I am starting a new book about grace; as my wife Betty knows it is my constant soapbox, my idee fixe. I wanted to post some things as I’m working toward it here so I can reference it on FB and such and get some reactions from friends. This is not really a chapter, but a sampling of some of the ideas I want to reference.
Grace and forgiveness and mercy are the real and central message of God, the core gift and offering of Jesus Christ to the world. They are the key difference between Christianity and every other system of belief. The gospel is actually really good and happy news. Grace encloses and extends and reinforces mercy. It is not necessary or even possible to be forgiven once in the past, and to move on to a maturity which does not lean on grace and mercy day by day. There is none worthy, none righteous, including the religious and Christians. We become Christians by being delivered out of a universe of law and retribution and earning favor or punishment, to a law of love and liberty and grace, based upon belief. All acts and works of righteousness stem from the root of grace, not from the root of law. The law as understood in Romans cannot be narrowly defined as some weird historic ritualistic animal sacrifice; it means, really, the whole law, loving God and fellow man. We are not under obligation, even for these things. The purpose of the law is not in fact to obligate anyone.
Christian law, the law of Jesus in the sermon on the mount and such, is much much harsher than Jewish or Islamic law. It demands impossible things from the heart, impossible sacrifices, impossible perfection in subtle points of ethics and motivations. Christian law does not just apply to behavior, it applies to the secrets of the heart and mind. It is cruel and impossible, to a ridiculous and extreme degree. If we aim to discard Jewish law only to replace it with Christian law, we do not present liberty or good news. We present condemnation and despair. Those seeking true freedom, true happiness, correctly run from such “good news’.
We must form our day to day and practical doctrine from the whole message of scripture. The scriptures speak as a unified whole, a monolithic message. You cannot take the harsh sayings of Jesus only, and throw out the passages which indicate patience and mercy and kindness and softness toward the sinful. Jesus is not schizophrenic, Jesus is in fact very much in line with the message of Paul.
Justification, as well, is not a one time gift for past sins, at which point the Christian enters into a harsh world of moral perfection and obligation. Maturity does not leave grace and mercy behind. Blood is perhaps an apt metaphor; it circulates not only to constantly bring oxygen and nourishment to the body’s tissues, but to remove the wastes which accrue as a product of living. The result of belief in mercy and forgiveness is that there is a an open door, always, to press on to holiness, holiness which is desired as a result of being loved and blessed, not a veneer of holiness pressed upon an unwilling slave who longs to be free from its demands. We stand, new Christian and “mature” Christian, together, as sinners in need of grace and mercy, and always getting it. True holiness is born of grace, not law. It is absolutely and thoroughly Biblical, as we shall see.
Many would say, this is nothing more than a license to sin. As Paul says, shall we sin all the more that grace may increase? Many pastors would say, that may be true, but if you stood up in the pulpit and said so, everyone would take it as a license to sin. I’m so glad that we have moved forward and past the wisdom and revelation of the apostle Paul, whose teachings we can so easily ignore and toss out with the garbage. Obviously he didn’t understand the needs of the modern congregation. We should be clear that his message was so strong concerning grace that he was compelled to answer the question, “What then? Shall we sin all the more that grace may increase? may it never be!” We will explore his answer in more detail later, but rest assured that he spends EIGHT CHAPTERS in Romans making this point. It is quite important, and anyone who thinks they can ignore Paul’s message in Romans and interpret any other passage in the Bible is headed into deep and terrible waters.
I want to emphasize that I believe this is an error of a large percentage of mainstream evangelical Christianity. The saving work of Christ on the cross has been marginalized to a one time past experience for the believer. We see this in countless sermons from kind and well-meaning pastors, who sweetly give sermons that make the whole congregation feel convicted and condemned for things they will never really comply with, and tack on a completely unrelated call to belief in Jesus at the end. Our holiness seems to be wholly disconnected to our salvation. I do not believe it can ever work that way, and I do not believe it is Biblical.
You can either choose to read the Bible from the perspective of a pharisee, and make the ‘nice’ parts uneasily fit into your hard world, or you can read it from the perspective of grace, and interpret the condemning parts from the perspective of Paul’s teachings in Romans. You cannot hang your hat on James’ statement that faith without works is dead, without reference and harmony with Paul’s statement that we are justified by faith, not works. Either the whole Bible is true, and it is happy, or it is contradictory, and you should go elsewhere.
The true Christian has left the universe of the obligated, of slavery to the law, of unwilling morality, and has entered the universe of grace, of favor beyond merit.
The Christian doctrine does not exist solely to trick or scare people into being more moral. Christ came for liberty, for truth, for love, for forgiveness. It is a message in which God loves us with a very strong and enduring love, and in which righteousness is grown patiently and waited for as a fruit, not demanded by a harsh slave master. It waters, it nourishes, it waits patiently, it says, “there is no fruit yet, but indeed, it will come.” It is a message of God-initiated love, not a message of condemning messages of “hope” which are all about cleaner harder-working protestant work-ethic principles to live by.
Righteousness is a gift, not an imperative. It is to be taken with gratitude, not demanded under threat of punishment. Otherwise, the message in which Christ came to save the world, not to condemn it, becomes meaningless and ridiculous, and we start to avoid the “easy’, the “nice’ passages.