I don't remember the first time I heard the gospel, but I do remember the first time I began to understand it. It wasn't during a revival meeting, a church function, in an accountability group, or anything like that. It was at home, and I was dealing with exposed sin in my life. In that moment, I felt as beat up as anyone could. Then, something struck me for the first time, and it sounded like:
Snip... Snip... Snip...
Like scissors cutting away strings from a puppet's limbs, one by one, the strings fell from the handle as they were cut away:
There is therefore no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus.
You're free from the bondage of sin and death.
Your sins are forgiven. It is finished.
The first steps I took after that, though awkward, were incredible. I was still a sinner and yet I felt free at the same time. I didn't have to wonder if someone was "pulling my strings" anymore. I could take responsibility for my actions when I sin, and now, I could give credit to God when I don't(sin). I was free to "walk in the Spirit", which means to be reminded that I have been given more grace and mercy than anyone deserves. So while I now, walk and stumble... walk and stumble... walk and stumble... I know at the end of each stumble is forgiveness in Christ. Instead of being violently yanked up by the fear of condemnation to look and act the part of a Christian, I can take it one weary knee at a time, then one foot, and then stand. I would even say that to even do that, was not of my own strength. Nor was it done at the whim or manipulation of some tyrannical force that wants me in submission to it. It was only done by the strength of a loving Father, who encourages me onward with his own very power.
Before that, I was nothing more than a puppet controlled by sin and rebellion. I was always going exactly where the strings were leading me. Submitted completely and utterly to that will, obedient like a slave with no choice, and no desire to change. With the strings gone, I'm free to move about now. Despite that, my sinful nature still remains, pulling me towards the familiar old things as if there were phantom strings still attached. Because the strings have been cut, I don't go, sometimes. I see now that I'm not bound by where the strings previously led me, sometimes. As much as my muscle memory tells me to go left, I can now go right. It's unfortunate that there are days, I still choose to go left. I can look at my wrists and elbows and see the joints, and they remind me of where the strings used to be. They remind me that I'm not completely whole yet. They also encourage and remind me that the strings are no longer there.
With the strings cut, and me left to my own ability to either do what I want to do, or what I shouldn't do, I now have something else I didn't have, or didn't know I had, or simply, took for granted. It's forgiveness and grace. I never stopped being loved, but I didn't know what that meant. I didn't stop being accepted, but all the acceptance I had or wanted was where I was led. Now, before me was this world to explore on my own, without the strings. So I navigate it as best I can. Not trusting in where I am being taken, but in the one who is with me wherever I go. Instead of a puppeteer pulling my strings, I have a companion for the trip. A companion who I sometimes listen to, and sometimes don't, but who always says, "it's alright", when I stumble in front of that rock he warned me about. He lowers the rope when I stand too close to the edge, and go over. I am thankful for this freedom, and even the falls, because it reminds me that he is ever beside me, not controlling, but guiding me in each step, and encouraging and forgiving me in each misstep. This is my struggle with sin. It is the same struggle we all have, and it is the same forgiveness and grace we all have.
What concerns me is, while I have this freedom, I sometimes think the only way to keep it or protect it is by locking it up and storing it away. I do think this way at times. I know the church does as well. We give people this new freedom in Christ by the proclamation of the Gospel. We celebrate it, and cut the strings with oversized scissors, like a ribbon being cut to christen a new building, or business. But then as we progress, we (unknowingly?) tie on new strings where the old ones were. Yes, yes, yes, the strings are red, dipped in Christ blood, because the symbolism is important you know. (apply heavy sarcasm here) We set important markers for this newfound "freedom". We tie on, "daily bible reading", and we hoist up an arm. We tie on, "waking up early everyday to pray", and hoist up the other. "You are meditating on the Word, right?" This string goes around a leg. "If you're following Jesus, you make sure not to miss church too much." This goes around the other leg. "Sin? You don't do that anymore." This string is attached to the head, considering it's the one thing that messes with us the most.
Yessir, you are free in Christ if you follow all those rules. The best part of all is the one who is controlling all the strings. You! Certainly the church helped you get strung up once more with all these "must dos", but you are the puppet master, making sure you guide each limb to its destination, and heaven help you if you don't. If you don't, you must not really want to do those things, and that must mean you're not a Christian! (Cue dramatic music) What it really means is you, and the church, are trying to do what God has already done. Make you His, or rather make you look like you're His. But you are already His. It's not the reading, or praying, or meditating. It's not how much you attend church, or if you don't sin anymore. It's about it being finished, completed. There is nothing you can do to get more saved, and there is no sin that he won't forgive while we still breathe.
In Christ, we still act as if we are being pulled by the strings of sin sometimes. We still let those imaginary strings guide us. When they do, you are still forgiven. Don't let anyone put strings on you again! Every last one of them has been snipped. When we read, and pray, and sin less, it's because we have a guide that encourages and strengthens us towards it, not demanding it as a dictator who requires death for not obeying. It's a Father who cries out to you with a better way, when you screw up. He has to, because we WILL screw up.
One day, there will be no reminders of strings attached, nojoints to remind us of where they were. One day, not far off, we will truly see ourselves as God sees us, bodies unmarred by sin and destruction. Oh, I look forward to that day. Don't you?
It is finished
A theological misfit landing in the area of Lutheranism, Dominick has come to deeply appreciate the truth of scripture as defined by the distinction between Law and Gospel. He has found freedom in knowing that Christ is his substitute on even his worst days. He has been for the course of his church life everything from chair-stacker to men's ministry leader. He is blessed with a wonderful wife and two great young men, which he can say without a doubt, he doesn't deserve. He counts among his favorite things: Star Trek, classic superhero comics, movies, Yankees and yes, he admits to it, the Knicks. He enjoys a good conversation and good food. Finally, he is grateful for the opportunity to share the message of God's Grace among all these great teachers, pastors and theologians and hopes he doesn't mess up big time. But then again, that's what grace is for, right?