The Gift

In my last few years of being young enough for VBS (Vacation Bible School), I got to go to a simply incredible program offered by one of our local churches.  The church transformed a large empty lot into “Jerusalem”.  The lot was dotted with tents and stations and costumed actors.

We were divided into small groups, and we each had a teacher who brought us into a huge assembly in the morning.  There, we would sing songs and see actors perform Biblical events.  Those same actors would walk around outside in “Jerusalem” throughout the day, adding a masterful realism.  I was in awe.  I am ever so grateful for the work this church placed into presenting the Word of God to children.

The most profound moment for me, however, was something of extraordinary simplicity.  It is to this day a radical shaping of how I have come to understand salvation.  And I can say that even about twenty years later, I still haven’t delved the depths nor mined all the jewels from what I was taught that day.

Our teacher had tiny presents, each lovingly wrapped.  She had us gathered on a quiet side of the camp, and she said something like this,

“Jesus gives us salvation as a free gift.  There’s nothing you can do to earn it.  It’s a present.  He wants to give this gift to everyone.  There is only one thing you have to do to receive His gift.  You have to take it.”

She showed us her basket of little presents.

“I have a present for each of you,” she said.  “I’m going to ask you if you want to receive it.  If you do, it is your gift to have.”

I remember that she came to each of us, intentionally.

“T.J., would you like this gift?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

She gave me the little present.

I was almost trembling.  I had been afraid of myself, afraid I would say no.  I opened the present with nervous fingers.  I was absolutely delighted–and a little surprised–to receive the gift.

I think back on that time, and I realize how close I have stayed to needing that message my whole life.

For most of my life, I have gone through long stages of feeling inadequate to receive salvation.  I have struggled for months and years at a time with wondering if I have ever been saved, or have lost my salvation.  I’ve wondered if God would really give me any gift at all, much less the most priceless gift in all the world.  I’ve wondered if God would really give me His Son.

Are you like me?

Do you doubt that God could ever love you?  That He really meant you in John 3:16?  That He really wants to just give you something without prerequisites, conditions, and qualifiers?  Do you struggle with wondering if you’ve done enough since you were saved to somehow earn “keeping” your salvation?

So do I.

And yet . . the clues are already in place to lead me to a different conclusion than endless self-inspection and despair.

After all, God gave me an undeserved gift when He sent me to that VBS.  He gave me another undeserved gift when He sent me to my teacher, who would make the Good News so clear that day.  And He gave me another undeserved gift when He had my teacher prepare that object lesson for us.

I already have proof in my life that God gives undeserved gifts.  So do you.  If you want to know what God is like, read Jesus’ description (and Jesus would know, since He is God) in Matthew 5:43-45.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.” (NLT)

I spend much of my life wondering whether God would give me His gracious gift of salvation.  But I haven’t been thinking about how many gracious gifts God has given me already that show His willingness to love me and offer me mercy!  These gifts reveal God’s nature to me and give me confidence that He would really give me the most awesome gift of His Son.

 . . And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. (Romans 5:16, NLT).

Salvation is really a free gift.  We don’t earn salvation.  We can’t “keep” salvation by doing good things.  We can simply receive salvation from Jesus.

All the complications and constructs of trying to somehow be worthy are demo’d by these two words: free gift.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23, NLT)





Published in: on June 7, 2014 at 4:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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“And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29b)

The guy sleeps expecting a train

Scripture tells us the man asking Jesus this question was wanting to justify himself (v. 29a).

Most likely, he was looking for Jesus to give him an answer that had a limited category for “neighbors”–and hopefully in that category would be all the people the man was already treating well.

What I’m sure he didn’t expect was Jesus’ response with the parable of the good Samaritan.

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37, NIV)

In Jesus’ parable, the word “neighbor” exploded the limits society had put on it.  It came to mean anyone who needed help.  Anyone.

Last night, Ben and I were invited over to dear friends’ house.  I’ll call them Tom and Becky here to protect their privacy.  It was easy to see from where our GPS was taking us that they lived on the more dangerous side of town.  When we got to their house, what we learned from them blew us away.

Tom and Becky had moved to this very neighborhood for the purpose of sharing the Gospel of Christ with their neighbors.

I have never, ever thought of selecting a house for the purpose of reaching the neighbors.

Rather than stay inside with their doors locked, they sat out on the porch with us, waving at almost every car that passed by.

As cars passed by, Tom would immediately tell us in a voice full of love, “That’s ____, and he lives ______” followed by a story of how they had made contact with that person and what they were praying for him about.

Although they had stories of the drugs, alcoholism, tragedy, and violence of the neighborhood, they are adamantly unafraid.  They are on mission for God, and confident they are in the right place.

On Sundays, they host church in their home.  Tom is the pastor and Becky serves the afternoon meal.  They invite everyone from the neighborhood to come over and join them.  Many times, Tom has to ask them to leave at 10 p.m. so he can go to bed for work the next day!

When people come to their door asking for money,rather than keeping the shutters down and hiding as I would be tempted to do, Tom and Becky’s habit is to invite them in for dinner.

When new neighbors move in, Becky bakes goodies to welcome them in the neighborhood.  As we were there, Tom was telling us they’d just gotten a new neighbor in a house that had been empty for a long time.  Tom’s face is filled with eagerness as he talks about the new opportunity, as if he’s just found out a movie star is moving next door.

The way Tom and Becky treated their neighbors as they talked about them was so humbling.  Since they constantly see the struggles and addictions of their neighbors, Tom said, “I remind myself every morning, I’m no better than any of them . . . But for the grace of God, I would be that person.”  And they both mean it.  Their hearts are open wide to their neighbors, not closed tightly against those people.

They have a policy of always inviting their neighbors over for dinner before they invite them to church.  Tom and Becky want people to know that they care about who they are and where they are at more than they care about checking off a dutiful “I’ve-invited-you-to-church” box.

Tom said something like, “It’s easy to invite someone to church.  It’s harder to invite them to dinner.”

They are passionate about sharing Christ with their friends, even though it means taking the time to invest in their lives.

Over 2,000 years ago, a man wanting to justify himself asked Jesus,

“And who is my neighbor?” (v. 29b)

I need to ask myself that very question today, but with one important difference.  Rather than trying to justify myself as I ask, I need to be asking so that Christ can transform my hardhearted thinking and explode my view of who are my neighbors.

.               .               .               .               .               .               .               .

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37, NIV)