Every week I met with a drug dealer, a shady businessman, and a serial gambler. Only you wouldn’t know it, because sitting in the pew next to me, they looked just like church people.
Middle class. Put together. Churchy. But here they were, trophies of grace, evidence of some strange and mysterious redemption. Glimpses of some other world where sinners become saints, not at all of their own making.
Chances are, this is your reality, too, if you attend church regularly. It may seem everyone is gathering from the corners of your community on Sunday, dressed up and spiritual. But until you get to know some of these brothers and sisters and hear their stories, you will be oblivious to the sheer amount of redemption taking place around you.
Because Christ’s kingdom is present but not fully consummated, we live in the tension of victories already won and victories to come. We should expect change in this life but not expect too much. We must believe in miracles but not demand them. We yield to the patient work of the Spirit in regenerating our hearts but need to trust His unforeseeable timing.
Perhaps the apostle John knew something about this mystery. As a young disciple, he had witnessed the whipsaw ministry of Jesus: miracle after miracle followed by betrayal, death, and resurrection. He was present at the cross, at the empty tomb, and at Pentecost. He saw the church spread far and wide in his time, growing, enduring persecution, and building a massive global gospel movement.
Yet John also saw what Christianity looks like up close. The first-century church was both transformational and messy, obedient and rebellious, Philadelphian and Corinthian. This is why, in one of his final letters, the aging apostle wrote of the already-but-not-yet nature of redemption: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).
We are God’s children now, yet we are not what we will be. We are changing, yet we don’t have a clue as to how full our sanctification will one day be.
Longtime Christians like me often get stuck in the “not yet.” Decades of ministry can form a cynical crust around our hearts. Caught in the misery of slow growth, vexing problems, and sinful saints, we too often close our eyes to the small but miraculous change happening in the pews. Former prostitutes, embezzlers, and gossips are all around us, and we fail to see what is happening. What’s more, we miss the glimpses of heaven in our own lives. We are not who we should be, but we are also not who we once were.
Until you get to know people and hear their stories, you will be oblivious to the sheer amount of redemption taking place around you.
Yet there’s a remedy for our blindness: entering into the stories of our brothers and sisters, asking about their journeys to faith, and offering worship to a God who still, in the 21st century, is busy calling and transforming a people for Himself.
We know by now that our churches are far from perfect. We know by now where the pockets of sin and despair still hurt gospel witness. We know the frustrations of living in community with sinners. But what we might gain afresh, by intentional effort at storytelling and listening to others, is a renewed faith in the power of God to change lives. We’ll understand better the struggle against sin that some of our Christian family members endure. We’ll have spiritual data to reinforce our faith in the transformative power of the gospel.
And the next time we are discouraged or silently wonder if this whole enterprise of church even matters—the next time we’re searching for a hint of glory in a world of corruption—we’ll be able to point to our neighbor and say: “God can do this. God is doing this. God has done this.”
And we will also be able to look in the mirror and know God will perform His acts of gradual restoration in us, in the deepest and most sinful recesses of the heart we know best—our own. This grace won’t make the storms go away, but it will remind us of the One who leads us through them. It won’t make the struggle against death easier, but it gives a bit more light to our path. We won’t see the full flower of our own sanctification, but we might find hope in these small patches of glory.
There is redemption all around us. Take a look—can you see it?
Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro