As we stand on the back porch of last week’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we can enjoy the lingering aroma of that happy recovery of what folks in the Reformed tradition affectionately call the Doctrines of Grace.
These teachings ascribe to God, exclusively, all the accolades for the entirety of good anyone ever gets and can ever hope for, both today, and for the rest of forever.
They are about our helplessness which has met God’s help. Our wandering which can’t out-pace God’s seeking, and our corruption which is not beyond God’s beautifying restoration.
Put simply, as the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty (what else could he be with such a Martin Luther-y name?) succinctly summarized, this “good news of grace” is that:
“God, through Jesus Christ, welcomes you anyhow.”
Which is to say, the entire enterprise of rescuing us from our rottenness and this planet from its dismal decay is dreamed up, initiated, and accomplished FOR us by Christ. And all despite any of our “spiritual misfires” (like what we’ve done wrong, or failed to do, for instance, or the pride that fuels our ordinary allergy to God).
God’s favor in salvation comes free of charge--- to us.
But was incalculably costly for Him. He has the scars to prove it.
And it was all driven by an unquenchable determination and affection from Christ who was and is “unwilling that any of his little ones be lost.”
These doctrines are a bulldozer to any instinct of boasting, because the imply and assert that a believer’s favored position with God isn’t the result of one’s action, wisdom, cleverness, or number of Instagram followers. But entirely the result of God’s wishes.
“Salvation is of the Lord”, and is “by grace through faith.” And even, get this, that faith, or the capacity to accept, is a gift too.
Just as no rich kid should “brag about being born already on 3rd base,” no Christian kid in his right mind would ever think to smugly glare at the one not sharing his position, because he’d know he was the beneficiary of a deeply undeserved, divine kindness.
But we aren’t always in our right minds.
Sometimes we don’t know what we know. We don’t always, as Francis Schaeffer noticed, “possess our possessions.”
At such times, we fail to notice the incompatibility of these lovely doctrines of grace with the “willful incomprehension” and “toxic suspicion” that characterizes so much public speech, even from our types, and the informal chatting around dinner tables and gathering spots where like-minded folks in the know speak about “the other side” whomever “they” may be.
I’m certain that slow-stewing in a pot of softening grace would alter so much publicly, and even in our closest relationships.
Gary Thomas has astutely noticed,
“More than compatibility determining whether we have a great marriage or not, it's usually whether we gracefully handle each other’s sin.”
The manner in which we address the failures, bone-headedness, and cantankerousness of our spouses determines a great deal more about the flourishing of our homes than whether we have been lucky enough to find someone who finishes our sentences, thinks our snoring is cute, and magically agrees on all thorny parenting issues.
I can’t think of a square foot of human endeavor that wouldn’t benefit from a deepening in these doctrines of grace.
Large-Hearted, Undeserved, Unfair....Giving
Grace in its simplest form means gift.
It originates from One who has the means to give what is necessary for another and a heart big enough to want to give it, even when the recipient doesn't deserve it. Because the recipient never does.
We remember this right?
It makes its way into our songs… “Jesus”, we sing, “sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God.” Or, “Lord, why was I a guest? Why was I made to hear Thy voice?”
And it’s practically a southern birthright to know, whether church-goer or not, John Newton's biographical tribute to this remarkable largesse of God called Amazing Grace---an anthem exclusively heralding a “grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved."
There’s a long-standing recognition that a Christian is someone who, if God had not acted on her wouldn't have known to love Him back.
Had God not opened our eyes, taught us to fear, been gentle and gracious toward us, we never would have embraced his son, Jesus Christ.
And what would be the attitude of someone who came to believe these sorts of things towards other people who did not believe these sorts of things?
Well those seem to be the involuntary polluting responses that come out of us so easily at times.
The Touchy-Feely Calvinist?
But wouldn’t tenderness be the more consistent reaction?
Grace reminds us “who has made us to differ” in those contentious moments where others oppose us or stand, we are confident, on the wrong side of an issue.
Newton, after a sordid life as a slave-trader, absorbed this grace through his pores. Listen to his insistence in a correspondence to a friend whom he knows as an ardent “lover of truth” who appears on the verge of lambasting an opponent publicly:
“Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose. “If peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.”
A people who attribute all the best aspects of their understanding, existence, and hope to God’s generous gifts through Christ, “are most expressly bound by their own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation.”
David McCullough, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian/biographer has insisted, “we are what we read more than we know.”
Of course, we might add to that truism, that what we listen to is formative too.
Which begs the pertinent reformation question, are we reading or listening to ANYONE who's helping us become more gracious in our listening and speaking, manners and methods?
And if we listen, for instance, to FOX News as I have had the misfortune of doing from time to time, nothing on it is likely to make us more gracious. Unless it makes our stomach start to hurt and then we turn it off and need grace for our bellyache.
The same is true for all the cable news shows. If we live on Facebook or Twitter or keep ourselves connected via audio-IV to NPR news reports, it is highly likely that little is going to make us more graciously disposed toward other.
But if these things tenderize you, then keep at it!
But whatever we practice, we should imagine that our insides are being formed as we do it, AND our insides are in turn, determining a lot about how we perceive that information as well.
Or as our favorite Oxford don said in The Magician’s Nephew:
“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
A suspicious heart is going to see suspiciously. One racked with internal insecurity always presumes to be on trial and always must win.
Being grace-deficient will nearly always lead us to try to conquer or put down an opponent, whether real or imagined.
When we are suffering from grace-neglect we will find ourselves “talking for victory” often, as Alan Jacobs has described, and listening seldom for understanding.
But a heart steeping in God’s grace, one that has been rearranged and secured by God's generosity toward it, should at least be growing in its perception of the possibilities of loving an opponent; of listening to the OTHER compassionately and trying hard to understand what they are saying, without hating them for saying it.
In fact, grace, when absorbed, will generally slow us down and aid us in a refusal to misunderstand willfully or to interpret in the worst possible light.
“Facts up, Fuzz Up”
My professor, Richard Pratt, trying to make us gracious and wise pastors used to say, “Facts up, Fuzz up” ---his clever way of reminding that, usually, the more you know, the closer you get, the deeper you dive into any issue, relationship, or matter, the more complex it will appear. So wise grace will be required. Because the more you know, the fuzzier things can get.
And of course, the less you know about an issue, the more certain you can be about it, and the more crystal clear it seems.
A few years ago, a friend of mine found himself squarely in the “deep weeds” of the immigration debate. Only now it wasn’t theoretical. Nor was it from the unencumbered comfort of his couch. This time it was about one of his soccer players who mattered to him a lot. An actual boy in the image of God who was brought here by his parents, illegally, as a baby. And was facing deportation. Alone. To a land he’d never been. Where he knew no one. Grace made the clear battle lines on the issue suddenly seem chalky and broken. My buddy told CNN in a televised interview:
“It’s all black and white, until it becomes flesh and blood.”
My friend knows grace.
When we hear contentious things, or meet those who rouse our anger or disdain, grace slows us. And whispers in our ears, “if I heard all there was to know about this, I'm sure I’d reach a different conclusion.” And it expands our own magnanimity so that we realize with humility that in any matter where we are confident in our correctness, we are dealing with goods received from God. That should soften our expectations and gentle us considerably.
Steve Brown is fond of saying, “if you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he didn't get there by himself.”
It pictures the remarkable nature of grace. We are somehow turtles who’ve been lifted up and placed where we never could've gotten on our own.
And if that’s true, then that turtle on a fence post would've completely misread his own situation if he begin to yell and shout, mock and deride all the critters that weren’t seated up there with him.
Let’s make sure we’re steeping in words and speech, art or music, relationships and considerations that deepen rather than diminish our grasp on the superlative community and individual-altering wonders of God’s grace.
For “we really are what we read (or listen to) more than we know.”
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at email@example.com