The Gospel I Wish I’d Known in High School

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What were you like in high school? Were you the popular jock who never had trouble finding a date? Maybe you were the quiet academic who just wanted to get the best grades so you could go to your top school? Or were you the self-righteous “good girl” who attended every Bible study and youth group—and wouldn’t be caught dead at a party with alcohol? (Guilty.)

Whoever you were in high school, I suspect there are things you wish you could go back and preach to your teenage self. On our youth team this semester, we have been thinking about how our high school experiences would have been different had we really believed the gospel: that we are so broken Jesus had to die for us, yet so beloved He was glad to die for us (to paraphrase Tim Keller). This is a truth that is as much for the youth group hero as it is for the wayward burnout.

With this in mind, we have been teaching through a series we entitled “The Gospel I Wish I’d Known in High School” with some of our small groups. Our prayer is that this series will offer students a chance to see how God’s grace really does change everything. From the way we relate to ourselves, others, and ultimately to God, understanding the grace offered to us through Christ radically changes the realities of our lives.

It has been humbling for our team to remember the areas where we totally misunderstood the gospel in high school—and to continually ask ourselves the question: What part of the gospel am I not believing even now? Preparing for these lessons has been relatively simple, yet deeply edifying. I begin by asking the Lord to offer me a picture of my high school self. I try to imagine how her life might have looked had she understood with her heart—not just her mind—the full reality that she was both deeply flawed and a deeply valued daughter of the King (Isaiah 53:1).

With this picture in mind, I choose a passage of Scripture that illuminates the part of the gospel I was missing at my students’ age. For example, one week I walked my students through the doctrine of adoption. We focused specifically on Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3 and Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:4-6, seeing God’s favor on us as “holy and blameless” adopted sons and daughters with whom He is “well pleased” because of what Christ has done. Had I grasped this truth in high school, I would have been spared the constant need I felt to earn others’ affirmation, knowing that I already had it fully in the Lord.

If our high school selves sound like they would have been great friends, Luke 7:36-50 is also a wonderful reminder for us and for our pharisaical-leaning students. Here we see a “woman of the city, who was a sinner” come and anoint Jesus’ feet with precious, costly ointment, wiping his feet with her hair and tears. Imagine what a blessing it might be for our sin-blind students to be reminded that they are the woman in this story: deeply sinful, yet redeemed by the same Savior, who longs for them to run to Him and sit at His feet in humble adoration.

We have had other teachers share how they wish they knew the gospel truths that would have freed them from the exhaustion of striving for academic perfection (Galatians 2:16-21), allowed them to be more honest and vulnerable with their emotions (Psalm 42 and 43), or reminded them that God sees them in their sin and not only loves them despite it but moves toward them in the midst of it (John 4).

Of course, I still so often return to the people-pleasing Pharisee of my high school career when there is a truth of the gospel I am not remembering. I, too, have days when I feel like the woman at the well in John 4 and need to remember that Christ sees my sin, loves me despite it, and has taken away all my guilt and shame. Like my students, I need to ask myself how my life would look differently right now if I remembered that in my sin, I was dead and separated from Christ—yet I have been saved by grace through faith that is a pure gift from God (Ephesians 2:1-10).

It has been a blessing to have some students open up about how they can relate to my high school experience, which has led to fruitful conversations about how the gospel of grace transforms our relationships with one another, with ourselves, and most of all with God. One student showed me how she has begun to journal about which parts of the gospel she does not believe at a given moment. She then lists a series of truths that speak to the lies causing her to forget the gospel. I must admit I have stolen this idea from her and have begun to use it in my personal devotions as well!

Whether or not you decide to teach a similar series in your ministry, considering how the gospel might have changed your high school experience can bless your students. Where do you see yourself in your students’ current struggles? Is there a particular truth they need to hear today that would have profoundly changed your perspective at their age?

Perhaps it is worth simply asking yourself what part of the gospel you are having difficulty believing today. What is the gospel you wish you’d known, not only in high school but also earlier this week? The Lord might meet you in a moment of pride with the reminder that you are so deeply flawed that your sin required His death on the cross. He might meet you in your guilt and remind you that the same cross assures you of the Father’s great love and mercy for you.

Wherever He meets you, remember that your students are most likely struggling to believe some part of the gospel of grace today as well. May the Lord grant us wisdom as He leads us in showing them how grace changes everything—in high school and beyond.

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