There is a mega-church down the street from my old house in Memphis.
The church owns a couple of billboards next to Interstate 40 that they use to promote church activities, services, and share the occasional “inspirational message.”
A couple of years ago, the sign read “Jesus loves you just the way you are.”
Now, I am well aware that this one liner has become a core tenant of modern, American evangelicalism. It seems like every time “the altars are opened” at church, you hear the preacher use this line to qualm the fears of any potential converts who might be worried that they are not worthy to approach the altar.
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done,” they say, “Jesus loves you just the way you are. So come on down to the alter and give your heart to the Lord!”
There’s a problem with that line of thinking, however.
It’s simply not true.
In fact, I couldn’t think of a more un-Christian thing to say.
If Jesus loves us just the way we are, then why bother with all that crucifixion mess? After all, if Jesus loves us just the way we are, then dying for our sins was just a terrible waste of time.
Ironically, if Jesus loves us just the way we are, then the church that put up that billboard has no reason to exist. Things like discipleship and spiritual growth are irrelevant if the way we are now is a-okay with Jesus.
And if Jesus loves us just the way we are, then there is no need for grace or forgiveness since those gifts are given because the status quo is not okay.
In other words, if Jesus loves us just the way we are, then there is no point to the Christian faith because there would be no need for the gospel.
Such a declaration stems, I think, from the combination of our own attempts to convince ourselves that we’re really not that bad and our embarrassment about talking about the most unpopular subject in the church today: sin.
On the surface, it may seem like the right thing to tell people, after all wasn’t Jesus all loving and accepting of everyone regardless of how terrible a life they had led? That is certainly true, but if we tell people that Jesus loves them just the way they are, then we actually end up making Jesus himself irrelevant and the Christian faith a complete waste of time.
Because Jesus is about transformation, about finding us just the way we are, but not leaving us that way.
When the sick come to Jesus, they leave healed. After the lame meet Jesus, they walk home. The blind can see after he touches them. Even the dead come back to life when Jesus calls them out of their tomb.
Jesus certainly wraps his arms around us while we are still sinners, but then he sends us on our way telling us to “go and sin no more”. Without this transformation there is neither a need, nor space for such grace and forgiveness as both of these great gifts only exist in order to transform us into something better.
Simply put, to declare that Jesus loves us just the way we are is to reject the gospel, for in doing so we reject the good news that how things are is not how they should be or how they soon will be, that God has come to offer us grace and forgiveness so that we can be the people God created us to be.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus doesn’t loves us just the way we are, he loves us in spite of who we are.
That is the beauty of grace.
If he loved the way we are already, then there never would have been a need for Jesus, let alone his death and resurrection. Instead, the cross and resurrection stand as the ultimate declaration that the way things are is not the way they should or will be. It is exactly because Jesus doesn’t love the way we are, that these things were necessary.
It is here that we see the very heart of grace, that though we were still sinners Christ died for us. Or, to put it another way, in spite of who we were Jesus died for us anyway.
Grace is grace because it is offered in spite of our imperfections and failings. Forgiveness is forgiveness because it forgives the way we are. And salvation is salvation because it saves us from the way we are and allows us to become the people of God we were created to be.
If Jesus loves the sinful people that we are, then grace, forgiveness, and salvation are not good news, they are irrelevant news. But if Jesus sees us for who we truly are, people ravaged by sin and consumed by selfish desires, yet chooses to not only love us, but to die for us anyway, then his grace, forgiveness, and salvation truly become good news and Jesus truly becomes one worthy of our love and worship.
Grace and peace,