Like any writer, the narcissist in me believes you would enjoy a peek into the book I plan to release this fall, The Impossible Mentor. Advance praise for this book comes from my wife, my children, and the stray cat we keep feeding at the back door. They all agree: this will be the finest book on spiritual formation ever to come out of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Just because these witnesses are deeply biased doesn’t mean they are wrong, it just means they will buy the first thousand copies.
Last week I shared previews from the first two chapters. Today, a bit from the opening of chapter three:
Chapter One: “I’m Not Jesus”
Chapter Two: “You’re Not, Either”
Chapter Three: “Paralyzed By Grace”
A few years ago I had to find another doctor. My previous one couldn’t help me. He was able to diagnose the problem, but not suggest a remedy that would fix things once and for all. I kept going back to him week after week. My appointments began to sound like an old vaudeville routine:
“Your problem is: you’re sick.”
“Of course I’m sick,” I replied. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Have you had this before?” he’d ask.
“You know I’ve had this before. I had it the last time I was here.”
“Well, you’ve got it again.”
I tried demonstrating the problem: “It hurts when I do this.”
“Well, don’t do that.”
“Doctor, is there any hope for me?”
“Of course there is. Take two aspirin. You’ll feel better when you’re dead.”
Of course, I made that up. But many of us have been returning to the same place, year after year, with the same problem. We are offered the same solution and we leave feeling as if there should be a better remedy available, but the professional assures us that we are on the right track. If you haven’t guessed already, the professional is not a doctor but a pastor, and the “doctor’s office” is our regular gathering for church. Many followers of Jesus go to church only to experience what Yogi Berra called “Déjà vu all over again.” We are reminded of our sin and God’s grace toward that sin.
And this is correct. We are sinful: Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross pays the price for our redemption. And, of course, the grace of God should be celebrated and declared by the church. But grace—understood as the one-time event of redemption—is not the sole message the church or the full content of the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
This is the third great challenge facing followers of Jesus today: we have a limited view of God’s grace. The grace of God, a reality greater than the human intellect can gasp and more accessible than the air we breathe has been captured and domesticated for weekly use. Grace--capable of reaching across every culture, every gender, and every generation--has been reduced to mean simply forgiveness for everyone.
The longer I follow Jesus, the more all-encompassing grace becomes. Instead of presenting grace as a repeatable sin-cleansing bargain, the Bible presents a grace that continues to reach into our lives day after day and in more ways than we expect. The Apostle Paul wrote to a young pastor:
The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2: 11 – 14 NIV).
Many believers have never heard these verses declared from the pulpit. Grace that appears in the passage with phrases like “self-controlled” or “upright and godly lives?” What kind of grace is this? If grace means getting off scot-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me a new way to live? Most believers are very familiar with “the grace that brings salvation,” but not many church-goers have ever heard of a grace that “teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” Most believers are familiar with a saving grace capable of securing heaven after we die, but have never considered the possibility that God’s grace can nurture us in this present age.
Apparently God’s grace is after more than wiping the slate clean week after week. The grace of God wants to teach us a new way to live.
“God loves me just the way I am.” Everyone is comfortable with that statement, but how about this one: “God loves me so much he won’t let me stay just the way I am.” First his grace saves, then it teaches. I think everyone is OK with receiving forgiveness but perhaps we skip school when it comes time to learn how to deny ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live sensible and upright lives. Christians can be forgiven if they are confused at this point: week after we week they are told of the complete work of Jesus on the cross, they are told that there is nothing they can do to earn God’s approval or salvation. Yet they are also encouraged to live holy lives and keep the commandments, to walk in a manner that pleases God. In most pulpits there is a disconnect between the good news of Jesus’ sacrifice and our calling to become the light of the world.
Richard Foster, a man who has spent his adult life encouraging Christians to grow in the grace of God, points out that the message of grace is something more than simply a means for gaining forgiveness. Sadly, many Christians have been taught that any effort lead a holy life right now runs counter to God’s forgiving grace. Many church-goers are told week after week that they are sinners in need of the grace of forgiveness, that their personal efforts are useless, and there is nothing they can do apart from the grace of forgiveness. Hearing the same message week after week, along with the same remedy, they remain in the same place. “Having been saved by grace,” Foster writes, “these people have been paralyzed by it.”