An Open Letter to the Guilty

This is not for anyone for whom everything is great.  This is not for those with perfect families, perfect faith, a perfect congregation, or perfect health.  This is for the guilty and the desolate.

I think you know the Gospel, but you have never believed it, not really.  You thought the Gospel was for those who are nice, those who have things under control.  You thought the Gospel was for those whose sin is manageable, who seem to breeze through life without any regrets.

You think that your sin is too great, that God would not want a sinner such as you.  You think that your sin disqualifies you from serving in your congregation.  You think that people would shun you if they knew who you “really are.”  You think that God is visiting the consequences of your sin upon your children.  Otherwise, why would they suffer the way that they do?  What did they do to deserve what has happened to them?

You were always in the Church, but you were somehow sold a lie about the mercy of God.  Somehow you came to believe that God would make everything in your life turn out okay if only you kept “believing.”  But your faith wasn’t in Christ; it was in your faith.  In other words, your faith was in you, in your ability to go on believing things about God.

You heard the Gospel, but you didn’t really believe it.  Because the Gospel is not “everything will be okay in this life.”  The Gospel isn’t “God accepts people who don’t do anything bad enough to disqualify them from grace.”  The Gospel isn’t “as long as you keep up your end of the Law, then God will bless you and your family.”

The Gospel is one thing, and one thing only: Jesus Christ, crucified to save sinners.  All sinners.  You.  And especially the bad sinners, who can’t figure out why nothing seems to go right for them.  Who think, like Job’s friends, that there must be something they’ve done or left undone that has brought about these circumstances.  Who are out of control and can’t drag themselves out of the pits they seem inevitably to dig.  The Gospel is for those who can’t quite believe that Jesus died also for them.  The Gospel is for those who recoil in horror from the awful reality of their own sin.  The Gospel is for you.

The Gospel is unmerited and unconditional.  Do you see what that means?  Exactly that your (in)ability to keep yourself from horrible sin cannot save you.  You were dead in sin from the very moment of your conception.  The Judgment had already come down, and it was not in your favor.  But you can’t be any lower than dead.  Dead is dead, and you were.  So individual sins are not a surprise, particularly not to the God who decided to save dead, damned sinners.  You did not “fall into sin;” you sinned because you were already fallen.  So there was no merit to lose.  You can’t lose what you never had.

That’s why God’s love is unconditional.  His love in Christ has no strings attached; it has no requirements, no small print.  The cross means nothing if it doesn’t mean this: that every sin you have committed–every sin–was felt by Jesus in His flesh.  Willingly.  Nothing drove Him to death on a cross but His completely unmerited, unconditional love, the singular love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The point of the mercy of God in Jesus is that He takes all your sin, trading for it His eternal life.

Do you think that God would not want you because your sin is horrible? It is true that He doesn’t want you because He can still see a little good in you, and once that little good disappears, He no longer wants you.  He doesn’t want you because He can imagine the good person you have the capacity to be.  He wants you only(!) because He is merciful in Christ.  That’s what grace means.  The Love of God is not great because it finds incredible value in you.  Then, His Love would be lessened according to how valuable He found any given person.  Try Romans 5 again:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (5:6-11).

Of course it doesn’t make sense to you.  Why would God want you?  Why would God welcome you back?  Your sin is terrible, and you’ve carried its guilt for many years.  But the logic of the Gospel is contrary to all sense and reason but its own.  Mercy in Christ doesn’t work like the Law, with its threats and punishments toward those who do not keep it, and promises and rewards to those who do.  God’s righteousness is outside, apart from, of a distinctly different character from, the Law.  The Law and the Prophets point to the Gospel, but they are not it.  It is sui generis, of its own kind.

And it is only the cross that can teach us this Gospel: Christ’s, and the cross laid on us because we belong to Him.  So Pastor Luther writes,

“The holy Gospel is a powerful Word.  Therefore it cannot do its work without trials, and only he who tastes it is aware that it has such power.  Where suffering and the cross are found, there the Gospel can show and exercise its power.  It is a Word of life.  Therefore it must exercise all its power in death.  In the absence of dying and death it can do nothing, and no one can become aware that it has such power and is stronger than sin and death. … God lays a cross on all believers in order that they may taste and prove the power of God–the power which they have taken hold of through faith” (Luther’s Works 30:126-127).

In other words, if you haven’t already despaired of yourself and what you can do, you will not really believe the Gospel.  The cross is not the absence of God’s power, as you think; it is the precise location of God’s power.  Jesus’ death is life for the world.  That’s why Paul says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  There, in the very midst of death, we are in life.  If the Gospel cannot do anything for those who know their sin very intimately and see that it is horrible, God-denying, and utterly indefensible, then it cannot do anything at all.  If it is not for sinners such as you and me, then it is for no one.

But it is for you.  Christ is risen from the dead.  And now He brings the absolution from the cross; now He brings His crucified and resurrected flesh and blood; now He delivers it to you, or He delivers it to no one.  All of it, every drop and every word, for you.


One thought on “An Open Letter to the Guilty

  1. Pingback: An Open Letter to the Guilty | Fireside Thoughts

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