Ray Ortlund leads a church in Nashville where they use the following wording as a call to worship:
To all who are weary and need rest;
to all who mourn and long for comfort;
to all who feel worthless and wonder if God cares;
to all who fail and desire strength;
to all who sin and need a Savior;
to all who hunger and thirst for righteousness;
and to whoever will come—this church opens wide her doors and offers her welcome in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s a grace invitation. And Ray is big on grace, the grace of the gospel. He says that ‘If you have gospel doctrine on paper but you don’t have gospel culture in relationships, you don’t really have gospel doctrine.’
So it’s a bit of a problem when evangelical churches (who believe in the grace of the gospel and preach it) produce (or at least count in their ranks) people who sometimes appear to demonstrate so little grace.
Here are some thoughts on older brothers, like the one in the story:
‘But he was angry…’ verse 28. Older brothers find it hard to forgive, hard to extend grace to others. As CS Lewis reminded us, we might think forgiveness is a wonderful idea – until we have something we need to forgive.
‘…these many years I have served you… yet you never gave me a young goat…’ verse 29. Older brothers live out a transactional type of spirituality that lacks the warmth of a relationship with a Heavenly Father.
‘…I never disobeyed your command…’ verse 29. Older brothers are very aware of their own rightness which makes them aware of others’ wrongness and often unable to admit their own failings.
‘But when this son of yours came…’ verse 30. Older brothers make comparisons and struggle to be generous in how they think of others.
For each of these symptoms, the treatment is repentance and a humble receiving of grace, acknowledging, as Jerry Bridges puts it,
Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.
Christians believe in the grace of God. It’s by grace that we are saved. We sing about how amazing it is. But some of us don’t do such a good job of truly getting it. Or demonstrating it to one another. Or communicating it to the watching world.
We are talking about the unearned, freely given, costly love of God, expressed in the forgiveness that he has made available to us through the work of Jesus.
Here are six warning signs that may indicate that you have not quite grasped God’s grace or that it has not quite grasped you.
You are not very good at extending forgiveness to people who need it. I think this is a major giveaway. Think about the older brother in Jesus’ famous parable (which features above). For him, life was about what you earn and if you don’t earn it, you don’t deserve it. Think about the story Jesus told about the man whose response to being forgiven a huge debt was to throw one of his own debtor’s in prison.
You always need to be right and seen to be right. Which probably means you have to have the closing word in an argument. For it would be too bad if someone thought that you were less than perfect!
You find it hard to admit that you have been wrong on something. This is the reverse of #2. If your sense of well-being depends on being right and everyone acknowledging this, then it’s a small disaster when it turns out you were wrong. It might devastate you, or you might just turn to a string of excuses and rationalisations to cover over the blemish.
You feel the need to be everybody’s traffic warden. Perhaps not literally (though you probably notice every motorist who is in breach of some kind of rule or other), but at least metaphorically. You know where the white lines are and you notice when other people stray across them – even the tiniest bit.
Yet it may also be true that you like to be liked and accepted by other people. Rejection and disapproval are difficult to bear. It’s nice when people admire you; difficult to cope when they don’t pay much attention to you.
Your spiritual life is more about rule-keeping than a warm relationship with God. You are not quite sure about God as a compassionate Heavenly Father. You live more as a slave than a son.
If this was a self-help book, I’d probably need to include a little 5 point scale for each of these, where 0=never and 5=all the time. Then I’d get you to add it up and tell you that if you have over 20 points, you need to talk to God about it. Mightn’t be a bad idea, if you want!