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Exclusive: Judah Smith Talks 'Jesus Is,' Sin vs. Grace and Loving Like Christ

Exclusive: Judah Smith Talks 'Jesus Is,' Sin vs. Grace and Loving Like Christ

The conversation ended and I think he walked off, and it was like a bomb went off in my heart. I'm so worried about getting dirty, or my sparkling reputation tarnished. It was really thought-provoking and personally challenging for me. I think obviously there's discretion and there's wisdom in all of this and there's obviously a line where you cross it and it's hard to justify that I'm in some areas and situations that are only not beneficial for me, they really wouldn't be beneficial for anyone to be in.

The point is not that we subject ourselves to things Scripture says we are to avoid, but the point is that we do subject ourselves to people who really need the Gospel. Not as a project, I don't think people are projects. I think that's insulting. But a real love and a heart for people who are away from God, who in some cases have no idea who Jesus is, don't know any better. Or they were brutalized by someone in the name of Jesus.

I'm passionate about it, it's something that's very emotional and very deep to me, that we are people that are passionate about building bridges and not walls. Loving the people that Jesus loved, as simple and as cliché as that my sound. I think not only is that something we should do, I think it's something that we're bound to do, according to Scriptures and our mandate and our mission as believers, not pastors and leaders and book writers, that's got nothing to do with it. Just as Jesus followers. The ultimate point is that we're like Jesus, and it's very apparent in Scripture that Jesus befriended people such as these.

CP: What's the mature, Christian outlook on sin and grace – that is, how does one avoid indulging in sin and abusing grace?

Smith: I think the key really comes down to "is grace a principle to us, or is it a person to us?" My wife, Chelsea, we've been married for 13 and a half years and she's a way better spouse than me. She's exceptional, she's way more spiritual, she's up every morning reading her Bible and praying, while I'm sleeping in. Chelsea's just the most incredible, considerate, compassionate, loving, gracious spouse, she's a lot like Jesus.

In the 13 and a half years of her loving me and serving me and being so kind and committed, faithful and loyal, I've never had the thought "because she's loving, gracious, kind and faithful, I could cheat on her and get away with. In fact, I could do it multiple times." I've never planned to cheat on her, by the grace of God I haven't at all. Because the exact opposite desire and emotion are conjured up due to her love and grace and faithfulness.

I think when grace is merely a principle and a biblical concept – if it's just the favor of God, or the forgiveness of God or the love of God, it's easily abused. But when grace is a person, when he has beautiful eyes of love and compassion and mercy and we fall in love with this incredible savior and his grace and his mercy pours over our lives, the ultimate result is not "gosh, I can get away with sin." … Quite the opposite happens really.

So people who say "I've heard the grace message and people are abusing it," well, they've not encountered grace. They've encountered a concept and a principle. It's more of a mental agreement that they're having. When you encounter the person of grace, it's amazing how it transforms your life, behavior, speech, your thought process. So personally I believe the Person of grace, the Person of Jesus is the great catalyst to all of spiritual devotions, holiness and these things that we desire.

I think if we make the Christian faith about holiness or self-control or any other moral attributes or character qualities, we might miss the whole point. I think when you pursue holiness, you may live a pretty moral life. But when you pursue Jesus – in Ephesians it talks about the "fruit of the Spirit," it's not plural in any ways, it's singular. It's not the fruit of our devotion or the fruit of our church attendance or the fruit of our Bible study or the fruit of our discipline; it's the fruit of the Spirit. It comes from focusing on the Holy Spirit, Jesus himself. When we make him the focus and him the point, it's amazing how self-controlled we are. It's amazing how faithful we are, disciplined, all these character qualities that all of us desire because we see them in the life of Jesus. I would encourage people to keep Jesus as the point of it all, keep the main thing the main thing, and I think you'll be shocked to see the life that you'll be empowered to live.

CP: What do you think are some of the major issues that the Christian Church has to grapple with currently? Some might say abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. are some of these issues. What are some things you think the Church as a whole may need to confront and deal with?

Smith: I don't want to be cliché and I don't want state the obvious, but there's certainly hot topics politically, morally [and] culturally that we could get into. I tend to think the biggest hurdle and the biggest challenge is and probably always will be: do we really love people?

Freely you have received, freely give, this is love. First John 4 says, not that we loved him, but that he loved us. I think the greatest challenge is accepting first and foremost his extraordinary, unconditional love for us, and then somehow implementing that in our lives as well. To really discover what it means to love people.

I'm really good at loving people that love me, that's just a natural thing. … Agape, this love that God offers, needs no reciprocation whatsoever, it's just there, it's just love. For us as human beings to at least begin to discover that kind of love for people, that has to be transcendent above the issues. It has to be, or we end up making the issue the issue. Those political, moral culture issues are really not the issue. Jesus is the ultimate issue and the point of all existence and humanity. His love, experiencing and dispensing it is the ultimate issue of humanity. I just pray that as believers, yes, I think there are issues that we have to know what we believe...but I think ultimately the much bigger issue is the love of God. Do we know it, do we receive it, do we accept it, do we recognize we can't earn it? And are will willing to extend it to humanity?

I got a sense that if we were to walk out this kind of love, I think people would probably listen sometimes to some of our things that biblically we believe in morally, culturally and ethically. I think sometimes the reason some people react to our position that is steeped in Scripture is because they sense very little empathy, compassion, care and concern and love. I think it's always been the biggest issue and probably always will be.

CP: You took on a lead pastor role at The City Church in 2009 – how have things changed over the last three years or so?

Smith: I was a youth pastor for 10 years and that was fun. I didn't know how easy it was, because you kind of just tell people what to do. Maybe that's not a good thing, but they just do what they're told a lot of times (laughs). I've had to learn a lot about trusting God and His grace and His calling. I am by no means the smartest person in our community. I'm not even the most spiritual. I'm not even the most well-versed in Scripture. I'm way down the list if there's a ranking system. But evidently, God has called me and graced me to lead the community and to serve them, to be the first servant among them.

When you're teaching teenagers, I know the most. I'm the most informed, exposed, educated – so they have to listen to me. When I'm standing in front of adults every weekend teaching them Scripture, I'm looking at people who probably have more degrees than me. Seattle is one of the most educated cities in the United States of America, so I stand in front of people who are incredibly educated, informed in worldview, Scripture, all things going on culturally. That can be incredibly intimidating. That's taught me, and still is teaching me of course, dependence upon God. … I think a year into stepping into leadership for my Mom and Dad, it was like "Okay, I'm all out of material. That's all I've got. What do I do now?" Of course the point is, it's what I should have been doing in the first place – just trusting God and His grace to help me really serve the people and equip the saints to do the work of the ministry.

If I can unpack some of the myths about church leadership and pastoring, is that we've assumed that the pastor is the smartest, the most spiritual, and is the elite spiritual person in the room. Of course biblically that's not at all the criteria. Yes, there needs to be moral life, ethical life, things in order in terms of your family and understanding of Scripture and training. It does not include in Scripture that the pastor will be the best or brightest and that he or she is just another believer – first a sheep then a shepherd, right? I think that's probably rallied our community a little bit, like "oh gosh, our pastor definitely needs us." It's probably opened up a little more conversation and dialogue. … It's been a great learning experience for sure.


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