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Grace #4: The wet man and the umbrella—Truth and Repentance and Faith

ImageI once heard a story about a man who, while walking along the street one day, saw a beggar. That particular morning, there was an ominous storm brewing and the man took pity on the beggar, since it was clear that the latter would not have any shelter. Stopping in a nearby store, he bought an umbrella, which he gave to the beggar with the assurance that it would keep him dry in the coming storm. “Sure it will,” said the latter, with a dubious expression. “Thanks.” But he was not convinced. The other reassured him and hurried on his way. But later in the day, when he returned by the same street after the storm had come and gone, he was dismayed to find the same beggar drenched to the skin, still clutching the gift, in almost the same position as when he had received it. “It doesn’t work,” he maintained stubbornly. He had, of course, failed to open the umbrella. Indeed, he had not even taken it out of its protective sleeve.
This is not a true story, at least as far as I know, but it illustrates well the point that I would like to make in this post. God’s grace is a free gift, but just as the umbrella needed to be unwrapped and put up in order to accomplish the purpose for which it is given, God’s grace must be unwrapped, as it were, and it must be activated.

How to Receive God’s grace
1. Grace and Truth: Unwrapping the umbrella
John 1:17 says:

For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Grace and truth go together. Or rather, as the verse says, they come together through Jesus Christ. You cannot have grace without truth. And the truth is that since Adam and Eve’s Fall, human beings are born sinful. This means both that we are born under the curse of sin and the sentence of death, and that we are by nature predisposed to sin and thus justly stand condemned not only for Adam’s sin, but also for our own. This truth is known by theologians as “total depravity.” We are born sinners, utterly incapable of saving ourselves by our own effort; incapable even, as Augustine reminds us of willing and choosing to do what is right. That is the condition that God’s grace finds us in. That is the truth. And Jesus didn’t mind telling the truth. I don’t really know why it is that people these days have such trouble with the concept of sin, but I suspect that it has never been a popular message. It just happens to be the truth. When the woman caught in adultery (who I have already introduced in this series) encountered Jesus she encountered both grace “neither do I condemn you” and truth “go and stop sinning.”

2. Faith and Repentance: putting up and holding up the the umbrella
So at the risk of being repetitive, you cannot have grace without truth. Besides, it wouldn’t do you any good. If you don’t actually believe the truth that you are a sinner in need of saving, then God’s grace is really of no use to you. But here’s the deal. You cannot accept God’s truth while still holding onto your own.[1]  To believe God’s truth means to let go of my own, and any behaviour that is based upon it. This is called repentance. In short, repentance is confessing that God is right and I am wrong, and changing my behaviour so that it is consistent with that confession. In the Bible repentance refers to a change of mind resulting in a change of direction. It is in fact, the first word of the gospel “repent and believe.” We usually characterise this as an about-face; a 180 degree turn.[2] But in reality, repentance could also be a 20 degree turn, or a 5 degree turn—a definite, though almost indiscernible change in direction, in response to the Holy Spirit shining his light of truth on a previously dark area. In other words, while our initial appropriation of God’s grace and turning from sin may be dramatic, our subsequent and ongoing repentance will, at least in theory, be less so, though no less important.
If “repent” is the first word of the gospel “faith” (or “believe”) is the second. In order to appropriate God’s grace then, it is necessary that I believe God’s truth about my pre-grace condition. I must let go of whatever else I may have believed about myself and trust entirely in God’s gracious provision in the cross of Christ. When my behaviour matches my belief, I can be said to have repented. However, in order to  remain under God’s grace it is also necessary for me to believe God’s truth about my position in Christ—my under-grace condition, if you will. I am no longer a slave, but a son and an heir. I carry my Father’s royal authority. Actually grasping this truth, allowing it to penetrate our souls, and affect our behaviour, takes practice. And this is why both repentance and faith need to be ongoing. For we will often need to resist and oppose wrong thinking about ourselves, replacing it with God’s truth (we are forgiven, we are new creations in Christ, we are sons not slaves, God’s other children are our brothers and sisters and ought to be treated as such, etc.) in faith. And this will usually necessitate a correction in behaviour, hence ongoing repentance.
In summary, grace without truth is not sincere. Grace without repentance is not effective. Grace without faith is not lasting.

How long will we sit in the rain getting wet, holding the gracious gift that could keep us dry, yet stubbornly insisting that it is legalistic to put it up?

[1] This by the way is why the modern virtue of ‘tolerance’ can only ever be a veneer. It is simply insincere to say “well that’s alright for you” if you do not believe the veracity of the other’s claims. And when we declare that the behaviour, whatever it might be, of another ‘ok,’ we must also implicitly affirm that the truth claim on which that behaviour is based is correct. More on that in another post (maybe).
[2] By the way, from time to time I’ve heard preachers declare, with commendable zeal, that repentance means a “complete 360 degree turn.” It does not. I hate to be pedantic, but that is the only thing that it cannot mean. If you turn 360 degrees, you may be dizzy, but you will still be going the same direction. Trust me. You mean 180.


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Grace #1: The Kindness and Severity of God’s Amazing Grace

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. Romans 11:22

God’s Grace is Simple

Some people think of God only as wrathful and judgmental; others as infinitely loving and gracious. Indeed, these are the stereotypical extremes between which the pendulum of Church culture and practice swings, as from age to age and culture to culture, the Church does its best to preach and to embody the good news of God’s restorative love. Both extremes, while they have an element of truth, if taken by themselves are of course inadequate views of God—not perhaps heretical untruths, but lamentable and limiting sub-truths nevertheless. The whole truth is that God is Holy and Loving, Just and Forgiving.

Sometimes, because of the limitations of our understanding, we characterise God’s attributes as if they are in tension with each other. We might say for example, God is love, but since he is also a God of justice, he cannot co-exist with sin. And yet, as theologians remind us, God is simple—that is to say he is not composed of parts. What God is, he is entirely. In other words, though we may at times be, God is not confused. The various aspects of his nature are not in tension. That is (at least partly) why, I believe, the verse above invites us to consider both God’s kindness and his severity. We cannot properly understand one without the other. God’s grace then, is not merely an operation of his kindness, but rather it is an operation of God himself. It must flow therefore from his kindness and his severity, from love and from holiness, from compassion and justice.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, or the big Marshmallow in the sky?

Over the last couple of decades there has been a (sorely needed) revival of interest in and emphasis on God’s grace throughout much of the Church. In part, I believe this has resulted from an increasing realization of just how broken the world is, and how the church has all too often prioritized conformity to a norm over genuine empathy and compassion. We badly needed a grace revival. Nevertheless, it is all too easy for a badly needed theological corrective to become and over-correction. To return to the analogy of the pendulum, I wonder if we are not beginning to swing ‘past the middle’ on this issue. If so, it is certainly not in our teaching of the historic truth of sola gratia (grace alone), but rather in our narrow definition of what God’s grace entails.

I can already hear the objection. “Surely its not possible to overemphasise God’s grace.” True enough. And yet the Scripture with which I began this post invites us to consider both the kindness, and the severity of God. If our proclamation of the gospel emphasises one of these elements at the expense of the other, it may well function as a prophetic message in a particular cultural situation where imbalance already exists, even though it is not the ‘whole truth.’ Jonathan Edwards’ now infamous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is a great example of this. Edwards preached God’s wrath to a church that was complacent, proud, and dangerously apathetic, in order to provoke a response of repentance. We may well judge Edwards’ sermon (or its title—in my experience, most people who criticise it have never read it) from the perspective of a different cultural situation, as being lopsided, mean-spirited and judgmental. Edwards, it seems, considers only the severity of God, rather than also his kindness. His message is incomplete, but, I would argue, necessarily so. If an imbalance is to become balanced, it requires a counter balance.

In just the same way, however, the ‘grace message’ of today is in danger of considering the kindness of God only, at the expense of his severity. And while this message may perhaps function (or rather, may perhaps have functioned) as a necessary counter-balance in churches and cultures that are overly legalistic, it must be said that the contemporary Church, by and large, is currently somewhere near the opposite extreme. Furthermore, our western culture, into which this Church is called to be a prophetic voice; a culture whose central virtue is tolerance; could not be much further from the legalistic extreme that would legitimate a cheap-grace counterbalance. We need to be aware that a counter balance, if incorrectly placed may cause us to overbalance.

Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more

My point is that if we define God’s grace as equivalent only to his kindness, rather than flowing from his character, then we limit the operation of grace, which, in its fullest manifestation, both forgives and heals the sinner. The two sides of God’s grace are perhaps most clearly and simply seen in the response of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” To respond to sinners with the second part of this saying only—go and sin no more—is clearly legalism, but to omit the second part is only license. True Grace responds with both parts.

It is vitally important that we teach the whole truth about God’s character and hence about his grace. This does not require ‘toning down’ the preaching about grace that has become so popular, but rather beefing it up. Surely if the truth sets us free, then the whole truth will set us completely free. For this reason, I have decided to do a ‘mini-series’ of blog posts on grace over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.