Graham Heslop
Graham Heslop Graham has an insatiable appetite for books, occasionally dips into theology, and moonlights as a lecturer in New Testament Greek at George Whitefield College, Cape Town. He also serves on the staff team at Union Chapel Presbyterian Church and as the written content editor for TGC Africa. Graham is married to Lynsay-Anne and they have one son, Teddy.

You'll Never Live a Life Worthy of the Gospel

You'll Never Live a Life Worthy of the Gospel

In Philippians 1:27 Paul exhorts Christians to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Following that he fills out the picture of such a life. It is marked by a profound commitment to the local church (1:27; see especially 2:1-4); boldness in the face of persecution (1:28); and even suffering for Christ (1:29). We could go on, whether through Philippians or turning to another book of the Bible, but I trust you get the picture. Explicitly here, and implicitly in many other places, God calls on his people to live lives worthy of the good news declared in and by his Son.

But in my personal experience we separate living a worthy life from the actual good news. That is, we fall into worrying that our lives aren’t worthy of the gospel; that in some way we’re falling short of God’s expectations. My point in writing this post isn’t to condone easy-believism or antinomianism. God’s grace isn’t a license to live however we want to. Only, at the same time, it’s very easy to turn the gospel into burdensome news. If we’re honest we could hardly claim to consistently and passionately live in a manner worthy of the gospel. However, I believe there is tremendous comfort in realising that you’ll never life a life worthy of the gospel. Let me illustrate.

The Gospel in The Ocean at the End of the Lane

If you haven’t read Neil Gaiman you’re missing out—and no, watching the onscreen adaptions doesn’t count. Of all his books, none have moved me as much as The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a story about childhood, trauma, and memory. Like most of his works, Gaiman depicts our world as enchanted; perhaps part of his appeal is the contrast with our own age’s disenchanted and bleak secular materialism. But those are topics for another day.

As the novel unfolds, the unnamed narrator and protagonist of The Ocean is befriended by a kind of primordial girl, who is mythical in the truest sense of the word. She appears to be just a few years older than him while also carrying herself as someone older than time itself. Her name is Lettie Hempstock. And—if you’ll forgive me for skipping over most of the tale—as The Ocean climaxes Lettie gives up her life so that the young boy can be spared. For his naive negligence had allowed a great evil into the world, another terrifying and ancient fierce monster. This creature staked a claim to the boy’s life, but Lettie offered up hers in his place.

The boy wakes up from this cataclysmic crescendo to find himself in the Hempstock home, with Lettie’s mother and grandmother. When they move to take him home he refuses. “You don’t have to take me home,” he insists. “I could stay with you. I could wait until Lettie comes back from the ocean. I could work on your farm, and carry stuff, and learn to drive a tractor.” Like us, the boy is painfully aware that his life was bought at great cost and so he seeks to repay the Hempstocks. But Ginnie tells him to get on with his life, “Lettie gave it to you,” she says. “You just have to grow up and try and be worth it.”

But what does Ginnie’s gentle reassurance mean? What would a life worthy of Lettie’s loss look like?

We’re told that these words from Ginnie immediately cause resentment in the boy, and eventually seem to become a burden. Decades later our narrator stirs from a reverie, finding himself once again in the Hempstock’s garden overlooking the ocean and the end of the lane. Lettie hasn’t returned, but Ginnie tells him—the boy who is now a middle-aged man—that he’d been brought there so Ginnie could see him again. She wanted to know whether her incredible sacrifice was worth it. So he asks if he passed. Had his life amounted to anything worth the price Lettie paid? And Ginnie’s brief response never fails to bring tears to my eyes. She tells him, something many of us need to hear, “You don’t pass or fail at being a person, dear.”

Beware Turning the Good News Into Bad News

You might take issue with Gaiman at points. This is understandable, since his work of fiction isn’t intended to be an apologetic for the Christian gospel. Nor is Gaiman a Christian, from what I understand. However, those last words from Ginnie can be a balm, when rightly applied. Is my life worthy of the gospel? What about yours? Can either of us seriously claim to have lived such good lives among the pagans to have entirely honoured the cost or truly imitated his love? Unlikely. No.

The wonder comes in knowing that “you don’t pass or fail” at being an object of God’s grace, a grateful benefactor of his love. Whatever it means to live in a manner worthy of the gospel it should never prompt in us feelings of unworthiness. That is to misunderstand what Christ has done; what we have in the good news.

I’ll conclude with an exhortation from Kevin DeYoung in Crazy Busy, drawing on the work of Tim Dearborn. Let us never turn the good news of the gospel into bad news about all the things we need to or have failed to do. Let it remain good news, rather than becoming burdened by the reality that you and I will never live lives worthy of the gospel.

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