Among humanity, there is no disposition towards saving grace, only pre-indisposition. If we are “dead in our trespasses and sins”, then nobody is “farther” or “closer” away from Christ. We are all, rather, equally dead. The ground is level both at the foot of the cross and the plain of the cemetery. Nobody is more saved than others by Christ and nobody is more separated than others from Christ. So Saul the persecutor of Christians and Cornelius the “God-fearer” were equally dead in their trespasses and sins and equally in need of divine alien righteousness. And this makes all the difference for how we make disciples among the nations.

If we are “dead in our trespasses and sins”, then nobody is “farther” or “closer” away from Christ. @vergenations

 

The ground is level both at the foot of the cross and the plain of the cemetery. @vergenations

 

Consider the difference between the chief priests and the chief of pharisees, Saul of Tarsus. The chief priests personally knew the very Jewish customs that teach us about God and foreshadowed the Gospel in Christ. They had first hand, up close and personal interactions with Jesus. They watched him heal, feed, serve. They heard the gospel from his very lips. And they even heard the first hand testimony of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. After the guards of the tomb of Christ thawed out from their encounter with the angel of God who sat on the tomb stone and told the women that Jesus was alive, some of them went directly to the chief priests and told them all that had happened (Mt. 28:11). The chief priests knew it then: Jesus was the Son of God and King of the Jews as he had claimed. Yet, after hearing that word from the guards, they still covered up the story, saying, “‘Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep'” (Mt. 28:13).

Saul of Tarsus also knew the same Jewish customs that illustrated the character of God and foreshadowed the gospel. But until his Damascus road conversion, he himself had no direct relationship with Jesus. Nor did Saul hear first hand of the resurrection of Jesus from the very guards that were there. Like the chief priests, Saul was a vigilant persecutor of Jesus and all who followed him.

Now consider who might have been the “hard soul” between the chief priests and Saul? By modern standards that would be Saul, the vehement persecutor, of course. But, counterintuitively, we see Saul become Paul and the chief priests become, well, the leaders of the opposition to the gospel loving early Christian church.

Consider the critical shift in the theology of the father of the protestant reformation, Martin Luther. In his very helpful overview of reformation theology, Theology of the Reformers (1988, 2013), Timothy George explains how Martin Luther eventually moved away from the Augustinian view of gradual justification. As Luther re-discovered Romans 1:17 and how the Gospel reveals the justice, or righteousness, of God, he “abandoned the medical imagery of impartation/infusion in favor of the forensic language of imputation” (70). Instead of infusing a sinner with some sort of necessary grace and power for the sinner to become righteous, Christ imputes to a sinner, in the midst of his state of separation from God, an alien righteousness. At that moment, the sinner is once and for all, and exhaustively, declared righteous. Christ was not the Good Samaritan who brings the viator [traveler], half dead and half alive, to the infirmary (the church) to be nursed back to health” (70). Rather, sticking with the Good Samaritan imagery, Christ found a dead man on the side of the road and commanded him to live. Paul Tillich sums up: “If God accepted him who is half-sinner and half-just, his judgement would be conditioned by man’s half-goodness, and every human claim based on it.” (Tillich, Systematic Theology, III:226, quoted in George, Theology of the Reformers).


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Christ found a dead man on the side of the road and commanded him to live. @vergenations

 

So we must resist thinking of certain people groups as “hard people”, or conversely, “easy-to-reach” people. Perhaps these peoples live in “hard places”, as in they are difficult to get to, to relate to, to understand, to maintain peaceful relationship with, or to adjust to their way of living. But all the same, we must not consider any people harder to the gospel than others. For Christ does not justify the sinners-who-are-trying-to-do-better, or the sinners-who-are-more-decent, or the sinners-who-seem-to-be-more-receptive-to-western-disciplemakers. No. He justifies the ungodly. Both the prodigal running towards his father and the prodigal running towards the prostitute are equally prodigal. Their acceptance back into the family depends on one thing, namely, the independent decision of the father.

The idea that we are “dead in our trespasses and sins” adjusts our view of what it takes to reach a people. Often we tend to set our hopes for spiritual fruit on the diverse ministry activity in which we are engaged, rather than on the effectual call of God Himself. We tend to focus more on the mission, rather than the Master. No amount of cultural adjustment brings dead people to life. No amount of literacy training, or poverty alleviation, or water sanitation, or even preaching, Bible classes, counseling centers, Jesus films, or audio Bibles makes dead people live. Only God can effectively command a dead person to “live!” (Ez. 16:6). So while laboring in all of these good things listed above, let’s remember that sowing the seed is essential, and taking care of the poor is God honoring, but God alone calls a sinner to Himself.

The idea that we are “dead in our trespasses and sins” adjusts our view of what it takes to reach a people. @vergenations

 

We must also remember that without Christ our souls are dead. It is so much easier to imagine a dead soul when the culture is primitive. Our view of other cultures is inevitably dependent on the values, norms, and artifacts of our own culture. We judge spiritual transformation, often, merely through the lens of cultural enlightenment. So, we are more impressed by a tribal people coming to Christ and learning to wear “normal clothes” than by very normal looking Chinese urbanites turning to Christ. Often, our heart “breaks” about things that are really just cultural artifacts very different from our own – veils, primitive clothes, dusty villages, etc. – rather than breaking for the souls that are dead. If we look carefully at our affections, we might even notice that the greater the outward manifestation of cultural disparities, the greater our hearts “break” for the people.

Thus, as we engage different cultures let’s remind each other that “the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). And it is the heart that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Those of us engaging “easy people” and “hard people” are alike dependent entirely on God to save. Without Christ, the people in Memphis, Mexico City, Munich, or Mogadishu are all equally “dead in their trespasses and sins” and equally in need of gospel messangers to declare the gospel. For gospel itself is the supra-cultural “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

The people in Memphis, Mexico City, Munich, or Mogadishu are all equally “dead in their trespasses and sins”. @vergenations

 

Photo Credit: Anna Dziubinska [CC0] via unsplash.com