Saturday, January 31, 2009

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ

While I'm musing on the topic of grace, let me just comment on a trend I've noticed which worries me. This trend is to talk about grace more than we talk about Jesus.

The danger here is that we start to act as if grace were a general principle in God's nature. God works by grace, which means he doesn't deal with us as we deserve. He doesn't punish us when we sin, he gives us good things we don't deserve. Hurrah. Problem is, this slightly formless, shapeless grace is not going to claim me and constrain me in the way God's real grace will. It is too easy to take for granted. It easily becomes "God will forgive me; that's his job".

On top of that, grace - understood as a general principle of God's operation - makes the cross inexplicable and unnecessary. It makes Jesus unnecessary. If God is always gracious, why the need for Christ to come and die? We even now seem to have hymns of praise addressed to "grace" rather than to Christ.

Let's be clear: when Christians say grace, what they mean is Christ. When they say "God is gracious", they mean "God has acted in Christ". When they say "I am saved by grace", they mean "God in Christ has reconciled me to himself". What the word grace actually adds is that it is all Christ, and nothing else.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Church and state, USA style

Two posts in a day - not done that in a while. (Not done two posts in a week in a while either). But I felt your attention should be drawn to the home of the Pyromaniacs, tackling the Church/State issue in a way that I find agreeable. Enjoy.

Disturbing grace

Perhaps another and more troubling way in which God's grace is not comfortable is that it will not allow me to settle for being as good as I am. We sometimes think that because God is gracious - because he does not ultimately treat me as my sins deserve - I can just be content with who I am. In actual fact, I think that God's grace creates radical discontent with who I am. Let's explore.

Imagine that my relationship with God were governed by law - whether that is morality or religion or whatever. Any system that works by laying down a standard and then calling me to keep it. We could illustrate that system as being like a ladder: each individual command or ritual or good deed is a rung on the ladder, and at the top is righteousness and peace with God. So, there I am climbing.

And I sin. I fail in some way. What do I do? Well, I could despair. Yes, certainly I could do that. But I might do something else instead. I might say "well, I guess I'm not there yet. But at least I'm trying, and I'll do better next time". Now, that might call forth a mighty effort from me to do better - I might really try to scramble on to the next rung of the ladder. But I haven't been challenged to my core. I am essentially content with who I am. Not having completed the project of righteousness is okay; I have the rest of my life to do better. The system of law allows me to think that I can improve myself, and therefore allows me to think that perhaps this failure is just a product of the stage of self-improvement that I am currently at. I will grow out of it.

Grace challenges me much more radically when I sin. Because grace doesn't give me a ladder to climb. Rather, it tells me that what I have just done is impossible.

It is impossible for you to sin if you are a Christian. You died to sin - how can you live in it any longer? You have been raised with Christ - how can you wallow in the grave of sin? You have been redeemed - how can you still be a slave? You are seated with Christ in the heavenly places - how can you be dirtying yourself with the earth? Not possible.

And yet, here I am. I sinned. And I cannot say "well, I will get better. This is just my adolescence as a Christian. In future, this won't happen, because from now on it is onward and upward". I am already up as high as can be: perfected in Christ. Therefore, that sin cannot be me - not the me as God sees me, not the me as I am called to see myself in faith. Am I so radically divided against myself? Can I, in that case, hope to stand?

How God's grace disturbs me, even as it comforts me!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Assaulted by grace

Reading through Barth's commentary on Romans has got me thinking about grace. Grace - God's absolutely free acceptance and forgiveness of the sinner - is a comforting reality in the life of the Christian. If I am not justified by grace, I know for sure I will not be justified at all. If I am not in the right because God in Christ puts me in the right, then I am certainly in the wrong. The fact that God has, in Christ, actually been gracious to me is therefore my only comfort in life and death.

But have I allowed grace to become something not only comforting but comfortable?

In actual fact, God's grace is an assault on me and everything I want to be. God, in Christ, acts entirely unilaterally towards me. He simply declares me to be righteous, counts me righteous, makes me righteous - and all independently of me. Without consulting me, God sets aside the person I am - sinful, compromised, religious, moral, making an effort, failing - and produces a new me. And he does it, not provisionally and pending my approval, but with absolute finality, because the setting aside of the old me is accomplished through my death with Christ, and the production of the new me is accomplished through my resurrection with Christ - and Christ being raised is no longer subject to death. And so God's grace successfully assaults me, kills me, and raises a new me, a different me, united to Christ.

Think about the prodigal son. He has decided to live for himself, to discover himself, to assert himself, to do it his way. He fails, and sets off for home. His new plan is to beg for mercy from his father, or more particulalry, to suggest a plan by which his misdeeds and failure can be atoned for. He wants the father to take his sin seriously, to take his self-expression seriously - even though he recognises that this will invalidate his claim to sonship.

The father declines to deal with him thus.

He will not be dealt with as the person who has expressed his own identity in rebellion. That rebellious son will not be taken seriously as the person he is. The father will not even listen to his plan for reconciliation; rather, he unilaterally declares the breach healed. Sonship restored. Death dead, and life restored. In a real sense, the grace of the father sets aside those wasted years - and the person who wasted them - to make room for a new person.

Wonderful, comforting, necessary. But not comfortable. Grace assails me, defeats me, slays me. And raises me new.

Monday, January 05, 2009

...And we're back

But only for a brief thought.

This last month I have neglected to do something very important. No, not blogging. I neglect to do that on a semi-regular basis, and it hardly qualifies as very important.

I've neglected to enjoy the gospel. Specifically, I've neglected to put any time into contemplating how wonderful Christ is.

So, new year's resolution: this year I will deliberately set aside time each day to focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, with the aim of stirring up in myself a love for him that will drive out sinful desire, and will drive me out into the world to be useful for him.