Before going further, let me say that I sympathize with Bubba’s hesitancy to talk with religious people. Even as a Christian, I’m turned off by zealots who seem too eager to peer into my soul or help me mend my ways. No one likes self-righteous finger wagging in their face.
I tried a different approach with Bubba. “I believe bad people go to heaven and good people go to hell,” I said. He perked up. “Now this I’ve got to hear!” he said. I described how Jesus said that “it’s not the whole who need a physician, but the sick,” and that he “came to call not the righteous, but sinners” (see Mark 2:17).
Bubba listened with interest and we had numerous conversations in the following weeks. We didn’t work together long and have now lost touch. But I’ve never forgotten those conversations with my atheist friend.
As a pastor, I now believe it’s more important than ever to clarify the message of Jesus and distinguish it from mere morality or religion. Someone once said, “the gospel is good news, not good advice.” Jesus didn’t come to reward the righteous for their superior morality. Nor did he shun the misfits and screwups of society. He accepted lavish gifts from prostitutes and went to parties with tax collectors — who were often guilty of extortion and thus far more despised than an auditor for the IRS. Religious leaders scoffed at Jesus and wondered why he hobnobbed with sinners. But Jesus didn’t choose followers on the basis of their goodness. Grace, by definition, is extended to the undeserving.
The reality, of course, is that we’re all undeserving. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 6:23). All are sick. All need a physician. The gospel is good news, not because it rewards good people who have their act together, but because it offers forgiveness to all who trust in Jesus — regardless of their past. The gospel isn’t advice about what we must do, but the powerful declaration of what God has already done to redeem a lost and dying world. The heart of this declaration is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ: his death for our sins and his triumph over the grave three days later on that first resurrection morning.
As an old hymn says, “Living, he loved me / Dying, he saved me / Buried, he carried my sins far away / Rising, he justified freely forever / One day he’s coming, oh glorious day.”
And that, my friends, is news worth sharing.