A lesson on grace that has taken me decades to learn
After taking a break to enjoy family vacations and camping trips, I am excited to blog again today. I decided to write about an issue so big that it's difficult to express in any concise way. To put it in a nutshell, I am rediscovering the essence and message of the Christian life, and it is changing my outlook on everything. It's a long story, but here's the overview: over the last three decades, I have grasped God's grace, gotten separated from it, and now God is bringing me back to it with tremendous force.
In the late 1980s, Susan and I were going to church at Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach, CA. Our pastor, Zac Nazarian, became convinced that the church's grasp on grace was dangerously insufficient, so he set out to preach through Romans very slowly and with great deliberation. My memory is fuzzy about the details, but it seems that after a couple of years in Romans, we were still only in chapter five or six of Paul's letter. Pastor Zac talked about grace. He was relentless about it. He pounded it into our heads. He had us do things like go home and look in the mirror and say, "I am a beautiful child of God."
I felt like during that season, I became very strongly grounded in grace. I am deeply grateful to Zac for giving me that gift. Unfortunately, I was not able to maintain my hold on grace. After a while, I decided I wanted "deeper teachings" in the Christian faith. This was one of the reasons I went to seminary. I dove headlong into studies of Christian worldview, church history, Western thought, and systematic theology. During my doctoral studies, I became captivated by studies and practices in spiritual formation. Richard Foster's landmark book Celebration of Discipline helped usher me into this world. I learned a lot, and I wouldn't trade away that knowledge, but here's the problem: God's grace became separated from growing as a Christian. Without knowing it, I had slowly bought into a life-draining half truth: the gospel of grace through Jesus is vital for justification, but it can recede into the background when I set out to grow as a Christian.
Now, almost three decades after sitting under Pastor Zac's teaching on grace, I am rediscovering the message of grace through Jesus. It is changing my experience of and perspective on the Christian life. With the help of Tim Keller's book Center Church and other resources, I am now convinced that the impetus for growth as a Christian isn't to move beyond the gospel to other things. It is to receive more deeply the gospel and live out of that place of radical reception. Someone said, "The best saints are the most receptive ones." I believe that to be true.
(What is the gospel of grace through Jesus? It is some form of this message: I am destructive and helplessly lost without God. But while I was still a sinner, an enemy of God, Jesus died for me. I am saved by God's sheer grace, and everything I do now flows out of a clear sense of being a child of God by merciful adoption.)
I am convinced that what keeps people from growing in Christ is not insufficient knowledge or even a thin list of spiritual disciplines. It is failing to make the gospel of Jesus the central message of our hearts and minds (by the way, Christian disciplines should serve to reinforce that truth). When we lose touch with the gospel of sheer grace, we wander in one of two directions. First, we lapse into some form of earning our way with God. There are a lot of well meaning people in and out of church who are trying to do the right things so they can earn God's favor. Or second, we degenerate into ungrateful patterns of doing whatever we want because we are taking Jesus for granted. If you are as accomplished a sinner as I am, you are such an expert that you can both lapse into earning your way and degenerate into debauchery in the same day.
Ongoing confession is important. I am relearning that being in touch with the darkness of my own sin is helpful because it enables me to see the brightness of God's love for me. Confession is good, provided it results not in self flagellation but in grateful worship of God (cf. the sinful woman who poured perfume on Jesus' feet).
The outcome of acknowledging my own sin and absorbing God's undeserved love is a radical sense of freedom. We are completely set free! And yet it seems to me that such radical freedom is incredibly difficult for us to maintain. We can't generate freedom; we can only receive it. And that's why it's so slippery, especially for American believers.
There are three words that sum up the Christian life as it is lived within the light of God's grace. I'll blog about those next time.