(Note: this is adapted from a sermon I preached at my church on October 30, 2011)
I regard Revelation 22:17 as one of the most extraordinary verses on evangelism in the bible. There John says, as a kind of summary of his grand vision:
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”
Note the four invitations, increasing in scope, and progressively revealing God’s extravagant generosity. First, the Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’. For John, the Spirit is most likely the Spirit of Prophecy, and the Bride is the Bride of Christ (the Church). So the first invitation is the witness of the prophets (who spoke the word of God) and that of the Church, who is His promised Bride. It is thus the witness of God’s chosen people throughout history. The second invitation is to whoever hears this message. In effect, then, the gospel message (‘Come!’) was revealed first to Israel and is now made available to anyone who hears it. Third, whoever has thirst is invited to come. At this point the invitation is rendered universal. In the final clause of the verse what is offered is explained: whoever wishes let him receive the free gift of the water of life. A free gift. No charge. To whomever desires it.
To view this from another angle, because God’s gift of eternal life is completely free and open to all, the only way to miss out on eternal life is not to come at the call of Jesus.
I compare this passage to a kind of cosmic wedding invitation. The Spirit and the Bride send out invitations. The original invitees turn and invite others. Then, word gets out that the drinks are good (and that it’s essentially an open bar) and that everyone is welcome. Anybody who is thirsty can show up and find what God offers. In one sense we could summarize God’s mission in the by observing, essentially, that He encourages wedding crashers.
This Divine generosity is extravagant beyond our wildest imaginations. He gave the life of His son so that we could get salvation as a gift. And so we can rightly use words like profligate, extravagant, liberal, abundant, and mind-boggling to describe His giving.
However, at the very same time this generosity—God’s generosity—also causes us some problems. Not because something is wrong with God, but because something is wrong with us. And with this extravagant generosity I perceive two problems. Let’s discuss the first one today.
The First Scandal
If God’s generosity really is this good—this extravagant—then to our thinking there are going to be some surprises in heaven. Because if all it takes to receive the water of eternal life is coming to God, answering God’s call, then heaven is going to look different than we expect it to, isn’t it? There are going to be some people in heaven we weren’t expecting to see there. There are going to be some people missing from heaven that we thought should be there.
The divorce between our way of thinking and the economics of God’s Kingdom is stems from the reality that Christianity has never been about how good you are as a person; you cannot earn salvation, you can only receive it. The key that opens the door to eternal life is the simple matter of whether or not you have received Christ as your Lord and Savior. And as a direct consequence of these economics there will be surprises in heaven.
Jeffrey Dahmer was a mass murderer in the Milwaukee area not all that far from where I grew up. He would drug, rape, kill, and cannibalize young men. After he was caught he was tried and found guilty in the murder of fifteen different boys and men. Before he died (he was beaten to death while in prison) he accepted Christ and was baptized. If you have doubts, you can go and read the personal account of the minster met with and baptized Dahmer. There you can hear about Dahmer’s remorse for what he had done.
When we look at Dahmer, we’ve got to let John’s words echo in our minds: “Let whoever wishes take the free gift of the water of life.” Not ‘whoever was good,’ but whoever wishes.
There will be surprises in heaven.
Mahatma Gandhi is a renowned and revered world leader—known for his self-denial, his love for people, and his non-violent leadership that guided India toward independence. Yet Gandhi refused Christianity. Speaking of this rejection, one author wrote the following:
“When asked why he did not embrace Christianity, Gandhi said it offered nothing he could not get from his own religion, observing, ‘…to be a good Hindu also meant that I would be a good Christian. There is no need for me to join your creed to be a believer in the beauty of the teachings of Jesus or try to follow His example.'”
Gandhi admired Jesus from a distance, but he didn’t come to drink at the fountain. He claimed that the followers of Jesus were too unlike Jesus for him to be one of them. His critique may have merit, but from what we know of faith, Gandhi, with all his goodness, is not in heaven.
Does this seem unjust to you? Dahmer, the mass murderer in; Gandhi, the great hero, out? Are you bothered by God’s forgiveness?
I stress again, against this, that you cannot earn salvation, you can only receive it. And furthermore if you think that one person deserves salvation while another person hell, then you understand neither God, generosity, forgiveness, or salvation.
The operation of God’s Kingdom economics is insanity by the standard of our world. Our world thrives on what is deserved, or at least on what it perceives as deserved. Against this metric of desert God has declared His own ways—His generosity, forgiveness, and salvation—in his word to us. Consider with me for a moment Matthew 20:1-16, and we’ll see together a parable that Jesus taught on Kingdom Economics.
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6 About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Workers in the morning are people who come to faith early in life. As the day progresses we find people who come to faith later and later in life. The last people basically accept Christ on their deathbeds. Everybody gets the same wage: eternal life; the water of life. Does that seem unfair to you?
In response God basically says—to both them and us—”It’s my money, I’ll spend it how I want;” or, “It’s my salvation, I’ll give it how I want.” And then He goes on to say, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Does God’s generosity bother you? Does God’s forgiveness leave you angry? Do you think God is unjust for forgiving some people? Does your sense of justice matter more to you than God’s forgiveness?
The truth of the matter is that Kingdom economics are an economics of extravagant generosity. Forgiveness is lavish. Price is no object. Because the same God Who gave His only son for the salvation of the world will spare no expense to bring sinners into His Kingdom.
I admit, freely, that this doesn’t make sense by the world’s standards. I admit, freely, that on paper God’s forgiveness is absolutely nuts. And I recognize that this aspect of forgiveness bothers a lot of people, and that it especially bothers people outside our faith. The people who look at Christians from the outside see Gandhi and see Dahmer and conclude that we’re crazy, or stupid, or both.
But all I can say to those people is that they just don’t get it. They don’t get that Christianity is about forgiveness. They don’t get what lengths God went to to offer us that forgiveness. They don’t get that nobody purchases salvation. And I think a real part of their frustration is the powerlessness that we feel in the face of God’s generosity. It pulls the rug out from all our efforts to impress God. God’s forgiveness makes it so that there is nothing we can do to win God’s favor. As a result they reason, and we reason in our hearts as well, “If Gandhi isn’t good enough, then who is?” And they’re right to think that, but they aren’t prepared for the real answer: “No one is.” Nobody’s good enough. Nobody’s got it together. They don’t get that you, and me, and Dahmer, and Gandhi, and the Pope, and Hitler, and Mother Teresa and Stalin are all on the same level. They fight for Gandhi, not because they care about Gandhi per se, not because they are motivated by compassion for his soul, but because they are selfishly concerned about themselves. They don’t really care whether or not Gandhi gets salvation, but whether or not they can earn it; in short, they ask about Gandhi because he is a clear example of human merit. “Don’t his good deeds count for something?” they ask. But the answer is “No.” Nothing we’ve done can earn us our salvation and no sin we’ve committed can keep us from it. Salvation is God’s generous gift to an undeserving world; the only thing we can do to prevent ourselves from receiving it is reject the gift. And so I think what really bothers us is that in the face of God’s forgiving generosity we are all rendered utterly powerless.
In all this, God’s ways frustrate the logic of our world. As Paul announces in 1 Corinthians 1:18-19,
“the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.'”
And then he concludes, in verse 25,
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”
Kingdom economics are an insane economics to the world; but they are the salvation of God to us.
And that is the first reason why God’s forgiveness is so scandalous. Scandalous because free. Scandalous because without merit or desert. Scandalous because we are made completely powerless in its face. All you can do is receive it.
(Part 2 of the scandal coming soon.)