Bruised Reeds, Second Chances and Finishing Well Part 19: What is The Missing Middle of the Gospel?
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! Galatians 2:20-21 NIV
The biggest broken reed controversy of the early church was how to integrate Gentile believers with their Jewish Christian family. It’s not often we get an insider’s look at a deep controversy. From Acts 10 to 15, we see the emerging frustration on both sides of the issue. The confrontation between Peter and Paul in Antioch is a highlight reel of that conflict. The reason behind the conflict was that Jewish Christians believed that Gentile Christians needed to keep the Law of Moses, including the requirement of being circumcised, as the way to righteousness.
The key word for all this is ‘obey.’ Obey the teaching of the Law. Obey and you will be holy and blameless before God. I mean, who could possibly be against obeying?
Pause. Reflect. Is there anything in the above statement to which any righteous Pharisee could not have said ‘Amen.’? Was the gospel of Jesus merely a different take on how people ought to be obedient to the Law? To put it more bluntly, if Jesus taught that the way of holiness is to become more obedient, then why was he crucified?
What makes the good news of Jesus different for all the bruised reeds who continually fail to keep the Law perfectly—yes, even the Jewish believers failed at it too, as Paul points out In Romans 2:17-26—is the empowering presence of Jesus inside us. It is he, not us, who transforms us into holy people. He makes it possible for us to live in the kingdom. By faith we trust Jesus to give us life. This means we are both justified by his death and transformed by his life.
I call this the missing middle of the gospel because it so often never explained. Sometimes it’s assumed that people know about it. But leaders often come down hard on others in their church family when broken life behavior continues to makes its presence known. Without this part of the gospel, hopelessness can stalk a congregation. People can feel like they will never measure up, never please God enough. Or pride can take root as some feel they have mastered the secrets of obedience, overlooking their own unfinished business from which only Jesus’ life can heal and deliver them.
I learned how powerful this truth was shortly after I intentionally embraced this transformation journey with God. I was already a pastor, already married and doing poorly at both. I was addicted to a number of sinful behaviors. I told God that if He did not take over my life, nothing eternal would come out of it.
I had always been critical of my wife since the beginning of our marriage. I arrogantly found that she did not measure up to my standards of doing things—how she kept house, how she raised the children, etc. I tried to fix her through pointing out her faults, thinking that in time she would get better. I had no idea how badly I was wounding her and destroying our marriage.
One day, soon after I entered into the healing process with God, He showed me I was to stop criticizing Shirley. I was staggered, because my standard mode of speaking was to be critical and I knew nothing else. So I blurted out to God, “I can’t!” And then I said, “But, by the power of the Spirit, I am going to do this by faith.” What I meant by this was I knew I could not do it. If it was up to Steve trying to stop, at best I could hold out for a few days, maybe a few weeks. But then I would be right back to doing it because I was a bruised reed who had no ability to fix myself.
A year later, conditions had so changed in our marriage that Shirley, who journaled her thoughts, wrote in her notebook that day all the reasons she loved me as her husband. The first statement she wrote was, “I love Steve because he doesn’t criticize me.” I first saw this list seventeen years later, on a day when Shirley was cleaning out her storage chest. When she handed me the list, I was dumbstruck at the confirmation of God’s changing our marriage by changing me years before. Through that one act of righteousness by faith, love was rekindled in my wife.
This is the first lesson I learned that the gospel is truly by faith from first to last. Every day it is about faith in Jesus’ presence and power in my life, in every believer’s life. This is the good news that I teach to other bruised reeds, because we have no hope that we will become obedient otherwise.
If you don’t give up on the gospel, you will see its power change even the messiest of sinners, even me, even you.