My Dear Friends,
The Christian faith and controversy go hand in hand. Wherever the gospel of God’s grace in Christ is planted it will inevitably provoke controversy and opposition. The reason is not so hard to seek: the gospel confronts and provokes the sin-ingrained self-will and “auto-soterism” of this fallen, God-denying world. The armour-piercing truth of God’s word is resisted and refused by men and women who “love darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil.”
We see this controversy repeatedly in Jesus‘ encounters with sinners and Pharisees in the Gospel narratives. Jesus, God incarnate and full of grace, came to “seek and save the lost.” He had not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. Like a doctor, his divine remit was to help the sick, whoever they were. When Jesus called Levi to follow him, Levi hosted a “conversion party” to celebrate God’s great grace to him (Mark 2:13-17). To that party, Levi invited “many tax collectors” and “sinners” and Jesus, God’s holy, impeccable Son, ate with this group of social and religious outcasts, infuriating and scandalising the Pharisees. They could not understand why Jesus would ever come into contact with “tax collectors” (rapacious Gentile collaborators) and “sinners” (public disreputables). As a result, they were dismayed and disgusted. The root of the Pharisees’ controversy with Jesus, however, went much deeper. They could not understand Jesus because they had a twisted and profoundly mistaken understanding of God.
To the Pharisees (the vast majority it would appear) God was a conditional God, whose favour was earned by religious performances. They looked on God’s law as a ladder by which you could climb your way into his favour (they had little sense of either the holiness of God, or the deep, ingrained sinfulness of man); they were practising semi-Pelagians. The tragedy of this, of course, was that it was the utter contradiction of biblical religion. Somehow, with the passing of the years, Judaism had separated God’s grace from his commands. Law had been dislocated from its natural soil, the grace and love of God. Ethics had been divorced from theology. This, in part, led the Pharisees (“the separated ones”) to isolate themselves from much of Jewish society, so as not to be religiously contaminated by people less ceremonially pure than themselves. How wrong they were. How blind they were to the whole covenant-breaking, formalising tendency of their nation’s history. Throughout its history, God’s church had often retreated into ritual, thinking that the cure for disobedience was “a little more religion” (read 1 Samuel 15:22-23!).
How far removed from the gracious God of the Bible these Pharisees were. God’s concern for his glory and purity among men had led him down through history to visit his sin-diseased people to heal them. Climactically, in the incarnation of his own and only Son, God “made his dwelling among us”, he came into the midst of our sin-darkened world to reveal the glory of his “grace and truth.” As the quaint (and not really very good) Christmas hymn puts it, “Love came down at Christmas”, gracious, sovereign-willed love. Jesus was an enigma to the Pharisees because they were strangers to God’s saving grace which was the heritage and glory of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The example of our Lord Jesus is nothing less than a test of true religion: if we are not engaged “among” the disreputables of this world, seeking, like our Saviour to call sinners to repentance, dare we call ourselves a “Christian” church? Jesus was miscalled (“He mixes with harlots and drunkards”), misunderstood, plotted against; but he never wavered in seeking that which was lost. His great priority was saving sinners and he went wherever he could find them. I have little doubt that the reason why my own heart is so little engaged with the disreputables of Cambridge is because I know little of the Saviour’s love for lost perishing men and women. Compare the hours and energy we expend in getting our doctrine right and the hours and energy we spend in “seeking” the lost - to quote our blessed Lord, “(we) should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23-24).
Jesus said, “Follow me.” Whatever else that will mean, it surely means that we are called, in his name, to seek the lost. At the end of the day, to use the clich