Here’s why grace must mean something more than forgiveness:
Once there was an abusive husband. He was a rage-aholic, given to fits of rage and, horribly, those moments sometimes overflowed into violence. Like the time he slammed his wife up against the kitchen cabinets. Or the time he slapped her across the face and then, in horror and shame, he ran off to find a quiet place to tremble and cry.
The wife—a Christian—forgave her husband each time he came home. He said (quite accurately), “I don’t know what comes over me.” The wife loved her husband deeply and saw the many good sides of this flawed man, but she lived in fear that the next rage-riot might bring a harm that would not heal. She stayed with her husband because each time he was sincere each time he begged for forgiveness. She knew her duty as Christian was to extend grace.
The only thing she knew of God’s grace was forgiveness. She had been told all her life that she herself was powerless over sin, and God’s grace came to forgive and restore her relationship with God. She was enough of a Christian to understand that if God had forgiven her, she should extend the same grace to others, especially her husband.
She knew the something of God’s grace, but only enough to put her in danger.
It’s God’s grace that forgives and restores. Sweet forgiveness. Sweet—and filled with torment unless there is something more.
If we look at the wife in this story we want to scream, “Get out! It’s not safe!” Any sane Christian understands the woman has no duty to remain at home and risk injury or death because of some notion of grace, expressed as constant forgiveness.
If we look at the husband in this story we see a man trapped in thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that will mean his ruin and the harm of everyone he loves. A sympathetic view of the husband understands he, too, is a tormented soul in desperate need of help—help beyond merely wiping clean his sinful slate. The most gracious thing his wife could do would be to move out and demand that he get the help he needs to overcome his deep anger and pain.
And what of Jesus, the third member of the marriage? We could no more imagine Jesus leaving this husband in his condition than we could imagine Jesus telling a homeless man, “Go your way, be warm and filled” without giving him food and clothing.
Beyond the characters in this simple story lay a larger question: what about us? Would a grace-filled God leave us in the condition he finds us? Would he spend his days reminding us of our shortcomings, demanding again and again prayers of repentance and sorrow? Would the loving Creator wave his hand and say, “you are forgiven, now—go and sin no more” with lifting even one finger to empower us over our sin?
Sometimes an extreme example is necessary to grab our hearts and free our minds. Does God’s grace mean only forgiveness, or is there something more to his antidote for sin? Would God leave us alone in our rage, our addictions, or our isolation? A cold and comfortless God he would be if it were so.
The problem is not with the Father, nor his grace: it is our understanding of his on-going work in our lives. Jesus will not leave us to ourselves any more than he would leave a beggar in the street. Anyone who suggests so misrepresents the true grace of God.
Who could need more than the grace of God? It’s not that we need something more than God’s grace, it’s that we need all of his grace, even the parts we would prefer to ignore. Take a moment and give it some thought: how might God’s grace be available in greater measure than we have known before? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Beware the questions of a child. Yesterday our fourth-grader asked, ”So, what is grace, exactly?” It only took a moment for me to discover “Grace” doesn’t yield to an exact definition.
When I tried to simplify it to “God’s goodness toward us,” she asked, “Then why don’t we just say ‘goodness?’”
When I tried the legal angle her eyes clouded over. I realized I could kill the word if I kept going, so I gave up the legal track.
“Why do people say that ballerinas are ‘graceful’?” she asked. (Great: I have a ten year-old philologist on my hands.) We talked for a half-hour, which is like graduate-level work for someone her age. We could’ve looked up more than 15 dictionary entries for the simple five-letter word, or another five-to-ten idioms ranging from “fall from grace” to “coup de grace,” and we draw no closer to our goal. Dallas Willard’s not much help. John MacArthur far too limiting. A photo of Grace Kelly is closer to the truth.
This is the wonder of Grace: as big as the sky, as close as your next breath. Grace is insubstantial and ethereal—nothing more than an idea—an idea that continues to change the world. Grace is love made practical. Grace empowers. Grace cares not for the argument, but for the people arguing. Grace has an agenda beyond the truth. Grace knows that the frustrated heart would rather sit on the sidelines and be wrong than be forced to run with the schoolyard bullies who are right. Grace turns its nose up at winning the fight and aims instead to win the person. Grace plays the long game.
The only unsatisfying part of God’s Grace is: it’s too big to comprehend. Would we want it any other way?
Please: consider this an invitation to (virtually) sit down with my daughter and give it your best shot. I’ll read her your answers, and spare you her questions.
- If heaven is the ultimate goal of the gospel, then discipleship is merely an option, like a choice in the cafeteria. But discipleship is not a choice, it's the mission. There is something lacking in each one of us until we become disciples and until we make disciples of others.
- Discipleship is open to anyone willing to worship Jesus. Intellectual curiosity is not the ticket in, nor are good works. And here is the really good news: doubt does not disqualify you from worship.
- At the place of worship we discover that Jesus considers us partners in his mission. He never intended the original twelve disciples to be the only ones: he intended they would reproduce themselves. Amazingly, he intends the same for us as well.
- The good news is better than we think: the Father intends that each of us can become conformed to the image of his son. This is staggering: if we are disciples of Jesus, the Father has set a destination for each of us--Christlikeness!
- Jesus is unique: the only begotten of the Father. Yet that same Father is determined to have a large family. He sends a spirit of adoption into our hearts. We see him as our true Father and we discover our older brother is none other than the Lord of glory.
- When we first heard the gospel--presented as Jesus‘ sacrificial death on our behalf--how many of us imagined the Father had a destination in mind better than Heaven itself?
- If the destination of Christlikeness seems too far-fetched, Jesus comes to our rescue. He himself offers to be our guide and instruct us in the kind of life that flows from being with our Creator moment-by-moment.
- We can simultaneously learn from him and find rest in him. For example, anyone who has tried to learn a new language, skill, or life-habit understands the hard work involved. Yet Jesus tells us that when we are hooked-up in right relationship with him we will experience new life and refreshing at the same time. No university in the world can offer that combination.
- Human models of training and leadership depend on intelligence and worldly wisdom for their effectiveness. In this passage the King himself looks heavenward and gives thanks that the kids at the head of the class have no advantage over the rest of the us. In fact, they are in the dark--God rejoices that human intelligence is inadequate while offering the benefits of relationship to all who will simply come to him. Who wouldn’t take a deal like that?
So in the same year I’ve qualified for the Senior's discount at Denny’s I’ve discovered that four years isn’t near enough to explore that possibilities of life with God. I’m delighted you’re along for the ride.
Some days are diamonds, some days are stones, and some days are calf manure. In the middle of betrayal and spiritual adultery on the part of the children of Israel, God chose to demonstrate his goodness to Moses. Exodus 33:12-23 details the time when Moses wanted to give up on leading God’s people, and give up on life. It takes only a moment to read, but this passage can change your life:
1). As Moses pleads with God for help, God answers simply, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” God’s first answer is to offer his presence. It’s what we need most.
2). Moses responds with wisdom that still applies for us today: “What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” The distinguishing mark of God’s people is his presence. In times of victory or trouble, his presence is our identity.
3). God’s assurances are filled with his personal approval of Moses, and Moses is bold enough to push all the chips into the middle of the table, “Show me your glory.” What a strange request when there are so many problems to solve!
4). Finally, even as God himself says, “yes,” to Moses, God offers a gentle instruction. Moses asked, “show me your glory,” and God says, “I will cause my goodness to pass in front of you.” The lesson is: one of the ways God demonstrates his glory is to show us his goodness. Why not ask him today to open your eyes to his goodness?
(Bonus material: Exodus 34 reveals what Moses saw when God’s goodness passed by. Check it out.)
Could you summarize Jesus’ ministry in one sentence? Be careful--your answer will say more about you than it will about him. The Apostle Peter (my friend Pete) gave a one-sentence summary in Acts 10:38:
"You know . . . how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him."
Peter's response is instructive because it not only gives the essentials of Jesus’ ministry, it provides the essence for us as followers of Jesus. Peter was after more than a mere presentation of gospel message, he was out to make disciples. First impressions, as the saying goes, are lasting ones, and I suspect Peter wanted his hearers' first idea of Christianity to include the notion that they were called to be just like Jesus. The tree will grow from the seed, and Peter sowed the seeds of the divine nature becoming flesh--not only in Jesus, but also in us.
What kind of tree will grow from the seed we plant? Perhaps we should measure our summary against Peter's inspired example. He are five points of comparison:
- Peter’s gospel message includes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working together. (“How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit”) The tree will grow from the seed. Do we present the full picture of God at work in the earth, or limit the image of God to only One Person? Peter’s example is instructive. A “full gospel” requires the presentation of the full Godhead.
- Peter’s gospel message doesn’t point to heaven as a future event. He paints a picture of heaven and earth linked together through the work of the Holy Spirit, who spans the divide and pours the stuff heaven into the words and works of Jesus. In one simple sentence, we get to see how “Let-your-Kingdom come-let-your-will-be-done-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven” works.
- Peter’s gospel message does not limit Jesus’ mission to redemption only. We see Jesus going from place to place, “doing good and healing.” We see God in action, expressing his goodness and power. How many gospel presentations affirm his essential goodness as well as his power to express that goodness. True, redemption is part of the story, but Jesus embodied a much bigger “good news” than we dare to imagine.
- Peter’s gospel message reminds us that we are called to conflict. Those who are in need of healing are “under the power of the devil.” Even the most “Missional Churches” of the western world fail to highlight the nature of spiritual conflict. His intent was not to win an argument, his intent was to win freedom for the captives.
- Peter’s gospel message presents the presence of God as a necessity for ministry. This final point is worth of a separate post (or a book). Jesus--Immanuel--operated in the presence of God. That presence was essential, not optional. If Jesus needed it, how much more do we?
Verses 39-43 indicate that Peter had more to say, but the Holy Spirit had heard enough. He was ready to harvest. He was ready to start a wildfire. Even those who were strangers to the Jewish covenant flooded into the Kingdom of God. The church would grow from pagan soil. The barbarians in Europe were about to see the light. If we were only dealing with church history this verse would be interesting enough. Strangely, God’s not into church history, and certainly he didn’t inspire the book of Acts merely to interest us
How we summarize the gospel is the seed of our expectation. The tree grows from the seed. Peter called the seed “imperishable” because he wanted us to become partakers of the divine nature. Do we partake? Isn't it time to revisit the gospel Peter preached?