I have not visited very many churches that are as large and important as Grace Community Church, but I have been inside a few. I was not prepared for the "plainness" of Grace. The church is, to be honest, quite unremarkable but for its size. The inside is not at all exciting - the walls and ceilings are plain. The walls are unadorned and the entire focus of the church is a rather simple pulpit The campus is large, but plain. I guess this shows that the church does do what MacArthur claims: it focuses on the gospel while worrying far less about what people may want from a church. It gives people little more than what they need.
I asked Phil Johnson and one of the long-time elders at Grace Community Church about this over dinner tonight and they told me that this was a deliberate decision. It is interesting to note that this church was built at around the same time as Schuller's Crystal Cathedral. The difference between the buildings is striking. So is the difference in the focuses of their ministries.
This evening's session began with a time of singing. I was struck by the difference in singing between this conference and the Desiring God conference. Last year, when I blogged the Desiring God conference I remarked on the large number of hands that were raised during the times of worship through song. Tonight the singing was loud and powerful, but there were far fewer hands in the air. I would conservatively estimate the number of hands in the air at 1. Maybe 2. At times I am struck by the diversity within the body of Christ. At times that are more spiritually significant, I am struck by the sweetness of this diversity. It's a beautiful thing to behold.
Tonight's session will once again feature John MacArthur.
Scripture is very clear that God has no joy in the death of the wicked. He takes no pleasure in their destruction, for as we read in Scripture, Jesus wept over Jerusalem - sincere weeping. God finds His joy not in the destruction of the wicked but in the recovery of sinners. We don't talk much about the joy of God. We preach a lot of things about the nature of God, but one thing that gets left out is the joy of God. Do we think of God as joyful? God experiences unending, consumate joy, every moment. What gives him this joy? Deuteronomy 30 points to the obedience of His people.
God rejoices as a groom rejoices over his bride - the supreme human expression of joy. God finds His joy in the salvation of sinners. Do we think of God as shouting with joy? But He does, for He finds His joy in the recovery of lost sinners. Jonathan Edwards said that God supremely values His own joy and finds His highest joy in the recovery of the lost. And thus the end of all we do ought to be the joy of God.
Luke 15 looks at this in an incomparable way in the parables of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. Jesus challenges the pharisees to ask who would be so superficial that he would rejoice over the finding of a lost coin, yet not rejoice at the salvation of a sinner? Who would be that selfish? That ungodly?
And then we turn to the story of the prodigal son. This parable is premised on a society that was dominated by the concepts of shame and honor. People and families sought to gain honor while avoiding shame. The listener fully understood the shame of this story. Everything that everybody does in this parable is shameful and unacceptable. It is counter to all conventional thinking. It is shocking, outrageous, unbelievable, unthinkable. Some of it is perceived to be shameful when it is not, and some of it is truly, deeply shameful.
A shameful request: It begins in verse eleven with the story of a father who had two sons. The one son requested his inheritance. It was a shameful request that would have raised the eyebrows of the pharisees. It is selfish, hateful and disrespectful. He is, in reality, saying to his father "I wish you were dead." The father was standing in the way of how his son wanted to live. The son wants his one-third of the estate and feels it is rightfully his. He wants it not so he can build and develop a business or to manage the money himself, but rather for his own selfish purposes - for his own freedom and independence. The pharisees would expect the father to beat him, punish him, and perhaps reduce the amount of his inheritance. He would do this because of the shame it would bring the family to have a son make such an outrageous request.
A shameful response: The father divided his wealth between them. No father would do this because it would bring further shame to the family. Instead of reacting in an honorable way, the father gives in to his son's request. Giving his son that much freedom would heap shame upon a middle-eastern nobleman. It was a very dishonorable act.
A shameful rebellion: The son gathered everything together, selling all he had and turning it into cash. He would have sold it cheap with the understanding that a person could not claim the wealth until the father was dead. Who would do something so dishonorable? What older son would stand by and let this happen? What father would allow this to happen? And all of this so the son could go on a journey into a foreign, unclean land and squander this estate in loose living. And again, the pharisees would have asked, "who would do this?" It would have been inconceivable to them. The level of shame and stupidity displayed by the characters in this story was extreme.
But as we know, the son became destitute. Loose living and a famine robbed him of all he had. He squandered all that he had been given. The son was sent into the fields to feed swine. He could go no lower. He is not herding pigs, but is a pig. He is a sinner in the most extreme form of rebellion.
In this story we see sin. Sin is a desire that God was dead and to want nothing to do with Him. It is to take all we have been given and squander it. It is to waste life in selfish indulgence while shunning all that is good and right. "This is the freedom of the will and it is a horrible bondage." The picture is flagrantly extreme.
A shameful repentance: The son came to his senses and we see that the beginning of repentance is an accurate assessment of one's condition. He realized that his father's hired hands had far more than he did and received more than enough. His father was kind, merciful, loving and generous. He has faith in his father's heart and willingness to take him back. He realizes the height of his sin (as high as heaven) but will confess his sin to his father and beg to be anything to his father. He will make no demands, no excuses, but will throw himself on the mercy of his father.
What could the son expect from his return? The villagers would have a responsibility to heap scorn upon him. This was part of the culture and he would have known this. He would expect that his father would send a message, not even willing to see him, and tell him to sit in the town and soak up his shame for a week or two. He would then grant an audience of great indifference and may lay out a long, harsh program of restitution that may just lead to a cold reconciliation after sufficient time had passed.
A shameful reconcilation: This is most shameful of all. His father had compassion, ran to him and kissed him. The pharisees would have rolled their eyes and mocked, thinking that there was just no helping this father. The father must have been looking for his son, for he saw him a long way off. Without having his honor restored, he runs to his son and plays the fool. He felt compassion like some type of wimp. He ran to him, sprinted to him, something old noblemen do not do, for it is neither dignified nor proper. It was shameful for a man to expose his legs and he would have had to do this to sprint. He acted indecent and shameful, disdaining cultural convention. He hugged his son, the vile, filthy, pig-stinking rebel, kissing him over and over.
Where is the same for this kid? Where is the price he has to pay? He should have been shamed. Should have been beaten. Should have had to wait. The pharisees could not comprehend the actions of the father because they could not understand grace. They had no category for grace.
The son got it. He understood grace. He said to his father that he was no longer worthy to be called his son. He left out the part about being treated as one of his father's hired men, for he understood that he had received reconciliation with his father's hugs and kisses. He received the mark of full acceptance and reconciliation. This picture was outrageous to the pharisees. A dignified, honorable person embracing a filthy sinner: this picture was incomprehensible to them.
It is God who seeks the sinner and initiates. He finds the sinner before the sinner could ever find Him. It is God's love for the penitent that is lavish, loving, gracious and apart from any work. God finds His joy in the salvation of one lost sinner. He runs and He embraces and He restores the penitent sinner.
We are not used to seeing God in that picture. We are not used to seeing God so eager, so anxious. We're not used to seeing Him with His robe pulled up, running through town, taking mockery for something so dishonoring and shameful. We're not used to seeing God unrestrained and over-the-top happy and joyous.
A shameful rejoicing: As if this isn't bad enough, they now have a party. He calls for the best robe - his own robe - and puts it upon the son. He treats his son like royalty, sharing in his father's dignity. He puts a ring upon his hand - a ring used to symbolize full authority to act for him. He puts shoes on him to symbolize leadership for slaves and hired people did not wear shoes. He calls for the fatted calf, the prime meal to be saved for the greatest occasion. All this because he has received his son back, safe and sound. This is heaven's joy.
The party is in honor not of the son, but in honor of the forgiving father. We will be at this party in heaven and will celebrate God's love forever. This father continues to be ludicrous in his conduct in the eyes of the pharisees.
A shameful reaction: The older son is in the field, not involved in the family's greatest party. This probably indicates that he had no relationship with his father. Should he not have been at the party? Should he not have been consulted? He had no interest in his father's joy. This is the first person in this story that the pharisees can understand. The son was angry, and to the pharisees this was the first honorable reaction. They can understand the older brother because they were the older brother. They were very bit as lost as the brother.
A shameful lie: The son complains about all that he has done for his father and notes that his father has never given him anything. He is discourteous and shows his lack of respect for his father. He has no joy in his father's joy and has no relationship with him. This is a terrible, slanderous attack on his father's graciousness. Rather than reprimanding him, the father answers gently. He affirms that all he has has always been his son's. The older son is as extreme a sinner as his brother, but in a different way.
God is gracious. He rejoices because one sinner repents. Heaven is not holding off the party and the celebration is going on right now. "There is a party going on in heaven all the time." The joy in the middle of the party is the joy of God Himself.
And here is the obvious application: are you seeking to bring the lost to Christ for the joy of the father?
And then the story ends without a proper ending. What is the son's reaction? Did the older son repent? Did he find reconciliation? The real ending was that the son beat his father to death in front of everyone there. It would be only a few months before these pharisees killed the Son of God, thinking that they were protecting righteousness and honor and the Law. As he crushes the father, he screams, "You are evil, you are evil, you are evil."
The final, ironic twist is that the father, who should have beaten the son, is beaten by the son.
As the evening ended, MacArthur led us in singing "Grace, Grace, God's Grace."