When I was about ten, a friend of mine asked me why Jesus died on the cross. I repeated the answer I had heard countless times, "Jesus died on the cross for our sins."
She heaved an exasperated sigh. "I know that's what the answer's supposed to be, but what does that mean?"
Her question stumped me, because to be honest, I didn't really know. But I didn't want to admit that to her. "You know," I bluffed. "He died for us. For the forgiveness of sins."
The thing is, both of us had grown up in church. Both of us had heard the gospel countless times. But we couldn't explain it at all—other than parroting back an answer we didn't understand.
I continued like that for quite awhile. While I did start to understand that Christ's death was a punishment that I deserved, I didn't let that truth change my life. If I ever felt convicted for my sinfulness, I took a quick tally of "good" things I had done. Like many people, I hoped that the good would somehow outweigh the bad. Like a lot of teenagers, I believed it would be easier not to sin when I grew up. And if I did meet some tragic fate, I also hoped I would have time to ask forgiveness before I breathed my last. Just in case.
And then in college, things quit working for me. It seems absurd to type the things that were going wrong at the time, but for my relatively charmed life, they seemed big. The boy I liked transferred schools and forgot about me before the college had faded in his rearview mirror. A fraternity picked my closest friends as their sweethearts but didn't pick me. Even then I knew that these things weren't real tragedies, but I no longer had anything to distract myself from the facts: I was a sinner, and I couldn't seem to fix it.
One Sunday in the midst of this dull, gray semester, I went to church. I didn't see much point in it, but I was a nice girl, and that's what nice girls did. And sometime during the sermon, I got it. I realized that if I could stop sinning on my own, then Jesus wouldn't have had to die. I understood for the first time the meaning of a word I had known and sung about my whole life: grace.
It's common for people like me to assume that the first time we accepted the gospel was the first time we heard it. But I know better. I was no doubt told the gospel hundreds and hundreds of times. I even remember thinking that it couldn't really be that easy. Surely there's something that I need to do. But no, I just needed to accept the gift.
Now I teach the youth at my church. Every now and then I'll ask them questions. How many of you think it will be easier to stop sinning when you're an adult? How many are worried that you'll die before you get a chance to ask God to forgive you? How many of you try to remind yourself of good things you've done when you feel bad about the bad things you've done? Sometimes a brave soul will even raise her hand.
But always, every chance I get, I tell them. I tell them that yes, they are sinners and they can't fix it. There is a solution, though. It's Jesus. He lived the life they should have lived and died the death they should have died. But he gives grace. It's a free gift that they just need to accept.
Some of them accepted this truth long ago. I rejoice for them, and remind them of the gospel they still need to hear. Some of them probably don't get it. Some of them might decide someday that they were never told. But sometimes, a hurt, humbled heart will be sitting in front of me, and they will be ready to hear why what they're doing isn't working. And since I don't know when that day will be, I tell them every chance I get.