Entries in Grace (49)
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.
Last week I heard myself saying about a certain situation, “I think the grace is running out on this thing.” Did I hear what I was saying?
“This thing” had been going on for more than a year. The details are not important: I can tell you a year is a long time. But the fact was I was simply tired. I had run out of patience. And without pausing to think about it, I had slapped a religious label on my feelings—the very kind of religious label that allowed me to apply “God’s will” to my lack of patience.
How quick we are to suppose God sees things the same way we do! And perhaps the danger is greatest among those who’ve walked with God long enough to learn a few of his ways.
God’s grace has taught me plenty: I’ve walked with God enough years to have learned the “correct responses” to many situations, and I’ve ordered my life around the priorities of the Kingdom enough to tilt in the direction of righteousness, peace, and joy. I’ve tapped into wellsprings of life flowing from the Spirit and his inspired words.
An image: walking with God is a bit like digging a well. We go deep and discover the sweet wellspring of the waters of grace. The surprise in this metaphor is that our hearts are the well. We dig down below our self-will and discover the sweet source of life available to every student of Jesus. We’ve opened up a well of grace. But even a good well needs maintaining. It can go dry or go bad.
But does grace really ever run out? Actually, yes: if we’re talking about the well of grace in our own hearts. The well of grace yields pure water, but in some seasons we must dig a deeper. More accurately, God’s grace hasn’t run out at all; we must tend the well. “Watch over your heart with all diligence,” say the Proverbs, “For from it flow the springs of life.”
No one who digs a well takes the water for granted—in the first year. Still, through countless trips to draw the water we need, we might take the flow for granted. We forget what first opened the spring. Jesus himself cautioned a faithful and persevering church to remember their beginnings, and to do the deeds they had first done (Revelation 2:2-5). He called them to repent, which means to rethink their way of life. Why would a believer need to rethink the way of life?
I can tell you personally: the goodness of God flows so surely we begin to think of his grace as our own possession rather than his daily gift, and when we begin to mistake his supply as our own strength, we find ourselves making foolish statements about grace coming to an end. We might be tempted to think that because we drank deeply of his grace we are somehow the suppliers of his mercy. In the everyday challenges of life we might just presume the well will flow forever, even while we fill it with the debris of our bitterness, envy, or self. Worse still: we might poison the well and yet draw the waters.
The Spirit supplies water without limit. Still, the very practices that first brought us to the well of grace must continue if it would remain pure. Our thirst, our humility, and our repentance are the maintenance of our hearts. From his hand grace abounds forever, yet our hands must tend the well.
Set aside the question of Heaven or Hell when we reach the afterlife: what about Heaven or Hell while we live? It’s only by God’s grace that we reach Heaven, but the good news is better than we know: by God’s grace Heaven can reach us. The scripture teaches we are saved by grace. Grace begins the work of salvation in here-and-now and completes whatever is left undone in the there-and-then. Both flow from the indispensable grace of God. The world needs grace. We need grace. I need grace. Not for my last breath but for every breath.
The fabric of everyday life is alive with the grace of God. Grace forgives, but it also guides. Consider these amazing words from Titus 2:11-12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age . . .” In these words we can hear the full symphony of God’s grace in three movements:
Grace for Salvation: This is the gospel we know. God’s grace reaches everyone, because no one can reach God by his or her own efforts. The melody of God’s grace sings in every language, for all peoples, at all times. God loves the world. He always has and always will. By his grace we are saved because in Jesus God paid every debt: past, present, and future. But grace goes beyond the song we first learned.
Grace to Deny Ungodliness: By grace we are not defenseless against sin’s call. The same grace that saves can also teach, instructing us how to say “no” to worldly desires. True, there will be times when we stumble and fall into sin, but we are more than sinners in need of grace, we are saints lifted out of sin’s power. If we wait until we’ve sinned to call upon the grace of God, we’ve squandered the greater part of grace. Grace restores, but it also leads us on.
Grace to Live Godly: Not only does God’s grace instruct us to deny ungodly ways: it teaches us the how-to of life: how to life sensible, upright, and godly lives in this present age. God’s grace is about more than repair; it is also about preparation. The scripture describes the Christian life as a journey from glory to glory. We are called to be conformed to the image of God's Son. We need grace not because our sin is so great but also because our destiny is so grand. We are called children of God—and that is what we are!
How will the watching world see a demonstration of the grace of God? This is how the Kingdom of God comes to earth: through the lives of grace-filled believers. The Kingdom glides in on wings of grace. The Kingdom brings righteousness, peace, and joy—and best of all the gracious Holy Spirit leads us to experience (and share) these three in everyday life. The Kingdom is never attained; it is received. How will we receive the grace of the Kingdom today?
Time and again the apostle Paul urged his friends to lift their vision higher and closer. There's grace for salvation; there's also grace for transformation. Grace helps us discover the source of all growth in Jesus, and the foundations of life with Christ. God’s grace is the wellspring of spiritual formation, but too often we have shortened “Grace” to mean only forgiveness. Grace can bring more than forgiveness; it can bring change. Disciples use grace as the fuel for transformation.
We need a greater grace. Grace reminds us again of the wealth of Heaven available to every student of Jesus.
Most Christians see grace as a repeatable, sin-cleansing bargain. They find themselves repeating the sin-forgiveness-sin cycle over and over again because they’ve missed God’s greater grace. Ray Hollenbach’s new book is about discovering the practical empowerment of grace for discipleship: grace that not only saves, but transforms.
Grab a copy for yourself, or to impact your church community: if you’ve longed to instill a culture of discipleship in your church, the Deeper Grace book is one vital step in that direction. Or talk to Ray about hosting a Deeper Grace seminar at your church.
"Ray Hollenbach has been a significant voice in my spiritual life. Over the years his books, messages, and friendship have been a consistent and challenging inspiration for me as a disciple of Jesus." ~ John Mark McMillan, songwriter, singer, and church leader.
(Click the pic to hear a brief word from JM)
"Ray Hollenbach knows how to be a disciple and how to make disciples. More important, he can energize your church to do the same.” ~ Happy Leman, The Vineyard Church, Urbana, IL
Grace grows in community—but not just any community.
This is a difficult message for many people these days because by community I mean the church. The same Father-God who adopted us into his family intends that we should live together as family. This is a difficult message because in modern times the church of Jesus is largely out of joint. We have created a Christendom where we can choose churches the way most people choose restaurants: according to our individual tastes. By most estimates there are more than 25,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Not individual churches, denominations. How can we grow in grace when we a free to wander from one family to another?
It’s an old story. Ask nearly any Christian: you’ll hear stories of church drama, church fights, and church splits. But it doesn't have to be like this. Listen carefully the Apostle Peter:
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:8-11)
It’s easy to miss the word grace in this passage, but you’ll find it right in the middle, which is where grace always belongs. Our words and actions are the practical expressions of God’s grace. God wants to show his grace through the love, hospitality, encouragement, and service in the community of faith. We extend grace to others precisely because we’ve received grace from God. Among our families at home—and among the family of God—we are called to be caretakers of grace. Too often we have become merely consumers of grace, and it has led to a church for every taste and preference the consumers can imagine.
One church in my hometown has an interesting way to determine “membership” in the congregation. “If you’ve hung out with us long enough to have your feelings hurt by someone in the church,” says the pastor, “and then decided to forgive and stay here anyway, welcome to the family!” This pastor isn’t trying to excuse bad behavior or ignore the flaws of his church, he’s trying to playfully indicate that living within a faith community is the perfect opportunity to extend grace to others. Grace grows among family (or at least it should).
Not only does grace grow in the community we call church, it grows in the most unlikely corners of the church: among our shortcomings, our hypocrisies, and failings. If everyone in the church had his or her act together, what need would there be to extend grace? Look closely at the passage above: the Apostle Peter calls us to use our gifts in service toward one another. We steward the grace we have received by the way we speak and act toward others in the church.
Have you thought about grace as a stewardship? If not, here’s a wonderful exercise: trying reading the parable of the talents (it’s in Matthew 25 and also Luke 19) as a teaching about grace. The Master leaves something of great worth with his servants (substitute grace for gold), and when he returns, he looks to see whether we have used his gift wisely.
Best of all of all is our reward. In Matthew’s version of the parable, the Master not only praises the good stewards, he extends an invitation: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” says the Master. “Come and share your master’s happiness!” When we distribute the grace of God we will receive his praise, and something more: an invitation to enter into his joy. Through grace, joy increases for everyone.