Recently, I shared a message at my church about the way in which we tune out the Gospel message with destructive consequences. (You can listen to the podcast here or watch the video here). This post is the second in a series of five, unpacking some concepts I didn’t have time to explore in a 35-minute sermon.
The last four times I’ve spoken on Sunday mornings at my church, I’ve convened a focus group to test out sermon and get feedback from a cross-section of people who represent my future audience.
When I did my focus group this time, one participant asked a question about grace. The question somewhat implied that I was headed for “the edge”, implying that my message about the gospel and grace might be abused by some in the audience. I think my reply was something to the effect of “well, if someone doesn’t think its too scandalous, then you haven’t really described grace.” (the conversation wasn’t adversary but it did clarify the nature of a common conversation in the American church).
In my message about how we functionally try to earn God’s love and acceptance (both as people who follow Jesus and people who believe in God in a more general sense), I wanted to push people from the idea that God’s love is earned to the idea that grace is freely given. Ephesians 2:8-9 talk about grace being a free gift that we did nothing to deserve and of which we have nothing to boast about.
In a culture defined by a “do-it-yourself” approach to everything (including spirituality), in a day where we are constantly challenged to make our own way through hard work and creativity, the idea that God gives men and women the gift of grace is a ridiculous concept. True biblical grace is too scandalous for our refined American values. And yet, we try to redefine Jesus by American-ism constantly.
Accepting God’s grace is not only essential for our salvation and redemption as His creations. Accepting grace is essential for our formation of an identity in Jesus Christ that reshapes our understanding of who we are. Accepting the Gospel is not merely a one-time cognitive act, but rather a lifelong re-imagining of who I am in light of what God says is true about me.
In my message, I took extra time to communicate the reality that we are not who we think we are. According to the Gospel, we are not broken-down, permanent screwups, ready to be written off by God and others. Tim Keller has written in multiple places that “the gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” This love and acceptance – that goes beyond our greatest hopes – may be the hardest thing we’ve ever attempted to embrace.
In his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brenna Manning writes, “Getting honest with ourselves does not make us unacceptable to God. It does not distance us from God, but draws us to Him – as nothing else can – and opens us anew to the flow of grace…to be alive is to broken, to be broken is to stand in need of grace.”
If the good news that you are loved and accepted because of Jesus’ death and resurrection is too scandalous for you, then my question is this: how is that “buck-up-try-harder-give-it-another-shot-work-more-so-you-can-be-good-enough-for-God-to-love-you” approach working for you?
The scandal of grace is that we could do nothing to bring wholeness amidst our brokenness. What we do now is trust in God’s goodness and grace to transform us to be like Jesus. Now that doesn’t mean there won’t be some effort along the way. In Ephesians 4, Paul talks about the hard work of putting off our old self and putting on our new self. For most of us, it will be incredibly difficult to begin to re-learn how to live with grace and by grace. But as Dallas Willard says, “Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning”.
If grace is too scandalous for you, I’d encourage you to spend some time reading and talking with other people about this concept. I’ve discovered some great books which have shaped me on this subject like Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin Gospel, Henri Nouwen’s The Life of the Beloved, Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God, Phillip Yancey’s What So Amazing About Grace?, and Mike Foster’s Gracenomics.
To truly, deeply, and completely comprehend this message about grace, we must shift from trying to simply understand the concept mentally. We must push the love and acceptance we’ve found in Jesus deep into the soil of our souls everyday. The roots of who we are in Jesus Christ because of this grace must go down deep to endure the messages we will hear in our culture and far too many of our churches. If we remind ourselves of this new identity, this scandalous grace every single day, a glorious tree will emerge from these roots that will provide shade for others and strength for us in future times crisis and struggle.