This post was originally published in May 2018. –ed.
The means of our reconciliation to God—the sacrificial death of Christ, the perfect forgiveness God applies to our sin—are divine works. But there is a human component that goes along with it. We bear some responsibility, too, if we are to be reconciled and redeemed. Paul hints at it in 2 Corinthians 5:20: “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”
In God’s divine design, He has given each of us the responsibility to respond to the gospel in the obedience of faith. He doesn’t pluck us out of this wicked world against our will—we’re not robots that He merely has to reprogram. God is the initiator; He’s the Savior. But it does not happen without a response.
The two little parables in Matthew 13 perfectly illustrate the point. Jesus said:
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:44-46)
Christ’s point in those two parables is that if you want salvation, it will cost you everything.
Reconciliation to God isn’t a little bump in the road of life—it’s a radical transformation and reorientation of your entire being. We become new creatures entirely. Paul had just made that very point in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” Being reconciled to God means dying to our old selves, our old lives, and our old interests. Christ repeatedly urged His disciples to count the cost of following Him. It’s why He told them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). Responding in obedience to God’s call to be reconciled to Him can cost us everything—even our lives.
The rich young ruler understood that. It’s why he walked away from Christ in shame (Luke 18:18–30). When Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give everything to the poor, He wasn’t offering the young man salvation by works. The money itself wasn’t the point—it was a question of his willingness to do whatever the Lord told him to do. What would he give up for the sake of his eternal soul? It was a test of his obedience and what he valued most in his heart. And he failed miserably. Reconciliation to God doesn’t happen on our terms, according to our schedules, when it’s convenient for us. It’s a radical redemption and transformation, and it requires us to be penitent, submissive, and completely sold out for God’s purpose and work. Nothing less is acceptable. And because of that high cost, Paul says we have to “beg” sinners to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20).
When I was in college I played football, and I had a coach who meant a lot to me personally. Throughout high school and college, he was the best coach I ever had. His name was Jim Brownfield, and he was a legend in southern California. He coached at every level of football. He was innovative, he was creative, and I cared about him a great deal.
I remember sitting next to him on the plane as we were flying up to San Francisco for a game. I took that opportunity to communicate the gospel to him with all my heart, but he rejected it. Through the years, I had opportunities to be with him here and there, at golf tournaments or other functions. He knew about my church and the ministry God has called me to, and he watched my life from a distance. And every time I was with him, I tried to talk to him about the Lord. He’d say, “I respect that. I respect you. But I’m not interested.” I felt like I was always begging him, “Coach, this is the most important thing you’ll ever do.” But he was stubborn.
One day, I got a phone call. Coach was in the hospital. He had heart problems. Surgery hadn’t helped, and it looked like he was about to die. When I arrived at the hospital, the nurse said to me, “He hasn’t moved for three days. We haven’t seen any motion, so I can’t promise anything.” I walked in the room, took his hand and I said, “Hey, Coach, it’s Johnny Mac.” He opened his eyes and smiled. I said, “Coach, one more time, can I beg you to be reconciled to God? Coach, you are the thief on the cross. You have no future. This has to be your time. Will you open your heart to Christ?” His head went up and down. He grabbed my hand, started to squeeze it, and reached his other arm over and grabbed my other hand. I was locked in his grip. The nurse came in and scolded me, saying, “Sir, you’ll have to let go of him.” I said, “I’m not holding on to him. He is holding on to me.” With every last ounce of his strength, he was responding to the call of the gospel. For all those years I had begged and pleaded with him—right down to the last hour. And as we prayed together in his hospital room, the Lord poured out His forgiveness and reconciled Coach Brownfield to Himself. I’m so glad I went to the hospital that day. I’m so thankful I had one more opportunity to beg him to be reconciled to God.
We ought to cling to the vital doctrine of God’s sovereignty. But don’t ever let your view of sovereignty overwhelm or obscure the fact sinners have a responsibility to respond to God—and we have a responsibility to beg them to do so. God accomplishes His reconciling work through—not in spite of—the obedience of faith from those He calls to be reconciled.
Used with permission from John MacArthur.