Tag Archives: Grace

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 10:4

??????????????Proverbs 10:4
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

Proverbs 10:22
The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it
.

Matthew 6:24
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money
.

In the early days of my Christian experience I attended a church that was part of the “faith message,”—health and wealth, prosperity, etc.—and so these verses in Proverbs were well known to me. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew was not unknown; because one could not serve money we were to give it, to our church and its leaders, and to other “reputable” ministries in the same movement. Of course, in giving we would receive, for as the verse says, “the blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich” (KJV).

Thus we have an Old Testament promise of prosperity, or at least, an acknowledgement of diligence leading to success and riches, and a New Testament teaching condemning the pursuit of wealth. The problem, of course, is that I am wealthy. Exceedingly so, when considered with a global perspective. Even when I struggle to pay the bills, the truth is, I am rich.

Old Testament wisdom literature, based on observations of life, advises the reader to work diligently, to gather and store up their wealth, and thus to see accumulation as a reward. The gospels on the other hand, routinely condemn such a pursuit of wealth, and surely the gospels and the teaching of Jesus must trump the Old Testament?

So, then… I am already rich, loaded down with possessions, and still I accumulate. Especially books! But not only books. I hunger for success and acclaim. I hate not having enough money to do some of the things I would love to do, like travel and holiday whenever I like. I don’t seem to hate not having enough money to give… It would appear that in some ways, then, that I am hopelessly compromised by mammon.

Some years ago when I was wrestling with these matters I put pen to paper in my journal and wrote the following:

Resolved – Yet Still Listening!

I will not live for success but to serve God faithfully,
in obedience to Jesus Christ and for the glory of God;
I am a servant of his name, his kingdom, and his will.

Yet nor will I despise success if God graciously gives it.
Nor will I avoid success or sabotage its possibility
through indolence, laziness, false ideological commitments or lack of courage.

I will labour diligently in the gospel and in pastoral leadership
with all the skilfulness and integrity I can muster;
I will prayerfully and humbly trust God for fruitfulness from my labour;
I will gratefully accept what God gives:
whether smallness, with perseverance;
whether hardness, with endurance;
whether success, with gratitude.

Help me, Lord!
Grant me wisdom to know your way,
and courage to live and walk it.
(January 11, 2008)

I wish I could say that in the intervening years I have followed through on this pious expression of devotion. Sometimes I have. Often I have failed. Yet God is good, and God’s blessing has enriched my life in more ways than I enumerate. The richest blessings are those everyday provisions of grace we often take for granted: an opportunity to work, the love of a faithful spouse, the delight of a healthy grandchild, friends who care, a few moments of peace to write a blog post, food on the table, food in the cupboard, a bed to sleep in and a roof overhead, friendship, the respect and encouragement of peers. The list goes on.

But!

“No one can serve two masters! … You cannot serve God and money.”

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.
(Luke 12:48).

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
(Luke 12:20-21).

And so we return to the central question: what am I to do with all this grace? It is not enough just to be rich; how can I be rich toward God?

Bruce McCormack on Prevenient Grace

prevenient-grace1I enjoy finding biographical data about the theologians I am studying. Knowing something of their life helps me better understand their theology. In his discussion of Open Theism, Bruce McCormack inserts this interesting biographical note, which not only describes his views on prevenient grace, but also “conversion” to Reformed faith:

On a personal note, when I was a student at Covenant Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, Pinnock’s newly edited volume on the universality of grace and the conditionality of election provided me with arguments which helped me to withstand the Calvinist perspective which was dominant there. It was not until I had transferred to my denominational seminary, Nazarene Theological Seminary, that I experienced a “second conversion”—one which moved me from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective to a Reformed outlook. The occasion was a paper I wrote on John Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace. The disappointment I experienced as a consequence of close study of this doctrine was tremendous. I regarded it then (and continue to do so to this day) as a sophistical attempt to overcome the doctrine of “total depravity”—a doctrine to which Wesley was theoretically committed—by means of a “grace” which is alleged to restore in all just enough freedom so as to put every human being in the position of being able to accept or reject “saving grace” when it is “offered.” The problem for me did not lie simply in the fact that such a view only pushes the logic of irresistible grace back one step (since the liberty which is restored in all must be the work of God alone if the affirmation of total depravity is seriously meant). It did not even lie in the fact that the net effect of Wesley’s teaching was to make his affirmation of total depravity meaningless, since the totally depraved turn out to be an empty-set. The real problem for me lay in the fact that there is not a hint, so far as I can see, of such a concept of grace to be found in Holy Scripture. Having said that, I should add that I do understand the allure of Arminianism, for I too was once an Arminian.[1]

[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Responses, ed. McCormack, B. L., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 202-203.

Does Grace Transform Us?

graceThe third question my friend asked was:

Does grace transform us, or is that wishful thinking?

The apostle Peter refers to the manifold or ‘many-coloured’ grace of God (1 Peter 4:10). The New Testament speaks of grace in many different ways. In this interview we have been mainly concerned about grace in terms of God’s favour, forgiveness and acceptance. But grace speaks of God’s empowerment as well as God’s pardon. The apostle Paul is an outstanding example of the transformative power of grace:

 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

By his own account Paul had been a blasphemous, violent and insolent man but having received God’s mercy and grace, was to be a pattern for all believers (1 Timothy 1:12-16).

The gracious activity of God toward us does not cease with his pardon, but the Holy Spirit is ‘God’s empowering presence’ (Gordon Fee’s name for the Holy Spirit) given to us to sanctify and transform our lives into the image of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). This, too, is grace, God accomplishing for us and in us what we cannot accomplish for ourselves and in our own strength.

Truly receiving the grace of God opens our eyes to God’s amazing acceptance of us in spite of our own failures and sin. Grace humbles us in the presence of God, and results in an overwhelming gratitude toward God which then begins to overflow toward others. If our own wrong does not disqualify us, surely the wrongs of others should not disqualify them. The Holy Spirit gently leads us to respond to God’s grace by showing grace and living graciously towards others. He prompts us to forgive, even those who have most hurt us. He opens our heart to welcome others. He reminds us that ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’ He reminds us that grace has interrupted our path and changed our course; grace can interrupt and change the course of others. God may even us as a vessel and channel of his grace. Thus grace is not only a gift but a calling and a responsibility.

Notice that Paul, in his statement about grace, also says that he laboured, so that God’s grace would not be given in vain. This is the crucial key about the transformative power of grace: grace calls for human response. God works within us to both to will and to do his good pleasure, and so by his grace we are empowered to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12-13). Grace always comes first, but God does not work without us. His work elicits and empowers our responsive and cooperative work. Grace makes us co-labourers with God, and so Paul says, ‘We then, as workers together with Him, also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain’ (2 Corinthians 6:1).

The promise of transformation is not wishful thinking but neither does grace function like Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. Eugene Peterson has given us a most useful metaphor for understanding the work of grace: water. Water is essential for life, a life-giving and transformative substance. Yet if we were to pass our hands through water it would run through our fingers and escape. We cannot hold or contain it. We know it is too weak to hold us, and we cannot hold it. Nevertheless, if we can learn to relax in it, and like a swimmer to begin to make a series of strokes—simple repetitive actions—we will find that the water miraculously holds us and we begin to make progress. We are not holding the water; it is holding us.[1]

Peterson’s analogy helps us understand the mysterious interplay between grace and works, between God’s will and our will. Transformation is not our work but God’s work in us. Yet it does not occur without our participation. Our simple repetitive actions—spiritual practices and habits such as participating in congregational life and worship, reading Scripture and learning to pray, humble service and generous kindness—become a means of grace by which the Holy Spirit works transformation more deeply into our being. This is how we ‘grow in grace’ (2 Peter 3:18) and become ‘strong in grace’ (2 Timothy 2:1). This is how grace becomes a fruitful and transformative power in our lives. This is the kind of response that does not ‘receive the grace of God in vain.’

Ultimately transformation is about becoming more genuinely and authentically human; that is, becoming more Christlike, for Jesus Christ is both the image of God and the truly human person. This is grace reaching its goal. We begin by grace, continue by grace, and reach the goal by grace. ‘Grace has brought us safe this far, grace will lead us home.’



[1] See Peterson, Eugene H., Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 94-95.

Does Everyone Need Grace?

graceThe second question my friend asked me about grace was:

Is it excessive to suggest that all need grace? After all, some people seem to be genuinely nice.

Some people are genuinely nice and moral. Often, though not always, they have had the benefit of being raised in homes which practice civility, courtesy and consideration. Sometimes, though, they have learned these things through their own dedication to a better way of living than they experienced at home. Sometimes they have learned this way of life from bitter experience of the opposite. Sometimes they are nice because they have found that it works for them, and so they have adopted being nice as their manner of living and life philosophy.

Do such people really need grace, especially when they already seem so gracious or grace-full? If what we have said in the previous question is actually true, then yes, even nice people need grace. The idea that some of us are so inherently good and kind and nice that we do not require grace comes from an overly optimistic self-assessment, and an under-appreciation of the impact, penetration and depth of sin in our own lives.

Too many times we measure ourselves against others who we consider to be real sinners, bad people whose abhorrent behaviour is so evident and obvious, we can only be glad that we are not like them! This kind of attitude goes hand-in-hand with the notion of identifying sin with specific external acts, so that as long as we are not guilty of those particular acts, we are not really sinners.

The reality, however, is not so pretty. Sin, in its biblical portrayal, is not simply external, nor simply our actions, nor simply that which characterises other people. Its roots and manifestations are far deeper, more pervasive and universal than we care to believe. At root, sin is our determination to live independently of God, to live in accordance with our own desire, to establish our own worth and goodness, and to justify ourselves in the face of all contrary claim or allegation.

Even the most religious, most moral and most altruistic person can be deeply sinful and in need of a relationship restored to God. We now know that some people wear their religion as a cloak of respectability covering a cesspool of the most wicked intentions and behaviour. Even the genuinely altruistic person can still harbour a desire for recognition or acknowledgement, or an attitude of condescension towards those who choose a different path of life.

Jesus Christ is the measure of true humanity in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26-27; Colossians 1:15). If instead of comparing ourselves with others, we would compare ourselves with Jesus Christ, with the standard of love and holiness displayed in his life, we would very soon become dismayed at the superficial nature of our own love, and the evident distortion of humanity in our own lives.

When we ponder our own hearts we very quickly discover a quagmire of the most unlovely and disreputable feelings, motivations, intentions, commitments and attitudes. Many centuries ago the word of the Lord came to a Hebrew prophet saying,

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the Lord, search the heart and I test the mind, to give to every person according to their ways, and according to the fruit of their doings (Jeremiah 17:9-10).

When Jeremiah heard this he cried out, ‘Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; Save me, and I shall be saved!’ (v. 14). In our heart of hearts we are aware that we do not even live up to our own standards let alone those of others and most especially, those which God requires. We are quick to excuse ourselves our misdemeanours, while holding others accountable for theirs. We shake our heads in disgust at others’ behaviour while justifying our own. We are wont to judge others harshly and ourselves lightly.

All these are indicators of the penetration, presence and power of sin in our lives, sin which alienates us from God and renders us culpable before the blinding, blazing light of his holiness. How desperately we need grace! How desperately we are dependent upon grace rather than justice. If God were to deal with us in bare justice we would have nowhere to stand and nowhere to hide. But God turns toward us in utter condescension, giving himself to us, making peace through the blood of the cross of Christ (Colossians 1:20), and calling us into fellowship with himself; and all this in spite of our sin and our inherent opposition to his sovereignty and love. This, indeed, is grace.

Is Grace Fair?

graceA friend asked me about grace the other day. This was his first question, and this is how I responded…

Is grace fair, or is that the wrong question?

We must be careful whenever we speak about God, about God’s work or God’s attributes. We are often inclined to reduce God to what we can understand, humanly speaking. We interpret God through our own categories rather than through the categories Scripture gives us for understanding God and God’s work. This is a good example. There is nothing fair about grace if we look at it through the lens of the cross. Here, one who is wholly innocent suffers and gives his life for the sake of those who are wholly unworthy of his sacrifice. Where is the justice and fairness in this? The one who is crucified prays for those crucifying him: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). He dies as ‘the just for the unjust’ (1 Peter 3:18). This is not ‘fair’ in any sense of the word, but a form of love in which ‘mercy triumphs over justice’ (see James 2:13). Further, there is nothing ‘fair’ about grace when we consider the gift of salvation.

Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does  not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Romans 4:4-5).

In these verses the apostle is arguing that we receive salvation, not on the basis of our works, but strictly on account of grace. Paul says that God justifies the ungodly. Not only is grace not ‘fair’, it is a scandal! If a human judge were to rule a guilty person innocent we would rightly be scandalised. How dare God justify the ungodly! And yet this is exactly what grace has done: ‘for when we were without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly … God demonstrates his own love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:6, 8).

Thus, the provision of salvation at the cross of Christ, and its reception in our lives through justification by faith, are both works of divine grace which go far beyond the boundaries of human justice. Human justice is an attempt to regulate human relationships and actions according to a principle of equity. This is important and must not be diminished. It is, perhaps, the best human society can aim for in the conditions of an often very unjust world of competing interests and powers. But we must not confuse human concepts of justice and fairness with the reality of divine grace. Grace is what God has done for us in Christ in all its scandalous glory. Grace is not so much a concept as an event and an action. Divine grace triumphs over human justice not by negating it, but by going beyond it and doing more than justice could ever imagine. It is a divine restorative justice, justice operating on a higher plain and in a different mode.

Twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth, in a stunning exposition of divine grace claims that ‘grace is the distinctive mode of God’s being in so far as it seeks and creates fellowship by its own free inclination and favour, unconditioned by any merit or claim in the beloved, but also unhindered by any unworthiness or opposition in the latter—able on the contrary, to overcome all unworthiness and opposition.’ Barth continues:

Grace is certainly a gift—and indeed a very supernatural gift. In fact it epitomises all the gifts of God… But it is a gift—and this must be our a priori definitive  description—in so far as the Giver, i.e. God Himself makes Himself the gift, offering Himself to fellowship with the other, and thus showing Himself in relation to the other to be the One who loves. … Grace denotes, comprehensively, the manner in which God, in His essential being, turns towards us.[1]

For Karl Barth, grace is the almighty, holy and transcendent God turning in condescending love towards us in order to make peace and create fellowship between God and humanity. Grace is not simply a thing which God has or gives. Grace is God himself turning toward us in love, taking our wrong upon himself and putting it aside. Grace is a divine relational movement in which God acts towards us in love. To the very depths of God being, and to all eternity, God is nothing other than fellowship-creating, peace-making love. This is grace.



[1] Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics II/1 (trans. T.H.L. Parker et al; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), 353-354.