Mangy Dog. Smoke and Mirrors. And the Love of God.

When we preach the gospel to ourselves, what we say is important.  What we think about what we say might be even more important.

When you’re reminded again of your sin – big or small, public or private – what “talk” goes through your head? What is the gospel message that you rehearse?

This might be the same question, but it might not be… When God looks at you, what do you imagine Him seeing?

Often when we hear the gospel or the “good news” explained, it goes something like this: I’m a sinner, rebellious and wicked through and through – my heart is evil and defiled – but because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, instead of me receiving the just penalty for my sin – death and separation from God, Jesus Himself endured that on my behalf. He received the wrath of God, so I could spend eternity with God.

The gospel songs we sing reinforce this message. 

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”

“For God, the Just, is satisfied, to look on Him and pardon me.”

Indeed, this is the message of Scripture.

Maybe. It’s possible to have the words right and the associations wrong. 

When you repeat that “good news” to yourself, what do you really hear? How do you interpret those words? And again, when God looks at you, what does He see? There’s a way of understanding this “good news” that misses much of its goodness and beauty.

When God looks at you, what do you think He sees, really?

smokey stage lights

Imagine the ugliest, mangy dog you can. Yellowed teeth. Flees. Matted hair, soiled with dirt and feces. Flaking, raw, irritated skin where the dog has gnawed and scratched away patches of its coat. Sunken eyes. Malnourished. Either cowering in fear, or fiercely resisting your approach with all of its remaining strength. Chained. 

That’s an ugly picture, and honestly, one that’s not far from the vivid Bible descriptions of the sinful condition of the human heart. That mangy dog is an apt metaphor. And if it elicits a sense of retreat and withdraw, of being repelling, I’ve hit the mark. 

The good news is that when God took on flesh in the person of Jesus and bore our sins on the cross, God in Jesus identified with us.  He took that ugliness and sin upon Himself. In effect, He picked up that mangy dog into His arms and got mucked up by it. To say He got dirty is an understatement, but in so doing, He began the process of actually making that dog what He alone could see – what that dog was supposed to be, what that dog could be, what the dog was incapable of doing for itself.

When God looks on you, He sees you in Jesus. 

Compare that to this different telling: God the Father looks at the mangy dog, and then by an elaborate setup of smoke and mirrors, in a giant cosmic illusion [drumroll], He looks away and sees His perfect Son, Jesus (all the while the mangy dog, remains hidden behind the mirrors)…Tada! [cymbal crash]

We tell ourselves something like that all the time. There’s truth in there. But it’s fundamentally different.

No gospel ‘presentation’ can possibly tell the full depth of the story every time, but it’s possible to so mis-tell the gospel story that it’s not gospel at all.

There are no mirrors. And no sleight of hand.

Jesus has picked you up. He embraces you. He has done this because He loves you. God the Father doesn’t look away from you to Jesus. He turned away from Jesus to look on you. He sees Jesus carrying you, Jesus clothing you, Jesus indwelling you, Jesus changing you, Jesus making you beautiful. That’s not a self-help message. That’s not a denial of your previous manginess, or any remaining manginess. [Manginess = the stench of sin, for those who would accuse me of soft-selling the gospel.] 

Jesus, in making you beautiful, is both making much of you, and displaying how gloriously good He is. And the display of His glory is inextricably tied up with His love for you. He will not have them torn asunder. 

You will never again be viewed apart from Christ. Where Christ is, there you are. Not God viewing Christ instead of you, but God viewing Christ with you enveloped in His life. You have not disappeared. Nor are God’s eyes merely diverted. You’ve been changed (and are being changed) and made beautiful (and being made beautiful) in Him. And that most definitely is to His praise and glory.

This is a life-changing truth that is so much better than a mere optical diversion tactic between Jesus and the Father. 

Hear the good news again (Ephesians 2:4-7, ESV):

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

. . .

It’s been said that the gospel is the announcement of God’s plan and means to take us back to Eden. 

In the garden, the transcendent God condescended… He is Creator and we are created, after all; there would be no way to interact without Him condescending; He is infinite and we are but clay in His hands. But He condescended in pleasure and love, to engage with and be known by His creation. It wasn’t a moral or legal condescension. There was purity and innocence in this interaction, similar to a stooping parent, who delights in his child. He liked this and it was good.

In love God created us. In love He interacted with us. In love He gave us purpose and calling. Why would God condescend lower still, infinitely lower, after our rebellion? Still love. And this faithful love is His glory. In the muck of the prodigal’s pig sty, in the Psalmist’s miry clay, or attached by nails to a Roman cross, there we find our God and Savior, with us in the most profound sense, thoroughly embracing us – taking us into Himself, onto Himself, becoming one of us and all of us.

But while our curse, our sin, our alienation – our manginess – made Him all those things, He didn’t remain those things. He bore them. He was cursed. But He is no longer. All past tense. It is finished. Done. 

He still bears the scars, but His scars have been transformed to beauty, and the cross has been transformed to victory.  And you are in Him. 

God now condescends to you as He did in Eden. As Creator with His loved ones. Without moral overtone. In Jesus. He likes you. And it is good, again. Restored. See yourself. Not cowering behind the mirror, but with Jesus gladly, pleased even, to be by your side. 

There’s no less glory to Jesus in this gospel, but more.  The pendulum swing against the so-called man-centered gospel has become a straw man and is in danger of distorting the gospel altogether. If we’re not careful, it’s merely an abstract cosmic transaction, between God and God, with a monergism that goes far beyond man’s incapacity and ultimately leads to manlessness. Who is the receiver of this good news? The Subject is Jesus – no contest. But who is the object? This is news and love for us. And in that news and love, we become. And we are becoming.

Hallelujah, what a Savior.

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