I had a unique opportunity to share the good news yesterday. As I was visiting in the hospital, I passed by a kindly looking older woman in a waiting area, and she smiled broadly as I went on my way. On the way back out, there she still sat, continually smiling broadly at passers-by. I smiled back, and then felt the Spirit nudging me to turn around and talk to her. So I went back and began the conversation by simply saying, ‘Ma’am, I’ve seen your big smile twice now, and I just want to thank you. It encouraged me.’
We began to talk about why she was in the waiting room, the fact that she’d just been discharged, and so on. Eventually she said that she felt God had healed her and was sending her home because He still had something more for her to do. She said it with such a confidence and a joy that I thought, ‘Well, she must be a Christian, with an attitude like that!’ So I asked if I could read her the passage of Scripture I’d just finished reading to my friend upstairs. She agreed, and we read Romans 8.32 – about God not sparing Jesus, but delivering Him over for us all; and promising, along with this greatest of gifts, to give us everything else we need. I wasn’t sure, at first, if she’d ever heard the verse before. Then, as we talked about it a little further, it became clear that the good news itself was something foreign to her.
She spoke of how God deals differently with ‘good souls’ versus ‘wicked souls,’ and how we all need to strive to be among the good, not the bad. When I explained that “there is none good,” and that this is why we needed a Savior to die in our place, she seemed perplexed. She agreed, as we talked, that we all ‘make mistakes,’ but questioned the necessity of the cross by saying, ‘Don’t you think that if we’re really sorry, and if we try to do better, God will just accept that?’ In other words, she was saying: ‘Do we really need a death to take place? Can’t God just forgive us without such a penalty … simply because we sincerely ask Him?’
I explained that she was right to be sorry for sins, and to ask God’s forgiveness; that this is absolutely necessary. But I went on to explain how serious sin is, and that its consequences cannot simply be wiped away without someone paying for the crime. Repentance, by itself, does not cover sin. We need an atonement; a Savior to come and pay our debts for us. And God loved us enough to send Jesus to do it!
‘This is the really good news,’ I said to her. ‘Not that God welcomes ‘good souls’ into heaven, but even bad ones like you and me! And that, in order to do so, He was even willing to send His Son to die the death that we deserve!’ I’m not sure she was convinced. So, with an encouragement to read the gospel of Mark (Jesus’ biography) and Romans 3 (which powerfully proclaims the truths I was urging upon her), we parted ways. I pray she will read those passages, and that her smile will become even broader when she realizes how wonderful the news of Jesus really is.
After I left her, it occurred to me that there were two important lessons, in my hospital encounter, to learn about sharing the good news.
First is simply that we can’t presume people are Christians just because they speak happily, and even somewhat accurately, about God. This woman, wonderfully, had a sense of the goodness and sovereignty of God in her life. But, as we talked, it became clear that she did not adequately understand His holiness, or (consequently) her sin and need of a Savior. There are people like that around us every day. They know God, but they don’t really know Him. So don’t assume people are Christians, even if they may sound like it at first. Probe them (kindly!) and see.
Second, remember that the good news is about what Jesus has done, not what we can do. This dear woman was right. We must be truly sorry for our sins, and ask God’s forgiveness, and strive to leave them behind. That’s what the Bible calls repentance. But repentance, by itself, does not save. The message of the gospel is: “Repentance toward God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine). My new friend had an inkling of the first part, but no idea of the second. But repentance without faith in the finished work of Jesus is no good news. It’s bad news, because we could never repent enough!
But again, in my presumption, I might have almost overlooked this necessary piece of information. Had this nice lady’s comments about being sorry for our ‘mistakes’ not come as a kind of rebuttal to my explanation of Christ’s death; had she just said, at the beginning, ‘O, if we are truly sorry for our wrongs, and ask God to forgive us, and try do better, He is wonderful to forgive’ … I might have left it at that. I might have assumed: ‘Well, she seems to understand “repentance toward God”, so she must surely understand “faith in Jesus Christ”.’ But she didn’t. Jesus and the cross were foreign to her.
So what am I saying? What is the second lesson I learned? That we must, must, must explain Jesus Christ! No one is saved without Him, no matter how sincere their apologies to God may be. As Augustus Toplady put it, in his hymn to the Lord Jesus:
Could be zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone.
Thou must save, and thou alone!