Appalling grace, how bleak the sound, that teased a wretch like me.
I still am lost, though almost found, am bound and still not free.
I was moved to pen these lines after reading Mark Galli’s recent article, “The Scandal of the Public Evangelical: What we really have to have to offer the world,” published July 2, 2009, in Christianity Today online. (Galli is the Senior Managing Editor for Christianity Today.)
Galli begins his article by noting that, “It’s been a tough couple of months for evangelical public figures,” pointing to the discovery of nude photos of Carrie Prejean, former Miss California, the adulterous affair of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, and the impending divorce of reality TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin. He rightly observes that, “It’s discouraging to see Christians who could have been models of our faith become merely examples of what G. K. Chesterton called the one doctrine subject to empirical proof: original sin.”
So far so good. It is the conclusion Galli draws from this sorry state of affairs that transforms (or should I say deforms?) God’s amazing grace into what could only be called appalling grace – if not a monstrous grace.
According to Galli, “There is something in the evangelical psyche that denies this reality [namely, of the failed lives of so many Christians]. Yes, we’re a movement that preaches repentance and confession of sin as a chief means of grace. But after conversion, our holiness heritage kicks in,” as if there is something wrong with having a “holiness heritage,” as if the Scriptures do not plainly state that “without holiness no will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14), as if Jesus himself did not teach that it is the “pure in heart” who “will see God” (Matt 5:8), as if the promises of God did not move us to “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor, 7:1, in light of 2 Cor 6:16b-17), as if the coming new heavens and new earth, which are the home of righteousness, did not beckon us to “to live holy and godly lives” here and now (2 Pet 3:11), as if we had not been chosen “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Eph 1:4), as if “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thes 4:7).
“But after conversion, our holiness heritage kicks in.” This is something negative? This is not a wonderful heritage in the Lord? Without a doubt, there is a rich, biblical foundation for this supposedly regrettable holiness heritage: “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1 Pet 1:15-16)
This, however, is only the beginning of Galli’s article. After claiming that, “We’re deathly afraid of cheap grace,” and that, “We assume that with sufficient exhortation and moral effort, our sins will become smaller than a widow’s mite and our righteousness larger than life,” Galli makes reference to “the long-standing evangelical myth that there should be something different about the Christian” (his emphasis).
Did you catch that? The idea “that there should be something different about the Christian” is nothing more than a “long-standing evangelical myth.” How remarkable! One of the fundamental truths of the New Testament, that salvation in Jesus transforms our lives, now becomes a “long-standing evangelical myth” – and this according to a senior editor of evangelicalism’s flagship publication.
So then, rather than recognizing that the current moral crisis in the evangelical church is absolutely tragic, a cause for mourning and repentance and self-examination before the Lord, Galli points to these failures as proof that real change for the believer – the type that the world will notice – is unattainable. What a poor conclusion to draw – and what an unbiblical conclusion at that. It is the fact that Jesus truly transforms sinners – that salvation really saves! – which empowers us to witness to the world, and it is a transformation that we are called to live out. (As I recall, Rom 12:2 does not say “be conformed to this world” but “do not be conformed to this world.”)
Galli describes the things we imagine will mark us out from the world. “A look. An attitude. A lifestyle. Something noticeable, something that causes the unbeliever to pause and wonder, ‘What does that person have?’” Yet he rues the fact that the reality seems to be other than this, and that, “we find, more days than not, that there’s not much to that something. We drop our coffee and blurt out a four-letter word, or we drink too much at the office party, or we fail to enquire about the welfare of a neighbor who just discovered she has cancer. Most days, we seem to be no different from the rest of humanity.”
But we are supposed to be different, by the grace and power of God. Consider Paul’s words to the Philippians: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life . . .” (Phil 2:14-16). This is expected of us today!
Consider Peter’s exhortation to his readers, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet 2:11-12). The unbelievers are supposed “to pause and wonder, ‘What does that person have?’”
We are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world – a city set on a hill! – and our light is to “shine before men, that they may see [our] good deeds and praise [our] Father in heaven” (Matt 5:13-16; as explained by R. V. Tasker, as the salt of the earth, believers are “called to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing, or non- existent … they can discharge this function only if they themselves retain their virtue.”)
James wrote that, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). This has not changed, and we should we be distinguished both by our acts of mercy and by our lives of separation. “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you” (2 Cor 6:17). Has this somehow been edited out of our Bibles?
Paul was fully aware that in the society at large, there would be people practicing all kinds of defiling sins. But among God’s people, it was supposed to be different: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’” (1 Cor 5:9-13)
What would the evangelical church of America look like if we practiced this today? How many of us would be left?
I fully understand that, even on our very best days, we are all in need of God’s mercy, and that in ourselves, we are infinitely distant from God’s holiness. But that does not diminish the fact that the Son really does set us free, that, in Jesus, although we used to be objects of wrath fulfilling the desires of the flesh and the mind, we have been born from above and are new creations in Christ – meaning that our lives are truly changed.
Paul expressed this so well: “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” That is who we used to be. “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:3-7).
Like the Corinthians, some of us were ungodly, unholy, immoral, greedy, idolatrous people. Yes, “that is what some of you were” – not are. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). All this speaks of real change.
According to the consistent and abundant witness of the New Testament Scriptures, through the new birth we are translated from the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of God (Col 1:13), from darkness to light (Eph 5:8, with the exhortation to “live as children of light”), from death to life (Eph 2:1-5), from slavery to sin to slavery to righteousness (Rom 6:1-23).
That’s why obedience to God’s commands is the hallmark of the believer: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. . . . Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did. . . . No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. . . .” (1 John 2:3-4, 6; 3:6). Succinctly stated, “in this world we are like him” (1 John 4:17).
Are we falling short of this mark in a very serious way as American evangelicals? Without a doubt, which is why we need to reexamine the message we preach to the world and to the church and humble ourselves before our God, acknowledging that something is terribly amiss. Could it be that our substandard message is producing substandard believers? Could it be that our conspicuous departure from the preaching of the cross and the preaching of repentance and the preaching of holiness and the preaching of the empowering presence of the Spirit has produced disastrous consequences? There are many, including me, who say it has.
And what of our fascination with celebrity Christianity, be it the latest superstar preacher on Christian TV or the latest “born-again” reality star on secular TV? The very fact that we could make a beauty queen who poses in lingerie and bikinis into a national voice for morality, however sincere she might be, should be pause enough for thought.
Long ago Alexander Maclaren wrote, “I am quite sure that nine-tenths of all the heresies that have ever afflicted the Christian Church, and are the cause of the weakness of so much popular Christianity, is none other than the failure adequately to recognize the universality, and the gravity of the transgression. If a word comes to you, calls itself God’s message, and does not start with man’s sin, nor put in the forefront of its utterances the way by which the dominion of that sin can be broken in your own heart, and the penalties of that sin in your present and future life can be swept way, it is condemned – ipso facto – as not a gospel from God, or fit for me.”
As Oswald Chambers explained, “Jesus Christ came to make the great laws of God incarnate in human life, that is the miracle of God’s grace. We are to be written epistles, ‘known and read of all men.’ There is no allowance whatever in the New Testament for the man who says he is saved by grace but who does not produce the graceful goods. Jesus Christ by His Redemption can make our actual life in keeping with our religious profession.”
In keeping with this mindset, New Testament elders were expected to be “above reproach” and to have “a good reputation with outsiders” (1 Tim 3:2, 7), while it was shameful for any believer to suffer “as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.” In contrast, it was our glory to suffer because of our identification with Jesus (1 Pet 4:12-16).
Galli notes that, “It is God’s utter acceptance of us that allows us to look at our miserable sinfulness and not flinch. If that’s not the final step in sanctification, it is certainly a prerequisite to any other step.” Agreed! But he continues, “And it’s about all most of us will experience in this life,” to which we must reply, “That is appalling grace, not amazing grace!”
There are a legion of scriptures that speak of our calling to make clear and definite spiritual progress in this life, including passages such as 2 Peter 1:3-9, which proclaim that God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” Peter explains that is through God’s promises, which flow from his glory and goodness, that we “may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” Because of this, we are called to “make every effort to add to [our] faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.” Growth in grace is expected and called for (see also 2 Pet 3:18).
That’s why Paul, after exhorting the Colossians to put the death the deeds of the flesh, writes, “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col 3:1-14). This is certainly attainable, and it certainly distinguishes us from the world.
Galli does believe that moral exhortations are useful, but he argues that “we must never believe that ‘then and only then’ will we Christians have something ‘to offer the world.’ What we offer the world is not ourselves or our moral example or our spiritual integrity. What we offer the world is our broken lives, saying, ‘We are sinners saved by grace.’ What we offer the world is Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Really? We tell the drunkard, “I too am a drunkard, hopeless enslaved by alcohol, but let me tell you how wonderful Jesus is and how He forgave my sins.” We tell the child abuser, “I too am a pedophile, but let me tell you how glorious God’s grace is and how he removed my guilt.” We tell the drug addict, “I too am bound by drugs, but you can join me in my brokenness and we can experience the power of the cross together.” What an utter travesty!
For Galli, however, this is the strength of our message: “Make no mistake, this is not cheap grace. Not cheap at all—it’s free. And it’s the most precious thing we have to offer the world.”
It may be free, but it is virtually worthless; and it is counterfeit grace more than it is cheap grace.
We do well to remember Dietrich Bonheoffer’s words: “Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
That is not God’s grace at all. God’s grace transforms us. It forgives us and frees us; it deals with the penalty and the power of sin; it finishes what it starts. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11-14).
I do not deny for a moment that we stand by God’s mercy and not by our goodness, that all of us are works in progress, that all of us are in the ongoing process of sanctification, and that we can tell others about Jesus even while we remain far from perfect. I also do not deny for a moment that by the blood of Jesus and the Word of God and the Spirit of God we can be profoundly different than we used to be – and that means profoundly different than the world. The fact that we are all too often not different than the world is not a justification for accepting a lower, unbiblical standard but rather a clarion call to turn back to God and receive His transforming grace afresh.
Galli virtually claims that our ongoing sinful state highlights God’s grace, which is perilously close to a dangerous notion that Paul was quick to refute: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom 6:1-4). Through grace we do live a new life.
“Appalling grace, how bleak the sound, that teased a wretch like me. I still am lost, though almost found, am bound and still not free.”
Some may prefer this new, diluted version, but I much prefer the original: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
For one whole generation (if not more), the evangelical ship has been taking on water. Mark Galli points to this sorry state as proof that sinking is to be expected. It would be far better – and wiser – to assess the damage, plug the leaks, bail out the water, and repair (or replace!) the ship. Only then can we fully preach Jesus Christ and him crucified. After all, our lives speak more loudly than our words.
Possibly Related Posts