“The fact is, God is not concerned whether we are happy or not. But he is very concerned over whether we are holy. We can be happy and on our way to hell. But if we are holy, it is only because the Holy One is at home in his temple, our hearts. So we ought to take a long look at adversity and ask what Jesus the Branch means to burn out of us so that he can take us into his tabernacle, where he abides with the Father.”
– John N Oswalt
This quote came up in my memories on Facebook the other day. Five years ago, I was auditing a class being held in the Bible school that was run by my church at the time, and this quote appeared in one of my official notes. I was inspired by these words. I thought the quote was deep and meaningful. I had been taught that this was the truth- my happiness meant little to nothing. My holiness? That was the measure of my standing in Christ. Holiness means everything.
Five years later, I am horrified.
This is heresy. This is someone attempting to describe who exactly Jesus is, but his description is twisted. Judging from this, one would think that God simply cannot be pleased by us. We need to be arduously tortured (or “burned”, as John puts it) in order to be acceptable in the presence of God.
This is a legalistic gospel. And while I do not intend to pick on Mr. Oswalt here, I do think its important to really analyze the theology being presented here. This man was not being an outlier when he penned these words. There is special emphasis within Evangelicalism, as well as other branches of Christendom, on the importance of our holiness as it relates to our salvation or our relationship with God.
There is a discussion to be had about the topic of sanctification, but this post is not attempting to address that.
My contention is that when we see language being used, as in the Oswalt quote, that suggests that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was not sufficient to give us perfect standing before God, there is a very big problem with how the gospel itself is being understood.
Can we take a moment to look and see how, according to the Bible, God actually sees us?
“21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” – Romans 3:21-26(NRSV)
Let’s not rush by the significance of this passage too quickly.
God’s righteousness through faith for all who believe.
All who have sinned are justified by grace through the redemption of Jesus.
God Himself is the one who is righteous. Not us, but God. It is through him that we find our own righteousness.
Friends, we cannot earn our righteousness. We certainly cannot condemn Christ to die for us a second time (Hebrews 7:27). When Oswalt suggests that we need to be put through some sort of adversity in order to burn away what is bad (or unholy) in us, he is effectively denying the sufficiency of the gospel itself. He is arguing that God’s righteousness, now our righteousness, isn’t enough.
That is a very bold statement.
According to Romans 3, God has passed over the sins committed. God has freely forgiven and justified through faith in Christ. There is no more work left to be done to make us holy in His sight. Jesus finished it all (John 19:30). To suggest that we somehow need to do anything, or that Christ needs to do more, is to deviate from the gospel itself.
Here is the truth that is often suppressed in the teaching of the gospel: God absolutely does care about our happiness.
How do I know this? Because of how God is revealed in Scripture as a personal God who is interested in a personal relationship with His creation.
God is our Father (1 John 3:1) and our Mother (Isaiah 66:13, Matthew 23:37). Jesus is our Friend (John 15:15), and our Brother (Hebrews 2:11-12).
God has chosen to reveal Himself to us in language that denotes a close and loving relationship. What father, mother, brother, or friend could watch their close loved one go through hell and remain unconcerned so long as the ends justifies the means? What friend or relative even requires their loved one to go through any sort of adversity such as described by Oswalt just to enter into their presence?
Yes, all of the hardships I’ve gone through have led me to where I am and to become who I am today. They’ve led me into a deeper relationship with God. I do fully believe that God used those hard things to lead and shape me. However, He did not cause them to happen to me. He certainly didn’t require them in order to be saved or to be in His presence. I do not believe for one second that He delighted in my pain because it was somehow making me “holy”.
I believe He was carrying me in my pain. I believe He was walking beside me.
I believe God cried with me the way a mother cries when she sees her child suffering.
I believe it hurt Him to see me in pain the way it hurts me to see my friends in pain.
I worship a God who is a personal God. I worship a God who deeply cares about His children. Not the cold and distant God who requires suffering of His children before finding them acceptable enough to stand in His presence.
My God doesn’t see me as inherently evil or unholy. He doesn’t see me as a diamond in the rough that must be worked at to find the beauty within. He’s always seen beauty in me simply because I exist. No amount of suffering could make me more holy or more accepted than I was on the day I was born.
Because when He created me, just like when He created you, He looked at us and said: “It is very good.”(Genesis 1:31)
3 The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
– Jeremiah 31:3( NIV)