Thursday, September 28, 2006

Spiritual Traffic Stops

For the patrol officer, there is no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop. Seasoned officers know that their next traffic stop could be their last. An officer rarely, if ever, knows who is behind the wheel of the car he or she just stopped. The person might be driving an unreported stolen car. The person might have just committed a murder and the dead body is in the trunk. The person might be heavily armed having just committed a robbery, or maybe they are transporting a large quantity of illegal drugs. Maybe the person is a fugitive from justice. They know if they are caught they are going back to prison for a long time. So, they might as well kill an officer and return to prison with a reputation. Or, maybe the person behind the wheel is suicidal, but they don’t have the courage to take their own life. So, they force an officer into a position in which he or she serves as suicide’s deadly instrument. There is no such thing as a “routine” traffic stop.

While I hope I have changed your perspective about one of the most dangerous aspects of law enforcement, the purpose of this article is to use the law enforcement traffic stop as an analogy for why the Law of God should be shared with the unsaved before speaking to them about God’s judgment. God’s judgment should likewise be shared with the unsaved before speaking of God’s grace, love, and mercy.

Place yourself in the following scenario. You are driving through town when you come to a relatively quiet intersection. You don’t see any other cars around, you are in a hurry, and so you make what is popularly known as a “California Stop.” In other words, you slowly roll through the stop sign, never bringing your car to a complete stop. You think nothing of it. You’ve done it hundreds of times before, at this intersection and others. You don’t see it as a big deal because, after all, everyone does it.

Moments later, your heart skips a beat and you gasp when you hear the blare of a siren and look in your rearview mirror to see the flashing red and blue lights of a patrol car. You are being pulled over. “Oh, no!” You think. “What did I do wrong?”

You sit motionless behind the wheel, listening to the rapid beating of your heart, waiting for the ominous, uniformed figure to approach your car. The officer leans down and forward as he or she peers into your driver’s door window. The officer hands you a pen and his ticket book, and barks the following. “Sign here! You’re guilty! The fine is $200! See you in court!”

How would you respond? Would you be angry? Confused? Insulted? Would you sign the ticket without at least asking why you were being cited? You might even consider filing a complaint against the officer because you found his behavior to be rude and unprofessional.

Such is the likely response by the unsaved person to the so-called “fire and brimstone” evangelist. Such is the likely response to the person who stands on a street corner and insults passers-by, who points their finger at people, calling them liars, thieves, fornicators, adulterers, and sinners, who tells people that God has judged them and that they are going to hell. Granted, everything the “fire and brimstone” evangelist says might very well be true. The problem, however, is the manner in which the message is communicated (I Timothy 1:8). A message about God’s judgment sounds foolish, even insulting, to the unsaved person, if the message is not preceded by a clear presentation of God’s Law and the consequences for violating it.

Let’s return to the traffic stop. This time, however, when the officer approaches your car, he or she says this. “Hello, sir (or ma’am). I pulled you over because you did not come to a complete stop at the stop sign. There was a very serious accident at that intersection yesterday. A child was struck and critically injured when a motorist failed to stop at the stop sign. Because you violated the law, I’m going to issue you a citation. Please sign here. Your court date is at the bottom of the ticket.”

Does the ticket seem more reasonable now? Keep in mind that I didn’t ask if you liked getting the ticket or if you felt better about the second officer. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you feel about the ticket or the officer. The question is whether or not the ticket seems more reasonable now that your violation of the law has been explained to you. It should. Now that you understand why you were stopped and what you did to violate the law, accountability and punishment should not only seem reasonable—it should be expected.

As Christians (as seed sowers), it is vitally important that we expose the sin of the unsaved by holding in front of them the mirror of God’s Law. And we must do so before we confront the unsaved with the reality that they will one-day stand before the Lawgiver and Judge (James 4:12) of the universe, when they will be judged (Hebrews 9:27) in perfect righteousness, for every violation of God’s holy Law. Once an unsaved person honestly sees himself or herself for who they really are, in light of God’s Law (Romans 3:19-20), the idea, the truth of God’s wrath and judgment will make sense—whether or not the unsaved person likes it.

So what about grace? As my law enforcement brethren who read this will likely attest, more people talk themselves into tickets than talk their way out of tickets. Patrol officers have a certain amount of discretion when it comes to enforcing the law—especially when it comes to traffic violations. Such discretion is often referred to as the “spirit of the law” and the “letter of the law.”

When I worked patrol, my rule of thumb when it came to ticket writing was simple. If a person wanted to argue with me about a violation, or if they had a bad attitude, the person always received a ticket (the letter of the law). I would cut the conversation short, have the person sign the citation, give them their copy, and told them to take their chances with the judge. No one ever argued his or her way out of a ticket. Why? The reason was that there was no contrition on the part of the violator. There was no humility and no remorse. The likelihood was that the person would continue to thumb their nose at the law and continue to violate it with impunity. I saw no reason to extend grace (the spirit of the law) to such people—motorists who would not appreciate grace and would likely take advantage of it in the future.

The same principle should apply in evangelism. When we present the Law of God and the consequences for violating it to an unsaved person, and there is no contrition, humility, remorse, or an appropriate level of fear of God’s righteous wrath and judgment, then we should not talk to them about God’s amazing grace. We should not cast the pearl of Jesus Christ’s redemptive and atoning work on the cross, before people who do not and cannot appreciate it. We should not share the gospel of God’s amazing grace with people who are not humbled by the truth that they have sinned against almighty God and that judgment and hell await them (Hebrews 10:26-31). Why? There are two reasons.

First, a message of grace and forgiveness of sin is foolishness (I Corinthians 1:18) to the unsaved person who either finds such grace and forgiveness to be unnecessary, or who finds such grace and forgiveness to be something they deserve. Grace is only amazing to the unsaved sinner who, by the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, recognizes grace for what it truly is—unmerited, undeserved, unearned favor. A right understanding of God’s Law and judgment (again, by the power and leading of the Holy Spirit) is the only means by which God’s grace—as well as His mercy, love, and forgiveness—can be rightly understood.

Second, there is a terrible risk involved with presenting God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness before or without first helping an unsaved person come to terms with how God truly sees them—as a sinner who has broken God’s Law and is worthy of His judgment and eternal punishment. The risk is producing false converts—people who think they are saved when they are not. Just like the person who is left to think they are above the law or worthy of an exemption from the law when they get out of a ticket, so to is the person who is offered and accepts a message of grace and forgiveness without first being humbled at the foot of the cross, recognizing they are a lawbreaker who deserves nothing more than God’s swift, terrifying, and eternal judgment. Neither the person who gets out of a ticket, nor the person who is offered a worthless “get out of hell free” card, are brought to repentance—a turning away from sin and an authentic changing of one’s mind. The motorist will continue to roll through stop signs, and the unsaved person who accepted Jesus will continue to sin without fear of consequence and with out genuine concern about offending their heavenly Father.

So the next time you are conducting a spiritual traffic stop, the next time you have the opportunity to witness to an unsaved person (which should be today), make sure you explain the reason for the stop. Help the person to understand how they have violated God’s Law. Then, make sure they understand the consequences for violating God’s Law—which, unless they repent of their sin and put their trust in Christ alone for their salvation, is eternity in hell. Finally, and only if the Law and the reality of God’s judgment has humbled the person, offer them the message of God’s amazing grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only message that has the power to save their life (Romans 1:16).
Who will you stop today?

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