Yesterday was Easter Sunday and, as usual, Christians all over the world celebrated the truly-distinctive mark of their faith, one of the most well-documented and attested historical events in all of antiquity, namely the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. In academic circles, no one seriously denies that Jesus was an itinerant Jewish rabbi who repeatedly claimed to be God in human form, ran afoul of the religious leaders of His day and suffered an agonizing death at the hands of the occupying Roman Empire. Most skeptics, when asked, will likely say that the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead is their No. 1 stumbling block, the one claim of the Christian faith that makes their acceptance impossible.
Actually, as I’ve spoken with scores of skeptics these past 20 years, I no longer believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the primary reason that many choose to reject the Christian faith. Instead, I think it likely that the deeper, more-carefully-concealed reason most people balk at giving their lives to Christ is a stubborn unwillingness to believe that the Lord of All Creation truly loves them and is well pleased to bring them into His Kingdom. If you talk to anyone long enough, you are sure to hear them voice multiple reasons why they cannot accept a God who loves them so much He is willing to suffer horribly on their behalf. They might not use those exact words, certainly, but it all tends to boil down to a realistic self-analysis of one’s own sinfulness and “unacceptableness” before a holy God.
More to the point, the majority of human beings have been conditioned by the imperfect (or altogether-lacking) love of their earthly fathers to misunderstand the burning, passionate desire of God to be reconciled to the lost sons and daughters of his once-perfect Creation. Simply stated, we do not readily comprehend either the perfection or all-consuming nature of the Father’s love for us. We may even give our entire lives to Christ and work tirelessly on His behalf only to find that we have missed completely the overarching reason for God’s plan which culminated in our Easter rescue.
At least one case in point would be David Wilkerson (1931-2011), founder of the addiction recovery program Teen Challenge and founding pastor of the non-denominational Times Square Church in New York City. Despite his many achievements in service to Christ – most notably his 1962 book The Cross and the Switchblade, which sold 15 million copies in over 30 languages and was made into a 1970 feature film starring Pat Boone – Wilkerson struggled for most of his life to believe that God truly loved him. Even though he was endowed with a prophetic gift, despite the hundreds of radical transformations he personally witnessed in the lives of drug addicts, gang members and prostitutes, and even in the face of the fact that millions of people became Christians in direct response to one of his various ministries, Wilkerson inwardly doubted that he was loved by God or that he could ever “do enough” to earn God’s favor.
Which brings us to an interesting point, namely…if David Wilkerson doubted that he could ever do enough to earn God’s favor, what chance do you and I have?
Thankfully, as Wilkerson’s son Gary relates in his 2014 biography/love letter, David Wilkerson: The Cross, the Switchblade, and the Man Who Believed, later in life David Wilkerson was ultimately able to grab hold of the deep, deep love of Jesus for him personally, primarily through reading the works of the old Puritans, such as John Owen:
Carter Conlon remembers moments in the pulpit when the truths of covenant grace became clear to Dad: “If you start from tape one of that series, and follow it in sequence, you come to the point where he says, ‘I’ve got it! I don’t know about you, but I’ve got it!’ I remember his hands going up in the air, ‘Praise God!’ when it finally hit him, ‘I can’t please God no matter what I do. I’ve already pleased him in Christ.’ It was almost the difference between the old and the new covenants. He had grown up under a rigid Pentecost that produces almost an eggshell walk – ‘Oh, God, I shouldn’t have thought that.’ He was very, very concerned about pleasing God; it was the core of his being. But when he finally realized he couldn’t please God – that he was fully accepted, received, and cleansed in Christ, made fully a son, that he could not add to his stature in the sight of God – that’s when there was a release.”
A few lines down in that same chapter, Gary Wilkerson goes on to say that “What I saw happen with Dad was an evolution from the ministry of condemnation to the ministry of reconciliation.” Coming as it does, so late in the book and so late in the inarguably-effective life and ministry of Wilkerson himself, the impression one gets is that we Christians can indeed spend most of an entire lifetime trying to “earn” God’s approval or “pay Him back” for all the horrible things we have thought, said, and done, and yet remain blind, at a heart level, to the central truth to which we will readily agree: “God loves me.”
The primary reason that God choose to reveal Himself through the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus is that he loves you. Not the “you” of anyone who might happen to be reading these words, but you personally.
Like so many other people working in Christian ministry, or just trying to be an adequate provider of love and support for my family, there have been many times when I have fallen into the trap of trying to earn God’s approval, even though my doctrine tells me that God is already well pleased with me, and the Resurrection has sealed forever the price God was willing to pay to purchase me back from the dead. We live in a fallen, crass world of relational commerce – “I do for you, so that you do for me.” – but the love of God is not bound by our human distortions. The love of God for sinners like you and me transcends all categories, breaks through all boundaries and rips into the time-space continuum just long enough to give us all the evidence we truly need to let go of our doomed-to-fail self-improvement projects, set aside our skepticism and accept His invitation to take a seat at His table as Honored Guest.
So how much does God love me, personally? Gary Wilkerson’s biography “coincidentally” fell into my hands at a time when I was struggling mightily to receive the love of God. Much like David Wilkerson, I too have been shown just how petty and selfish I am, how futile all my efforts are to gain acceptance, how deeply I need the accepting love of God the Father and how closely I resemble the word picture of “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” that Jesus Himself articulates in Revelation 3:17. Don’t you love it when God hears a prayer of desperation…and visibly answers it?
We need absolute confidence in God the Father’s love for us to be able to effectively move out in service to others. His love has already been given. Will we receive it?
Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.