It is Finished

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Cross-posted at Gospel Centered Discipleship

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:28-30

In 1862, French poet, playwright, and novelist Victor Hugo released his magnum opus Les Miserables, considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. In 1998, Hugo’s masterpiece found its cinematic zenith in the Bille August-directed film by the same name. In both works, one scene stands out above the rest.

At the beginning of the narrative, we meet ex-convict Jean Valjean who has just been released from a nineteen year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Trying to get on his feet, Valjean attempts to find a place to live but no one would take him in except for one—Bishop Myriel.

It doesn’t take long for Valjean’s old temptation to rear its ugly head. When everyone is asleep one night, Valjean goes to the cupboard and pilfers some of the bishop’s silver. He makes a run for it but is eventually caught red-handed. The police bring him before the bishop.

Valjean stands before the bishop, being held by the police. Bishop Myriel looks at the police and proclaims something extraordinary. He says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift. If that wasn’t enough, the bishop goes over to the mantelpiece, takes two silver candlesticks, and says that actually more silver had been forgotten by Valjean. He places the candlesticks in Valjean’s hands. The police have no choice but to let Valjean go free. But the story doesn’t end there.

After the authorities leave, the bishop looks at Valjean and says this to him, “Now, go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you needn’t come through the garden. You can always come and go by the front door. It is only closed with a latch, day or night.”

The bishop not only gives him mercy by forgetting the original crime and letting him keep the silver he stole, he gives him more mercy by giving him more silver. And then, he gives him even more mercy by giving him the best gift of all: his trust. The bishop does something so radically counter-intuitive to us. Something that feels so unnatural to us. He gives him unconditional grace.

Quid Pro Quo

We live in a society based on conditions. When you look at the world around us, everything in our culture demands a trade of some kind. “You do this for me; I’ll do this for you.” “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” But unconditional grace? We just can’t seem to wrap our feeble minds around that. It doesn’t’ make any sense to us. We are so acclimated to a culture of quid pro quo that we believe everything must have a catch.

We impose this idea upon God as well. We think that in order for God to truly extend his mercy to us, we must give him back something in return. We feel like we owe him something. So we resort to a spiritual checklists because they feel much safer. We like conditions because they keep us in “control.” If we can complete our spiritual “to do” list, it gives us the illusion that things are good between God and us because we have played a part in it. Theologian Gerhard Forde can help here:

The gospel … is such a shocker … because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of god! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness-knows-where.

God’s grace isn’t conditional. It’s unreserved. It’s not a back-and-forth, two-way love. God’s grace always moves in one direction. And that is why it disturbs us. Forde continues:

How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat out, “you are righteous for Jesus’ sake?” Is there not some price to be paid, something (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such thing as a free lunch, can there?

That’s exactly what we do with God’s grace. We put conditions on it. We take a “yes grace but …” position. We think there is something that must be done on our end. There can’t just be free grace for the taking, can there?

The Beauty of Grace

The last words that Jesus spoke before he gave up his spirit on the cross were three words we need to massage into our hearts. “It is finished.” Grace announces that Jesus met all of God’s conditions on our behalf so that God’s mercy towards us could be unreserved. That’s the beauty of grace. It requires no work on our part. The work of redemption is complete in Jesus. In Christ, we are completely accepted. We are completely loved. In full. The work is done. It is finished.

This rightly rages against our insatiable need to work for our salvation. When we look to the cross and see the Savior of the world proclaim that the work is finished, it disorients us because we are a “conditional” people. Work, not rest, is our modus operandi. But that is exactly why Jesus breathed out those three words. God knew we would need to hear over and over, “Your effort is not needed. It is finished,” because to rest feels like a waste of time.

But deep gospel rest is exactly what we can find in the finished work of Jesus. Our hearts can truly engage with the words from Hebrews, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10). Entering spiritual rest means that we are resting in Christ’s finished work on our behalf—not our work or our reputation or our accomplishments. It means we are swapping effort for rest. It’s at the heart of what Jesus achieved on Calvary’s cross.

As we hear again the crucified Jesus’ final words this Holy Week, hope is uncovered. We are saved solely by grace through Christ’s work. In Jesus, we can be forgiven. We can be made clean. We don’t earn it. We simply receive grace because that’s the only way grace is received. Grace isn’t grace unless it’s unconditional. It looks as if there is such a thing as a free lunch after all.

Limitless Grace for Limited Leaders: How Accepting Our Boundaries Frees us to Flourish as Pastors

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Cross-posted at For The Church

Since the day our church was planted, our pastors have fielded many questions on the topic of mission from the younger generations in our midst. “Do we have a plan to serve the poor?” “How are we going to plant missional communities in the most underserved parts of our city?” “How soon are we going to be able to bring the gospel to the unengaged peoples in the world?” Our standard (and honest) answer has been that we have a heart for any place where Jesus is not truly known. But we look at the work and our five fish and two loaves and know that the Great Commission is a God-sized task.

One the one hand, we love their ambition. It challenges and sharpens us. It’s easy, even as pastors of a church plant, to suffer from missional drift. On the other hand, the pastoral wisdom that comes with experience and age makes us cautious. We know that we can’t achieve everything that needs to be done missionally. We find ourselves speaking the truth in love that there are confines to what only one church can accomplish.

I recently was reflecting our church’s missional ambitions and I began to feel a deep sense of conviction about something. I began to see inconsistency in the way I shepherd others with their dreams of mission versus the way I shepherd my own heart in ministry. I warn others of the dangers of trying to do too many things missionally but struggle with warning my own heart of the hazards of not understanding the “perimeters” of my pastoral abilities. I remind others that God will clarify those few things we must do missionally but struggle with reminding my own heart that God has set boundaries of gifting for me in ministry to “move” within. I even preach to others that we should have faith that God will help us do a few things well but struggle to preach to myself that I’m only a small part of God’s eternal plan.

So why am I nervous to admit that I can’t do everything that needs to be done? I think it’s simple. I am afraid to to confess that I have limits. I’m afraid to admit that I have God-allotted periods and boundaries of my dwelling place (Acts 17:26). And I’m afraid that will render me unimportant.

In a 2012 New York Times article entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider says:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Kreider is touching on something we would do well as pastors to hear. And there’s so much more. The clamor to be the smartest person in the room, the pressure to make everyone like us, the temptation to be the biggest church in our city – these are attempts to make our lives exceptional. But admitting that we have boundaries means that we have to accept that much of our ministry “busyness” is a veiled attempt to make much of ourselves and not Jesus.

Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with limits or boundaries like us. In Zack Eswine’s book, Sensing Jesus, he says:

“Limits repulse the driven. The driven therefore struggle with the sense of place that Jesus had…[But] the holy One of God became a man – and this incarnation included limiting himself and inhabiting a locality on the earth.”

This is the heart of Philippians 2. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. This was a “limiting” act on the part of Jesus.

Why was Jesus willing to do this? Jesus was inclined to live within earthly boundaries because he had a white-hot focus on one thing: joyful obedience to his Father that would lead him to a cross for our sake. This should reorient us all. Eswine again, “The divine condescension to locality challenges my ambition that is restless to embrace various things at once.”

See, if the God-man Jesus was willing to live within human flesh and in a local place that would ultimately lead to him sacrificing his life for ours, we can joyfully accept our lesser limits too.

This is where limitless grace meets limited leaders. We can only rest in our limitedness when we see that Jesus limited himself by leaving the culture of the Trinity and entering the culture of man for our sake. His act of incarnation and redemption settles our need for significance on this side of eternity. Healthy leaders accept their limits because when we look to Jesus, we see the ultimate limitation – God becoming flesh and blood to bring us spiritual rescue. And as we rest in this truth, we can let the unlimited One and his limitless grace give us courage to be the limited leader that we are and in the end, flourish for the good of our churches and the gospel.