Pastor Bill Johnson tells of a life-changing event in his own life when, after months of prayer to see miraculous healing in his church, he had an encounter with God. During this encounter, the power of the Holy Spirit came upon him. He felt God speak to him and ask, “Did you mean it when you said to me, ‘Lord, whatever it takes’?”
In the next moment Johnson saw himself in his mind’s eye walking through his hometown, visiting the places he normally visited (his favorite restaurant, for example). But something was wrong: He had lost control of his arms and legs; they were flailing about erratically. He looked somewhat ridiculous.
At that moment Johnson realized going where God wanted Him to go would mean loss of control of his own life, and possibly loss of his own reputation. “Whatever it takes” suddenly did not look so appealing.
But Johnson answered and said, “Yes, Lord. Whatever it takes.” From that day forward, he and his church began to experience miraculous healings with increasing frequency. In Johnson’s opinion, this decision was pivotal in launching his church, Bethel Church of Redding, into what is now a thriving global ministry.
Why Radical Obedience?
This story is a beautiful picture not only of God’s mercy but of personal sacrifice. It is one of the many reasons I have come to admire Johnson.
But in our ongoing review of Johnson’s book God is Good: He is Better Than You Think and the larger topic of God’s goodness and sovereignty, we have to ask a question here: Why was it necessary for God to ask Johnson that question, and why was it necessary for Johnson to respond?
For some of us, the answer may seem obvious. We would say God requires radical obedience, especially if we wish to partner with God in the important task of bringing His Kingdom to Earth. This is a response we might expect to hear from the revival culture of which Johnson is a part.
But technically speaking, such radical obedience should not be necessary, if in fact Jesus’ sacrificial death on the Cross is a finished work.
Technically speaking, radical obedience should not be necessary, if in fact Jesus’ sacrificial death on the Cross is a finished work.
Pastor Che Ahn of Harvest Rock Fellowship in Pasadena, California and prominent leader of the revival culture puts it this way: “[While on the Cross] when Jesus said, ‘It is finished’, He took our sickness, He took our sins, He took all our curses. . . . He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing. it is finished; it is done for us. We just have to pull it down by faith.”
In other words, Jesus purchased for us much more than a ticket to Heaven, and even freedom from human suffering. He also purchased every spiritual blessing. In the faith-based culture, this is our clarion call, the cornerstone upon which our theology is based.
Why then must we demonstrate radical obedience in order to obtain what has been already purchased, and what is now freely given? If faith is the only requirement, would it not have been more appropriate for Johnson to say, “Lord, why does it matter whether I am willing to do whatever it takes? All spiritual blessings are now mine for the taking because of Jesus. Radical obedience has nothing to do with it.” Would that not have been the highest expression of faith?
A World in Which Faith is Not Necessary
But it goes one step beyond this. If, as we discussed last week, it is impossible for God to allow us to suffer because suffering is a result of God’s judgment for sin, and we are now completely forgiven, then not even faith should be required. Freedom from suffering and access to all spiritual blessings should be not only accessible but unavoidable.
Addressing the question we ended with last week, it would mean the Christian woman who refused to be healed would be healed regardless. God would be obligated to: His forgiveness would demand it. In fact, it would have been impossible for her to be sick in the first place. The moment she received Jesus, she would have been free from all affliction, and walking in the power of God — whether she wanted to or not.
A life that guarantees our freedom from God’s judgment, regardless of our personal choice, would mean the woman who refused to be healed would be healed regardless.
Of course we do not find this to be the case. Whether on the basis of faith or radical obedience, we find that the Christian life requires our participation in order to be successful. The fact we are forgiven does not seem to provide us protection from the principle of personal choice and consequence.
The Bible agrees. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation — but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
Jesus illustrates this principle in his telling of the parable concerning the importance of forgiveness when He says: “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said. ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”
And to make sure his listeners understood the implications, Jesus stated plainly: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Jesus makes similar statements concerning the dangers of judgment.
God Judging Us All Over Again?
But how can we make sense of this? Does this mean despite the fact we are forgiven, God is still judging us for our sin? The answer to this question is found in considering the unique nature of both judgment and unforgiveness. These are not sins in the usual sense. They are not transgressions against God or mankind in the way murder, adultery and deceit are. Judgment and unforgiveness are not even found in the Ten Commandments. Jesus introduced them with His coming. Why is this? Because they are transgressions against the Cross itself.
Both judgment and unforgiveness represent a refusal to extend to others the same mercy that God through Jesus Christ has extended to us (our only justification for freedom from judgment). In a sense, both are a rejection of the Cross, not necessarily at a personal level but at a corporate level.
Both judgment and unforgiveness, unlike traditional sin, represent a refusal to extend the same mercy that God through Jesus Christ has extended to us, and consequently, also to ourselves.
But God sees them as the same. In response to judgment and unforgiveness, God is not so much judging us for our transgression as He is honoring our decision to reject His gift of mercy. In effect, He is allowing us to choose a reality in which mankind is still held accountable for their sins — and that includes our own.
In this respect, the one who refuses to forgive is very much like the woman who refuses to be healed: Both are a rejection of the mercy God purchased at the Cross. In both cases, we can think of God as extending His invitation of mercy, and that invitation being rejected. The consequence of our actions is not so much an act of judgment as it is a failure to receive mercy. We are like a child who refuses to be comforted.
In response to unforgiveness, God is not so much judging us for our transgression as He is honoring our decision to reject His gift of mercy.
Not a Guarantee: An Invitation
Seeing God’s mercy as an invitation helps us not only make sense of judgment and unforgiveness in the Christian life but also understand the Christian life as a whole. In short, the Christian life is not a guarantee but an invitation. It is a lifelong journey of God inviting us to experience and participate in His mercy.
But it also helps us make sense of faith. The nature of an invitation is that the terms of acceptance are defined by the one who sends it. If a friend is having a Christmas party at her house and sends you an invitation, you cannot respond by saying yes but you want it at your house instead, or you would rather have it after the first of the year because that would be more convenient for you.
So it is with God’s invitation to us. God does not force the benefits of the Cross upon us; He invites us to experience them. But He is the one sending out the invitation, and it is only fair He gets to dictate its terms.
God does not force the benefits of the Cross upon us. But He is the One sending out the invitation, and it is only fair He gets to dictate its terms.
Now God could have chosen to make all that Jesus purchased for us at the Cross immediately available to us, requiring little or no decision on our part — and at no inconvenience to us. In essence, He could have chosen to have the party right where we live.
But as it so happens, the Father has chosen to celebrate His Son’s historic victory over sin and death at His place of residence. That is, He has chosen that we experience the benefits of the Cross in Himself. This is what Jesus means when He says, “Remain in me and I will remain in you. If you remain in me, you will bear much fruit and your joy will be complete.”
This fact highlights what I believe to be a tragic flaw in the faith-based theology, which is the belief that we get to dictate the terms of God’s invitation. No disrespect to Pastor Ahn, but we experience what Jesus purchased at the Cross not by pulling it down, but by showing up. That is, it is only by responding to and remaining in God that we experience His goodness. The paradigm of the true Christian life is not “name it and claim it” but “follow Me” and “remain in Me.”
The paradigm of the true Christian life is not “name it and claim it” but “remain in Me” and “follow Me.”
From this perspective, Johnson’s testimony makes sense, for we see that faith is not simply what we believe but how we respond. God was extending to Johnson an invitation. He was inviting him to partner with Him in bringing Heaven to Earth. By faith, Johnson considered his own reputation of little value in light of seeing Heaven come to Earth. By faith, Johnson considered God worthy of his sacrifice, not matter the outcome. And it was by faith that Johnson sought through prayer to bring to Earth what he could only see in the unseen.
There are some final observations I wish to make here. First, faith is not a mechanism by which we obtain all that we want. In fact, the moment we turn it into a thing of our own liking and choosing apart from the context of God’s ongoing invitation, it loses all integrity and meaning, much like the manna the children of Israel sought to horde. Second, faith is not always radical, but it is always personal.
Faith is not always radical, but it is always personal.
God’s invitation to each of us in each season is as unique as we are. It may require radical obedience at one time, perseverance at another, and patience and even acceptance at still another. At one time it might require bold proclamation, at another it may require absolute silence. At one time, it may require much activity. Still at another, complete rest. But at all times it is designed to demand what we are able to give, in order to accomplish in us what God desires to achieve.
To experience God’s best, we all must leave the comfort of our homes to respond to God’s invitation. During this Christmas season as we celebrate the birth of His Son, may you find it easy to respond, and find yourself with Him, and in Him. May you be bearing both fruit and gifts. And may your joy be complete.