Better the mess of grace and freedom

Reflections on Chapters 1-3 of The Romance of Grace

I wanted to take a little time to go over a couple of points in my book “Romance of Grace” and clarify some things that I’ve gotten some questions and comments on. I have received a good deal of very positive feedback and correspondence, and all the comments and reviews have been encouraging and helpful to make me think and pray even more about my faith. It’s been amazing and every day I’m grateful for what God is doing through this little book!

Yes, Jesus Loves Me!

1. When I say in chapter 1 (and really throughout the book) that the primary animus behind the gospel is that God loves us, it doesn’t mean that I am putting the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection as secondary to some feeling of love. Feelings of love are important – we are to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, which surely includes our emotions and feelings somewhere in the mix. When Jesus laid down His life for us, it was an act of love:

8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
(Romans 5:8, NASB).

20 “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.
(Galatians 2:20, NASB).

10 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
(1 John 4:10, NASB).

It does no violence to the gospel to emphasize that we are loved by God, it is the very central piece of the gospel itself. Jesus’ death and resurrection are demonstrations of a very high and extreme degree of love. It is not just redemption or a theological concept – it is a very great love. I stand completely by this emphasis:

Grace is not just a doctrinal position. Grace does not focus on us primarily as sinners. Grace starts with a very great and a very intense love, a God-initiated love. All doctrine, all atonement, all virtue, all practice, stems from the fact that God loves us; any teaching that obscures, neglects, or denies this truth is damaging and in error. In our salvation and fellowship with the Lord, we are not just “getting right” with Him. We are entering a cosmic romance with a passionate lover, and He is interested in our heart’s truest desire. His deepest objective isn’t to make us more moral; it is to get us to love Him back. Virtue is the fruit, not the root.
-Romance of Grace, pg 18

The Bride, the Wife of the Lamb

2. I completely stand by the notion that human romance, the marriage of passionate lovers, is an apt metaphor for our relationship with God, and much used in scripture:

I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
(Isaiah 61:10, NASB).

For as a young man marries a virgin, So your sons will marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you.
(Isaiah 62:5, NASB).

2“He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. And so this joy of mine has been made full.
(John 3:29, NASB).

And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I shall show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”
(Revelation 21:9, NASB).

32 This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.
(Ephesians 5:31, 32, NASB).

Diagnosis and Healing

3. When I indicate in chapter 2 that we have a division between the moral good and the aesthetic good, I do not mean this as a solution but as a diagnosis. If I get an Xray, and the doctor says, “Yes – you have a broken leg”, that does not mean that I am now responsible to heal my own leg. It simply lets me know the truth about my condition, which gives me a confidence that the doctor is on the right path to heal me. In the same way, in pointing out the fact that I have a divided sense of the good does not represent a solution, but a diagnosis.

Some people seem to think that I am pressing the diagnosis that I have a divided sense of the good, the aesthetic good and the moral good, as a kind of saving law that we must conquer within ourselves as a sign or a condition of justification. Others think I am saying this in some underhanded way and rightly reprimand me for pressing a subtle but devastating legalism. Nothing could possibly be further from the truth. I am saying that this is our chief and central illness that the gospel aims to heal. The diagnosis is not the healing. As I say in the book:

None of this means that a perfection of desire becomes the new law to which we must now submit, a kind of glorified version of the tenth commandment “Thou shalt not covet.” Nothing could be more harsh. When by faith we come to stand in grace, we are completely absolved of the guilt of every iniquity, every sin, and every errant desire. Grace does not accomplish the unification of the moral and aesthetic good in us by simply demanding it.
-Romance of Grace, pg 102

Love is the Bond between Desire and Righteousness

4. The reason chapter 2 flows from chapter 1 is that God dearly loves us, and sees that the problem with us is a problem of the heart. He is not interested in our perception of Him as a moral good alone. The command to love Him is a diagnosis of our failure to do so, and the healing balm He offers is the gospel. He is interested in our perception of Him as a unified good. He doesn’t want a coerced friendship, like a girl who is forced to go to the prom with the poor dorky boy. He wants us to see Him as the aesthetic good, as the best choice of our heart – our true love. This cannot be accomplished through demand. This is why chapter 3 “beyond the coercion of the law” flows from chapters 1 and 2. No command and obligation can accomplish this; the gospel does not craft its fruit by command, but by gift.

Chapter 3 is an extended explanation of the question raised in chapter 2:

The main characteristic of the new person we become in Christ is that this rift between moral good and desirable good is removed. Our true self, the newly born person we are in Christ, does not have this division.
If we are thinking clearly about this, our minds are fairly screaming an objection: “Hey, are you saying that, as Christians, we become sinless? We’re not sinless now! We don’t just become Christians and then lose all desire for sin! What are you saying?”

I’m going to rephrase all of this: if the blood of Jesus is truly powerful enough to forgive all sin, past present and future, and if all justice is satisfied in God’s sight for our history and potential and present seed of evil choices, then the sting of punishment is gone. We cannot be coerced by any threat, because all threat has been acknowledged as legitimate and nailed to the cross. We are not simply “forgiven”, whatever crazy thing that might mean. We are justified. Hard and certain justice has been carried out. Our sins are not just swept under a rug of imperfect forgetfulness, they are acknowledged and harshly judged. Our conscience can be clear on this point. There is incredible power in this.

So, whatever we do, however we think about “sanctification”, it must unfold from a completely different place than the threat and coercion of the law. The threat of punishment is already carried out to its greatest extent. The only think left to us is freedom, the choosing of the heart rather than the fear of reprisal or retribution:

16 And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
17 By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world.
18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
19 We love, because He first loved us.
(1 John 4:16-19, NASB).

These are astonishing things to say, but they are true. We have been conditioned to think that as we succeed at obedience, we enter into some kind of favor with God and He begins to bless us. The gospel says that we are recklessly and deeply and scandalously loved before we ever have the slightest sign of any repentance, and that all of the ire that justice demands has all been taken out of the picture. The gospel says that no matter what, to the end of time, He is the One who is faithful to us, we need never again worry with trusting ourselves. There is nothing but favor towards us, and we have nothing but freedom and the love which God has for us to guide us into a new way of living. Because Christ has died for us, because the good demand of justice has been satisfied, and because we have thereby entered into a very great grace, God is able to pour out His Spirit as a gift. It is not that we enter into some level of moral perfection as Christians that we are blessed and loved; it is that we are blessed and loved first that we begin to love what is right from the heart. It is 10,000 times better to stumble and sin and err under the power and grace which comes to us through Christ’s blood, and to choose a tiny shred of love freely from the heart, than to give all your money and go to the ends of the earth and feed the starving children if you do it to justify yourself. This is not as a law, it is a freedom. Your deeds, even your “Christian” deeds, do not justify you; you are a free person.

Better the mess of grace and freedom, and a freely chosen repentance born of love, than a false repentance born of fear and hated in the inner soul. A life lived by grace from the heart trusting God’s love rather than one’s own steadfastness is the house built on the rock that will stand in the storm (Matthew 7:24).

I think there will be more to come of my own reflections on the book.

Blessings to everyone!

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