It was a warm summer evening.
Three local youth group bands were performing a worship concert in our downtown area, and I was asked to emcee the event. Dozens of people from our small city came out for the festivities, worshiping God together. There was free food and drinks. Our little town was alive and vibrant with all the charms of an American community.
I stood on the stage, microphone in hand, talking to the crowd inbetween bands and soaking in the atmosphere of the evening. It was a memorable night.
Then, after the bands had performed, an evangelist took the stage for a presentation of the Gospel. Almost as soon as he opened his mouth, the beauty of the evening was sucked dry.
“I want to start by apologizing,” he opened. “I want to apologize to the young people here who have been rejected by the church. I’m sorry the church doesn’t accept you for your tattoos and piercings. I’m sorry the church isn’t sympathetic to the pain you’ve been through. But God understands. God loves you unconditionally, and you don’t have to change a thing for Him. He won’t condemn you. He won’t reject you. God accepts you just the way you are.”
Such is the proclaimed message in America. Such is the depiction of God. Whole ministries have been built around it. Hip pastors with graphic t-shirts, spikey hair and designer jeans preach it on a weekly basis.
God accepts you just the way you are.
It’s a message of hope. A message of fulfillment. A message of acceptance.
It’s a message of deceit.
Not necessarily a lie, but deceit. A lie is something untrue, but deceit is a misleading distortion of that which is true. To say that God accepts you just the way you are is not entirely false, but it is a contorted mangling of the truth.
Does God accept us just the way we are? Sure. The same way you would accept a plate stained with spaghetti sauce if you were washing the dishes. Or the same way you would accept a mud-coated vehicle if you were running a car wash.
God does not accept us because our lifestyles are permissible, nor does He accept us so we can stay the same. He accepts us despite the way we are, filthy with sin, and then changes us.
A man would not buy a moldy, run-down house because it would make for a great weekend getaway in its current condition. No, the man would have to first renovate it, rebuilt it, and make it new. We cannot be vessels of God in our natural, sinful state. He must renovate us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is gloriously seen in Scripture. The whole early church was built on men who were weak and wicked in the flesh and deserved no acceptance–but God took them as they were and changed them.
Matthew was a swindling, penny-pinching tax collector who took the hard-earned money of his fellow Jews. He put his hope in the shimmer of a coin. He was considered a “sinner” by his countrymen, stained by the reputation of his career. Yet Christ called him away from it all to become one of His twelve disciples, and Matthew would go on to write the gospel that bears his name and was executed as a martyr.
Peter was a dim-witted fisherman who had more foot-in-your-mouth moments than anyone in the Bible. He rebuked Jesus, constantly misunderstood Jesus, hastily cut off a man’s ear in an unwarranted defense of Jesus, and ultimately denied even knowing Jesus in an effort to save his own skin. But less than two months later Peter was standing up in downtown Jerusalem among thousands, fearlessly proclaiming the Gospel. He was a pillar of the early church and was eventually crucified upside-down.
Paul was a proud, hypocritical Pharisee who put all his hope in the religious traditions of his forefathers. He hated Christianity and he toured the countryside, ruthlessly overseeing the arrest and execution of its followers. His hands were stained red with the blood of God’s saints. But halfway through his murderous spree Paul began preaching the very message he once opposed. Soon it was Paul who was persecuted and beaten for the name of Jesus. He was constantly imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately put to death for the Gospel he once sought to crush.
What caused such a change? What enabled these once foolish and sinful men to become warriors for Christ?
It certainly wasn’t because God required no change on their part; it certainly wasn’t because God accepted them “as is”. Otherwise Matthew would have been like Judas, selling his soul for profit, Peter would have been the quicksand of the early church instead of the rock, and Paul would have remained the persecutor instead of the persecuted.
They were hell-bound souls with flesh. But God took them the way they were and made them new.
I’ve heard evangelists say things like, “You’re special. You’re beautiful. You’re cherished just the way you are. God loves you for who you are.” Such statements, with their sappy imagery of God and feel-good buzz words, elicit no conviction for sin or realization of the natural human condition.
In this line of thinking, what separates us from God is not our own wickedness but our failure to realize just how great we are in His eyes. Our lack of confidence, rather than our depravity, is what we supposedly need saving from.
In his book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell represents the modern mentality by saying:
“God has an incredibly high view of people. God believes that people are capable of amazing things. I have been told that I need to believe in Jesus. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that Jesus believes in me. I have been told that I need to have faith in God. Which is a good thing. But what I am learning is that God has faith in me.” (p. 134)
Really? The same God who said our throats are open graves, our lips have the poison of vipers, our mouths are full of cursing, and that ruin and misery mark our ways (Romans 3:13-16)…has faith in us? I’m pretty sure that would make God the worst judge of character ever. Rob Bell and his contemporaries have an extremely high opinion of the goodness of man and God’s pride for human nature, which are both views that Scripture does not share.
In the name of so-called love, these modern churches present a sissified, watered-down Gospel that is incapable of producing genuine converts. God is deemed an all-inclusive health care plan where no one is excluded. Everyone is accepted as-is, stays as-is, and encouraged to remain as-is. Rather than regenerating us from sin, God is seen as a utopia in which every lifestyle has a place.
In stark contrast, the Bible declares that prior to justification in Christ we cannot be accepted by God just as we are because “just as we are” consists of nothing but evil. The very beat of our heart–even that first beat in the womb–pulsates nothing but rebellion against the Almighty.
That’s too harsh, some might say. That’s too negative. Yet Scripture constantly discusses our “sinful nature”, that is, sinfulness that comes naturally (Romans 7:18; 8:4-5; 13:4; Galations 5:13; 5:19; 5:24).
King David confessed in the Psalms, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:1). This natural depravity continues from the womb throughout our lifetime, as Jude spoke of wicked men “who follow mere natural instincts” (Jude :19), and Paul said “we were by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Then, if for some reason we still insist on the goodness of man, Paul throws the final blow by saying that in our natural state “we were God’s enemies” (Romans 5:10).
God’s enemies. Not just lost, innocent children who made a few boo-boo’s. Not misunderstood outcasts who need a shoulder to cry on. Enemies. These passages do not describe only rapists and serial killers. Paul was not exclusively referring to the local prison, Europe’s Most Wanted, or first-century tyrants like Caligula or Nero. They are descriptions of every human who ever lived. They are descriptions of me and you.
We may like to convince ourselves that we’re beautiful and special, but the fact of the matter is we’re riddled with sin. Not only that, but we ignorantly go out of our way to convince ourselves we’re not riddled with it–and if you’re wanting to rip this book in half and throw it against the wall in angry denial, well, then my point is proven.
With this being the case, how can the church say the lifestyle of an unrepentant sinner is accepted by God, when Scripture says, “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Romans 8:8)? How could God accept us “just the way we are”?
He won’t. To tell people otherwise is to ignore the massive Biblical emphasis on the separation sin causes between us and our Creator. Before we can ever be accepted by God, the consequence of our sin must be dealt with. The debt must be paid. The score must be settled.
That’s where the death of Jesus comes in. But what many people fail to understand is that Christ’s death was an actual atonement, not just a symbolic picture of God’s love. Christ’s crucifixion was more than a religious icon, it was a literal substitution. Jesus literally bore upon Himself the wrath we deserve. He underwent hell on the cross.
That’s why Isaiah 53:5 says, “But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.”
We’re not acceptable to God the way we are–that’s the whole reason Jesus had to die in the first place. But even His death did not guarantee the acceptance of every human being on the earth. Only those who repent and come to Him in faith will have their sins forgiven. Romans 3:25 says, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood–to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). The atonement of Christ’s blood only goes into effect for those who receive it by faith.
That faith is not just a mental acknowledgment of His existence, but a total surrender to His lordship and glory. It is only through such faith that we are included in God’s family; as Ephesians 1:13 says, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in Him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”
At that moment of faith, our old man is put to death and we’re regenerated into a new creature–Jesus called this being “born again” (John 3:3). Our natural self, with all its sin and guilt, is done away with and we’re reborn. We’re not accepted as is–we’re put to death, then raised anew.
The modern gospel is an all-inclusive, ear-tickling deception that tells those without saving faith, and without spiritual rebirth, that they are included in Christ. Saying “God accepts you just the way you are” makes it sound as though everyone is already saved, they just have to realize it. Instead of calling the world to repentance and faith, the modern gospel tries to assure the world they’re already covered. Salvation isn’t something you need, it’s something you already have!
The church must stop parading around, giving false assurances to a world on its way to hell. We must stop preaching an acceptance that just doesn’t exist. We must stop telling the lost that they’re accepted and treasured by God, when in fact their lives scream rebellion against Him.
Instead, we must get back to preaching genuine faith in Jesus. We must proclaim to the world that the only way to be reconciled with God, and the only way to find acceptance in Him, is through faith in the sacrificial work of Christ. Instead of helping the people of this world justify their lives, we must preach how they can be justified from their lives.
Don’t believe the deceitful half-truth of the modern church. In your natural state, you are not acceptable to God. But if you put your faith in Jesus and surrender your life to Him, then in His mercy God will indeed accept you the way you are–riddled with the filth of sin–and change you.