Stop Faking Grace

T. S . Eliot once wrote, ‘humankind/Cannot bear very much reality.’  Not that people hate or despise reality, or that people constantly pursue reality, but that, in the end, too much reality, about ourselves, the world, God, is all just a bit too much.

It is especially the Ultimate that is a problem for people:  God.  Prayer.  Mercy.  Judgement.  Christ.

Hence much of church life, in typical human fashion, tends towards a moralism cloaked in religious language, with a ready arsenal of verses and well worn phrases designed to justify ourselves at the expense of others.

The Ultimate Reality though, God, is what almost every person who has ever lived is hiding from.  We are in a precarious state of existence living daily between the ever present deservedness of judgment and the ever present gift of grace.  Or to put it another way, we live suspended on the possibility of utter annihilation and the infinitude of divine care.

That’s why Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Psalm 130: ‘Whoever, therefore, does not consider the judgment of God, does not fear; and whoever does not fear, does not cry out, and whoever does not cry out, finds no grace.’

Part of our ability to avoid the Ultimate is by pretending we no longer need to cry out, so we pretend therefore, we fear when we don’t which means we also fake how we have even considered the judgement of God.  We simply can’t bear too much reality, so we fake it, and this of course means, we fake grace.  A gross mistake.  Why don’t we just paint a great big clown smile on God’s face?

Scripture must be our guide here.  Not pithy devotional aids, but Scripture, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Letters and everything in between.  It is the Bible that offers us a way out of our religious banality; it offers us a much more dramatic and interesting narrative, whereby prayer, worship and the presence of God leads us ever onwards into an awareness of our sins and the gift of repentance.

Brian Brock writes, ‘Without God’s constant forgiveness, we do not see our own sin; and without the exposure of our sins and our repenting of them, we remain in the deadening byways down which other gods have enticed us.’

So without grace we become Christianised Pharisees: blind to the mercies of God, paraders of our own righteousness and thus trapped in a pathetic world of our own making, pathetic yes; mediocre certainly.  Grey, flat, one dimensional, airless, lifeless, godless.

Yet as Jesus repeatedly taught, it is the repentant sinner that goes away justified:  ‘God have mercy on me a sinner!’   The true mark of Christian spiritual vitality is not the absence of struggle, a settled smugness about our superiority, but the exact opposite:  the present reality and immediacy of prayer where we confess that if it were not for the mercies of God we would be dust and ashes.

A poem by William Countryman says just as much with much fewer words:

“Your choice of friends is broad

And (may we say?) unpredictable.

What did you see in Jacob?

Esau was bluff, hearty,

a man’s man – overconfident,

to be sure – even a minute

or two of seniority can grant

a certain status.  Jacob’s

only accomplishments were to cheat

his brother (with Esau’s rash

cooperation yes) and deceive

his father.  Piety suggests

you should have judged the scamp

and left him to stew in his guilt

till he repented.  Instead,

you showed him by night the ladder

to your throne.”

 

I love God’s grace!

Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind by P.T. Forsyth

forsyth-preaching-redeemedPOSITIVE PREACHING AND THE MODERN MIND A Vintage Book for Modern Preachers

“Without doubt Dr Peter Forsyth’s book is one for contemporary preachers. The writer himself was a grand preacher of the great eternities, but he spoke the language of his day and brought the realities of the gospel to his listeners and readers with power.

In Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind he has given us a valuable, crafted treasure to stimulate us to true preaching. He was the man who said of true proclamation, ‘Revelation is the self-bestowal of the living God … God in the act of imparting Himself,’ and added, ‘Preaching is the Gospel prolonging and declaring itself’

His primary emphasis was upon the nature of God as holy love, and he saw such love displayed in the Cross. At heart he burned with passion for the Atonement. More correctly, it was the Atonement which evoked such passion within him. His many books throb with this strong response to God’s grace.

He says of himself, ‘It pleased God by the revelation of His holiness and grace which the great theologians taught me to find in the Bible, to bring home to me my sin in a way which submerged all school questions in weight, urgency and poignancy. I was turned from a Christian to a believer, from a lover of love to an object of grace.’ It is this sense and understanding of grace which pervades Forsyth’s writings.

The book is not written only for preachers, but for all who seek to know fire in their bones from the reality of the Gospel. That is why all should read the man and his theology.”

New Creation Publications Inc.

Grace is…

IMG_6194I have just discovered this gem of a series called ‘On the Cost and Grace of Parish Ministry’ by Jason Goroncy.  What follows is a snippet from the ninth part of the series on the subject of Sabbath.

Sabbath is a setting free, and this happens “through Jesus Christ who in his incarnation entered into the nothingness and dread of human depravity in order to bring creation into the saving rest of God.  The Bible’s word for this action is ‘grace’.

Grace is never a soft thing.

Grace is a man groaning on a cross, dying on a bitter tree, not only for his friends but also for those who would wish him and his Father dead.

Grace is God redeeming in Holy love.

Grace is God in his eucatastrophic action in the face of Nature’s catastrophe.

Grace is God taking seriously the scandalous nature of sin’s offence, and himself going down into the experience of nothingness and dread, into hell, into death, into the furnace of His own wrath, into the radical depths of its wound, in order to save.

There can be no higher gift.

This grace alone, the grace of the initiating Father, lived in the obedient Son, and made alive through the Spirit, carries humanity home and brings creation into the Sabbath rest of God.  Only then can Paul sing, ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom 8:38-39).

Now the ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ calls us into his rest in order that we might join him in doing the things that He is doing ‘on the Sabbath’ every day of the week.  There can be no place here for that Sabbatarianism that consecrates one day out of all the others, In Christ, every day is about Sabbath rest, renewal and healing, that our entire ministry may be performed under the grace-aegis of God.  To keep the Sabbath is never about conformity to rules and regulations (Col 2:22), but is about conformity to Christ who is Lord of the Sabbath.”

And this is truly a grace.  God is good.

We don’t do grace too well

selfrighteous-art

We are in a bind are we not?  I mean, a church is a community of mixed people, at every conceivable stage of life and experience, but together never-the-les.  The bind though, is that we are in this community as individuals gathered to love and serve the Lord and each other – and by-and-large, we want to do that, yet not without the occasional burp of dysfunction.

It would be fair I think, to take the hit on the proverbial chin, that the church is where one finds more hypocrites than anywhere else on the planet.  I know I am a hypocrite and I’m the minister!  But that is also the very reason why I am a Christian.  I am a sinner, I do sinful things, I think sinful things, I desire sinful things.  But thanks be to God there is a cure for sin, and that is salvation, a Christ-won salvation!

Salvation of sinners, hypocrites, liars, murderers, God-deniers, and the like, is God’s direct and effective self-revelation….in Christ….always and only in Christ……that opens the eyes of sinners, that they see him as a loving Father who has invited them into the joy and fellowship of His own self, the God-head of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And this should, I say should, set us free.

Most of the time, for many people, we respond to grace as we respond to a generous gift from a friend, “Oh you shouldn’t have.”  We take the gift and immediately the plotting starts on how we are to pay the person back for their gift.  That’s because we don’t do grace too well at all.  And this then leads to a fruit, a product, a worldview, a consequence of thinking about grace wrongly:  we become workers, doers, activists, organised, efficient.  In theological language we become nomians, law makers and law keepers and often law-seekers, the more laws the more po-faced we become, and the more po-faced the more righteous and religious -right?  It’s as if the whole book of Galatians was written for us, and we simply deflect verses such as 5:1 as being for others, them…out there….and certainly not us!!

When there is a law, what need of grace?  Grace language becomes a part of our religious discourse for sure, but its power, its truth, its vitality is simply not grasped.  Oh how we must nod sagely as we read in Ephesians 2 “…by grace you have been saved…” but inwardly shudder, maybe even mumbling something about the book of James balancing out all this nonsense about grace language with a works language.  After all, isn’t activism, busyness, practical-ness a contemporary virtue of our present day?  Now a works language we get, “Tell me what to do?”  It’s all a bit mixed up.  We don’t know what to do with Jesus’ own words about works:  “The work of God is this: believe the One He has sent…”  (John 6:29).

When we truly do get this kind of work, believing the God-man Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, the Word of God with skin on, the eternally begotten, the One who holds the universe in the palm of His hands and sustains it with the word of His power, this Jesus, is the One who offers salvation by grace to wayward sinners.  How on earth can that salvation offered by such a God ever be skewed to the degree that we think we’ve got to add to it or earn more favour (like what? What could we possibly add to that?).  Jesus died for you.  Your sins curse has been trumped and trashed by God’s salvation cure!  “Oh you shouldn’t have!  For me….really…..Oh I must pay you back….”

I’d like to end with a personal account from the 17th century of what I’m trying to say.  It’s about 1653 and a man named Humphrey Mills, who believed Christ – but under law, until one day he heard the sweet gospel preaching of the great Puritan Richard Sibbes.  Humphrey writes,

“I was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing; looking for Heaven that way.  And then I was so precise with outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above their ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies.  But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint….Dr Sibbes, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit.  His sweet soul melting gospel sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had much of God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world….and my heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward.”

That’s what salvation does because salvation is from Jesus, the Saviour of the world.

Listen to your life

fb-woods-larger

“If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this:  Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery it is.  In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Frederick Buechner in Now and Then

God has raised us up and seated us with Christ so that……so that…..he might show us the astounding, the glorious, the immeasurable, the stunning riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.   Ephesians 2:6

Halloween has nothing on Reformation Day

Reformation Day

“The Reformation set free the question and nature of the church from the question of who belongs to it.  This was a decisive stage.  Roman Catholicism and the pre-Reformation church had thought that the question of the nature of the church would be answered by a definition of its extent.  The Reformation, and particularly the Lutheran concept, first says what the church is and leaves the question of its boundaries open.

It’s first concern is not the unveiling of the divine mystery of who belongs to the church, and who does not, the question of election and rejection, it is not aimed first and foremost at judging and distinguishing people; the most important thing is that the manifest saving act of God, the present Christ, his Word and sacrament, should be seen and adored.  There are no theoretical statements about the saved and the lost, there is no verdict “This person belongs to the church, this person does not,” but simply the joyful cry of those who have been granted a share in a great, astonishing gift, “Here is the gospel!”  “Here are the pure sacraments!”  “Here is the church!”  “Come here!” Continue reading “Halloween has nothing on Reformation Day”

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