was from God's blessing; it was for earning it.
The only prerequisite for the grace of God is acknowledging our utter need for it.
Even that acknowledgment is a gift of grace because dead people don't resurrect themselves. I'll let Susan tell her own story, but she was at a place of severe brokenness, dealing with failure on many fronts and tired of bigger-better-faster-stronger Christianity. She was a prime candidate for the resurrecting word of grace in Christ.
To borrow a term from Jared C. Wilson, the grace of God brought Susan to a point of "gospel wakefulness." She wanted me to taste this grace and find rest for my restless heart as well. She could see how restless I was, but I couldn't. I wasn't ready for the gospel because I loved bigger-better-faster-stronger-Christianity.
I was all about baptizing TedTalks on vision and leadership by tossing in some scripture to basically tell Christians to be amazing and change the world.
Susan continued to pass reading my way that led to more and more conversations about the doctrines of God's grace. Susan would lovingly point out how the message of Christ, the apostles, and the early church contradicted the treadmill of performance and glory that I loved to run on. When the conversation shifted from "that kind of preaching" to my preaching, I fought her at every turn.
My ego just couldn't accept that I preached the Christian and him improved and not Christ and Him crucified.
The more we listened to Christ-centred preaching, the more apparent it became that I was church-centered. There was no denying that hearing about the grace of God was like oxygen to my exhausted soul, but I wasn't ready to say, "God forgive me. I don't preach grace in Christ." so instead I went with, "Listen, Susan, I preach grace in Christ as well ... now get off my back."
Instead of repenting, I explored re-branding.
If I could re-brand and just bolt all this grace-stuff on, I'd never have to confess that my teaching was entirely about Christian activity and the health & wealth stuff I taught turned out to be a false, 20th-century American invention that provided the financial framework to fund the mega-church model.
The story of my life seems to be: listen to Susan - faster. She's a gift from God, and He continually uses her to get my attention.
But I'm slow.
I don't know when, but sometime in 2011, the grace of Christ stopped being something I mused about in my head and went off like an explosion in my heart. I stepped off the performance treadmill and confessed: I don't preach Christ. God forgive me.
In the same way that fresh-off-the-plant Ethiopian coffee ruined me for the drive-thru stuff, hearing the scriptures taught through a cross-shaped lens was all I was interested in.
Susan began encouraging me to enroll in seminary. You'd think that would be a logical next step given the fact that we were planning on planting a church in the next few years - but I resisted it. [surprised?]
I had preached for years without a theological education, so enrolling in seminary this late in the preaching game felt like a confession of biblical ignorance. In 2012 I enrolled at Knox to pursue a Masters of Theology. My biblical ignorance was confirmed by the end of week 1.
It's been around six years since Susan's first drink of the Gospel of Grace and around five years for me. We're still amazed by Jesus.
We've tasted God's grace - and we've seen that the Lord is good.
Again to borrow from Wilson, "the gospel is one song - but it has many notes." There's no end to how the church can be nourished with Christ's grace from Genesis to Revelation. As Hodges famously put it, "The gospel is so simple a child can understand it, yet so endlessly rich, the wisest theologians will never exhaust its depths."
We have since discovered that this gospel is not good news that becomes old news because the gospel is power.
As the New Testament writers unpack the gospel, they reveal that the grace of God in Christ that saved us is the power that reforms us, sustains us, and in the end, will preserve us.
We come into our churches with real worry, anxiety, and fears - or someone we love is.
We come in sick, battling disease or depression - or someone we love is.
We come in worried about our jobs, our relationships, our future - or someone we love is.
We have real concerns about our children - or someone we love does.
We need peace in our souls, forgiveness for our sin, and healing because we're hurting. We need real heart-change because the sin patterns we operate in have real-world consequences in our lives.
What choice do we have but go to where the power is?
The gospel changes everything... and all change is downstream from the gospel.
May God's grace make your tastebuds explode.
May the preaching of Christ detonate all the idols in your heart, freeing you from tirelessly chasing things to get a happiness fix, because your soul has found true rest in His grace and peace.
May the gospel liberate you to enjoy every good thing without making it ultimate, and give you hope in tragedy knowing that in Christ, not even death is final.
May the gospel rescue you from being held hostage by circumstances as you rest in the knowledge that the Father planned your redemption, the Son accomplished it, the Spirit is applying it and in the end - God is restoring everything.
May you taste and see: the grace of the Lord is good.