Sharing law and gospel
Donn G. Dobberstein
“If we wanted to join this church, what would we need to do?”
It was a question months in the making. Their reaction to what would be said next is a story worth sharing and a lesson worth learning.
Shannon attended an Easter Sunday service after receiving a postcard invitation at her home in a nearby subdivision. She said she’d be back next Sunday with someone. Sure enough, 52-year-old Jim was with her. I immediately liked them both. Who isn’t attracted to smiley, positive personalities?
Shortly after, I visited them in their home. I learned they’d been together six years. They opened up about the experiences of previous relationships that ended horribly. Separation. Divorce. Jim was busy raising three children and working hard at a prosperous career. It had been decades since he last did the “church thing.”
I noticed two things: There were no wedding bands and there was no mistaking the shining in their eyes when they talked about going to church together—especially in Jim’s. He talked and talked like a man who hadn’t been allowed to speak about God for 20 years. “I’ve got so many questions to ask you I don’t even know where to begin,” he said.
A couple weeks later, I walked in and immediately knew something was wrong. Jim was distraught. Sharon was crying. Between the tears I pieced the story together. A swelling on Jim’s throat. A check-up. Lymphoma, the really bad kind. Jim hadn’t slept in days. The thought of death was mind-numbing.
In coming weeks, our time together became more devotional than instructional. Jim kept asking questions. But now they were the kind only a man facing mortality asks.
Jim could have swapped places with the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. Both felt severe loss and loneliness for a long time. When Jesus offered, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14), Jim was right there alongside her, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:15). He guzzled huge quantities of the gospel as if drinking from a fire hose. He knew he was a man dying of thirst and what he was drinking was eternally vital.
Jesus knew perfectly what the soul of the Samaritan woman needed most. She needed good news for her bad living and grace greater than her sin. She needed law and gospel. But which ought to come first and in what size measuring cup should it be served?
“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (v. 10). Remarkably, Jesus flooded her with the gospel invitation, promising a wealth of blessings for her soul. He gave her the gospel first, but not at the expense of the law or ignoring her sin. A few verses later, John writes: “He told her, “ ‘Go call your husband and come back.’
“ ‘I have no husband,’ she replied.
“Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. That fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband’ ” (John 4:16-18).
Ouch. I could never have gotten away with that brutal honesty in the opening minutes of my conversation with Jim and Sharon. Then again, this is Jesus. He distinguishes between hostility and hurt in a heartbeat. He understands core spiritual conditions before a word is even spoken. Jesus addressed her disobedience, but in such a natural way that it didn’t come across as rude or hinder her kindling faith. It was quite the opposite: His divine knowing of her personal life inspired her to further pursuit of personally knowing God.
What the Savior models perfectly in John chapter 4 can be incredibly challenging when you and I engage in conversation to share the Savior.
● How do we share God’s core truths—law and gospel—in a winsome way that doesn’t turn someone off or impede their further hearing of the gospel?
● How do we do that without it coming at the expense of ignoring or soft-pedaling God’s law?
● When is the right time to do it? How do I avoid speaking the truth unlovingly? How do I speak lovingly without avoiding the truth?
Fear and uncertainty are such paralyzing forces.
If Jesus tailored his conversation with the Samaritan woman according to the needs of her soul, that just might be the lesson to learn. Ask yourself:
● Do I have a clear understanding of the spiritual needs of the person with whom I am engaging in conversation?
● Do I have a clear understanding of God’s role to convert the soul and my role to love my neighbor, love God’s truth, and bring that love of both together in what I’m about to say to them?
● Do I trust God’s promise that his word will not return empty?
● Do I pray, “Lord, give me the right moment to speak and guide the right words to say”?
Jim wrestled with a restless conscience and his own mortality. He believed God’s plan for his personal salvation. His question came a week after we actually discussed God’s plan for a committed man and woman together. Not a word needed to be said about their relationship. I knew they knew.
The answer to Jim’s question, “If we wanted to join this church, what would we need to do?” was this:
“Jim, you trust God’s plan for your eternal life because you know he loves you, right?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“Then you know you can trust his direction for your relationship with Sharon. When it aligns with his will, you will be totally right with his church too.”
After a couple seconds, he said, “Thank you. Sharon and I will talk.”
They weren’t in church the following Sunday. My heart sank. It took all my strength not to pick up the phone like an overly anxious parent and check up on them.
But there they were in the church gathering area the next Sunday. Something was different. They were glowing. They held up matching hands with wedding rings to show the reason why. That Sunday, as they received their Savior’s body and blood for the first time together, they were holding hands with quiet tears in their eyes. For the next 14 months, I’ve never seen a happier, more devoted couple until God called Jim to eternal glory.
Their tender love story is the story of the Savior’s love for them just as it was for the Samaritan woman. It’s your love story too. So, show it and share it! Be a witness to God’s grace using his great truths of law and gospel.
Donn Dobberstein, director of discipleship for WELS, is a member at Trinity, Waukesha, Wisconsin.
This is the third article in a four-part series on evangelism lessons from the account of the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4.
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Author: Donn G. Dobberstein
Volume 105, Number 9
Issue: September 2018
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