Well, some Christians are dramatically saved out of a life of scandalous sin and have an amazing testimony of deliverance to share. Many other Christians, particularly those saved at a young age, don’t really have a dramatic conversion story. And that leads to a challenge for at least one young Christian, a young woman named Rachael. She writes in, “Hello Pastor John, and thank you for taking my question! I’ve been a Christian all my life, as long as I can recall. I’m not perfect. I have a ton of issues and God is still working in me. But I’ve never indulged in alcohol, never done any drugs, never engaged in premarital sex. I guard my heart to the best of my ability and pray often when I’m struggling with temptations. I’ll be the first to tell you that I need God’s grace just as much as, if not more so than, anybody else.
“But sometimes, I get a case of FOMO, the fear of missing out. Sometimes I feel like the older brother in the prodigal-son parable. Like when I see people at church who turned away from sinful hedonism and became Christians, I’m happy for them and rejoice with them. But at the same time I feel like, ‘Wow, no one cares that I’ve always said no to drugs and sex and wickedness my whole life, but boy they all care when all the people doing that stuff turn away from it.’ And I know that’s not what I should be thinking. I shouldn’t be bitter or resentful. But sometimes those feelings manifest. I’m not proud of these thoughts and I often pray to God that these feelings would flee so I can just bask in his presence, but it’s hard. Any advice you have would help. Thank you!”
I appreciate Rachael’s honesty, and I appreciate her self-recrimination at the temptation to feel resentment that her lifelong faithfulness to Christ feels unacknowledged and less valued than recent converts from lives of flagrant sin. And one of the reasons that I appreciate this is that it shows me that Rachael is not in the category of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9–14:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.
Now, Rachael is aware of that danger, and she’s not proud when that temptation rises. That’s a good sign.
Sons and Slaves
She mentions the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. Now that is a dangerous comparison because she doesn’t want to be in the category of the older brother. The older brother was very angry that the father was so lavish in his celebration of the return of the younger son who had wasted the father’s inheritance.
But the problem with the older brother, more deeply, was that he related to his father like a slave instead of a son. He reminded his father “how hard I’ve served you all these years.” You could just hear, “. . . like a slave,” but the father shook his head as if in bafflement and said, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31).
“The problem with the older brother, more deeply, was that he related to his father like a slave instead of a son.”
In other words, the problem with the older brother is not merely that he doesn’t love his younger brother the way he should, but that he doesn’t see or feel the glory of what he has in his relationship to his father, and the inheritance from the father. So, Rachael does not want to be like this older brother.
Who Are the Ninety-Nine?
Now, let’s go one step further with this parable, because it gets insightful for her situation. The parable of the prodigal son is the third of three parables that illustrate joy when a lost sinner is rescued by Jesus for the kingdom of heaven. In the first parable, there’s the man who leaves ninety-nine sheep behind, and he goes out, and he finds one lost sheep. And it says, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
And then there’s the woman in the next parable who has ten coins. She loses one, and she desperately sweeps all of her house, finds the coin, gathers her friends, and rejoices. And Jesus says, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
Now that might sound like the situation Rachael is frustrated about. The church throws a party for one amazing convert out of a life of flagrant sinning — why? Well, doesn’t Jesus say in Luke 15 that one sinner who repents is more to be celebrated than ninety-nine faithful Rachaels? No, that is not what it says. These three parables are not about a church with ninety-nine godly, faithful, lifelong Christians who know they need grace, and who live by the mercy of God. That’s not what these parables are about.
These parables are about a dinner party where Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, surrounded by Pharisees who are ticked off that Jesus is offering his forgiving fellowship to sinners. The elder brother represents the Pharisees, not the faithful, humble, believing church member. And when Jesus refers to ninety-nine persons who need no repentance, he’s speaking ironically, because there is no such thing as a person who needs no repentance, especially the Pharisees.
Where We See Our Sin
But here’s what I would say, both to Rachael and to Rachael’s church leaders. It is a serious mistake to give the impression that Christians come to understand the depth of depravity from which we’ve been saved, and the glories of grace by which we’ve been saved, by focusing on the remembered experience of conversion and the sins that went before.
That’s a profound mistake to think that we can know the depth of our depravity by recalling our pre-conversion sins, or that we can know the glories of grace by recalling that night when we were set free from drug addiction and sexual bondage. That is utterly naive for pastors to think that way or people to think that way.
“Nobody can know the depths of their depravity and the glories of God’s grace by focusing on remembered experience.”
Nobody, nobody can know the depths of their depravity and the glories of God’s grace by focusing on remembered experience. I don’t care how horrible the lifestyle was or how dramatic the conversion was, all such estimations of depravity and grace will be superficial without the biblical revelation of what depravity really is in relation to God, and what grace really is in the heart of God. That reality can only be learned from what God has said in his word, not from any analysis of our sinful lives or our conversions. Listen to Paul:
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the [age] of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1–3)
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. . . . But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 4:18; 2:4–5)
If we don’t penetrate into this kind of God-given description of our condition before and after grace, we will never know the depth of our depravity or the glory of God’s grace.
Glory of Grace
Which means for Rachael and her church, by all means, let there be celebrations of every conversion of every hardened sinner. Amen. And let there be celebrations of every 8-year-old child who genuinely repents and embraces Jesus as Savior and Lord and Treasure. And let every Christian marvel every day that he or she has peace with God, and that we swim in an ocean of grace, and that we owe nothing to ourselves and everything to God.
And let the elders teach the people, so that year by year the people tremble more and more at the horrors of what they were saved from at 8 or 18 or 58. And so, year by year, they leap with greater joy at the increasingly amazing grasp of grace by which they live.