The story is a familiar one. A shabby character seeks to make himself lovable by his own merits, only to discover the beautiful secret that true love is gifted and not earned. HINT: It’s not Martin Luther, and it’s not the Apostle Paul. This character sports green overalls, has a missing button, and is covered in fur from head to toe. I’m speaking, of course, about Corduroy.

Corduroy is a stuffed bear who lives in a big department store. Day after day, he waits for someone to come along, buy him, and bring him home. And day after day, people pass him by. After all, who would want a bear with a missing button and broken shoulder strap? Confronted with the reality of this defect for the first time, Corduroy is shocked. So he seeks to remedy the situation, embarking on a noble quest to fix himself. If he can find a replacement button and correct his glaring flaw, he will finally be lovable. Maybe then someone will want him at last.

Late at night, after all of the shoppers have returned home, he hops off of his shelf. Searching, scouring, climbing “mountains” (an escalator) and beds, Corduroy leaves no stone unturned in his self-improvement project. But he is unsuccessful, and morning finds him back on the shelf in the same flawed condition as the night before. But he’s in for a surprise. As the store opens, in bursts a little girl with a big smile on her face. Her name is Lisa, and she wants Corduroy more than anything—missing button and all. She opens her purse, pays the price, and rushes home with the imperfect bear in her arms. Lisa couldn’t be more pleased with her purchase. And there, in the security of a new home where he is unconditionally loved and accepted, Corduroy finally receives a new button, which Lisa sews on herself. “I like you the way you are,” Lisa says, “but you’ll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened.” In the end, the one-buttoned bib-overalled bear discovers the beautiful truth that he is loved in spite of himself and that this state of loveliness is attained not through his own efforts but through the merciful actions of another who pays the price to make him whole and make him her own.

“Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:4-5).

The Corduroy impulse is strong in all of us. We, too, have a deep desire to make ourselves lovable by fixing our own flaws and repairing our brokenness. We, too, will leave no stone unturned in our zealous quest for self-perfection. We, too, will sharpen our moral pick-axes and climb any mountain in hopes of reaching the summit, where—we believe—we’ll finally attain the best version of ourselves. Yet all of these efforts belie a faulty presupposition: That lovability is earned. This belief is endemic to human nature. It’s our natural, default operating system. It’s the very air that we breathe, so we don’t even think to question it. We may not verbalize it so explicitly, but the zeal with which we embark on our quests for self-perfection reveals what our hearts truly believe; if we can remove the flaws, we will be more lovable. Trim the belly fat, freeze the warts, whiten the teeth, tighten up our church attendance record, get over our bad habits, and maybe then someone will finally love and accept us.

But the story we find in the pages of Scripture is quite different. It is the story of a Father whose love does not depend on the moral performance of his saints but on the perfect performance of his Son. It is the story of a Son who sacrificed his own life to rescue broken sinners whose spiritual eyesight was so poor they couldn’t even see their own flaws. It is the story of a Spirit sent to teach, enlighten, and convict us of our own flawed condition because—if he didn’t—we would continue marching merrily along to the tune of our own death. As Sally Lloyd Jones notes in the Jesus Storybook Bible (in the vein of C.S. Lewis), God doesn’t love us because we are lovely. We are lovely because God loves us. God’s love is axiomatic; it just is. It’s a truism without a logical explanation. Love is simply who God is (1 John 4:8); it’s part of his nature.

It is for the flawed and the frayed that Jesus came (Mark 2:17). It is for those with the missing buttons, those who don’t have it all together, the down-and-outs who—day after day—wait on the shelf and long for someone to take them home. And then Jesus bursts in with a big smile on his face. He pays the price, wraps us in his nail-scarred arms, brings us home, and makes us new. The surprise of the gospel is a marvelous thing, especially to those who least expect it and least deserve it.

God only justifies the ungodly, and that—dear friends—includes the Corduroy in all of us.