Ice Cream Grace

In Tony Campolo’s recent book, Stories That Feed Your Soul, he shared a story about when he was asked to present to a university class “how Christianity could be a movement that would foster positive and radical social change.” 

Campolo passionately told the students how Christianity could solve the world’s problems. The students were enthralled. They wanted that world that following Jesus could bring. But then the professor, who had invited Tony, interrupted him and shouted, “Tony! Tony! Be sure to tell them the cost! Tell them what it will cost them if they become the kind of Christians that Jesus expects them to be. Explain to them the sacrifices that they will have to make if they are to be true followers of Jesus.” In explaining the cost, Campolo lost the crowd. They wanted all of the benefits, but none of the cost.

So what is the cost to follow Jesus?

We have a tendency to confuse undeserved forgiveness with free forgiveness. We must realize that none of us can ever do enough good works to deserve forgiveness for any of the wrongs we have done, are doing, and will do in the future. None us can abstain from enough sins to cover up any of the times we have missed, are missing, and will continue to miss opportunities to love the people around us. Since we cannot pay the price, we do not deserve forgiveness. That is why it is a gift. But being a gift does not mean that it is given without cost.

I have fantasized about telling my kids that the ice cream truck was the boogey man truck. This way they would hide and cower behind the bushes, terrified of the music and the truck rather than ask me to buy them ice cream at the truck’s siren call. But I digress.

The other day, we were sitting outside at the lake with my aunt and uncle. The hypnotic music of the ice cream truck could be heard coming closer and closer. My aunt, upon hearing the noise, wanted to buy my kids ice cream, so she did. My kids were happy. My aunt was happy. Everyone was happy. And my kids became messy enjoying their ice cream. We wrongly visualize an image similar to this, where God is like my aunt and we are like my children, when we attempt to understand receiving God’s grace. God wants to give us grace, but there is a cost. It isn’t just us running happily to an ice cream truck.

Jesus taught, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” [Matthew 16:24-26 (ESV].

This is death imagery. It would be like Jesus saying, “Deny yourself, climb into your electric chair, and follow me.” The cross was a disgraceful, humiliating execution device.

The cost to follow Jesus is everything. It’s not going through a confirmation class. It’s not raising a hand in response to a commitment call. It’s not going to the altar. It’s not being baptized. It’s not saying a specific prayer. It’s not most of the things we confuse it with. The cost to follow Jesus is everything. It’s not attending Sunday morning gatherings, taking the Lord’s Supper, giving in the offering plate, or some other religious ritual. It’s everything.

It’s the giving of your whole life, everything from your time at work to your time in the neighborhood. From your time with family to your time entertaining yourself. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus’ death on the cross, is not a cheap grace, it’s an undeserved grace. It’s an expensive grace, freely given.

When young people are asked what they think of Christians, the first thought that comes to mind is that Christians are judgmental. Something is drastically wrong when followers of Jesus are known for a trait that was not modeled in the One they claim to follow. Christians suffer an image problem in our culture.  This is an inevitable result of watering down Christianity from a teaching of costly grace to one of free benefits. When our churches are filled with people who want the benefits of following Jesus without the cost of following Jesus, we will exhibit a Jesus who is selfish rather than serving.

There are great benefits to being a Christian, both on a personal and on a societal level. However, these benefits cannot be received until we give ourselves completely to Jesus. We must stop living for ourselves and start living for others. In doing so, we will find the grace that God provides through Jesus. The benefits we receive might not look like the benefits we wanted when we were living selfishly, but they will be the benefits we and the people around us need. May we find the strength to climb into our electric chair and follow Jesus.