August 12, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: August 8, 2016

Resurrection Chapel, Valparaiso University

Resurrection Chapel, Valparaiso University

Note from CM: One of the chief characteristics of Michael Spencer’s life, ministry, and writing was his emphasis on grace. On Mondays for a season, we are drawing from his writings on the subject.

• • •

For me, the Gospel itself is “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

The Bible is incomprehensible apart from grace. It is the tidal wave predicted in the first scenes, and it eventually arrives to soak everything and everyone in Jesus. Titus summarizes the incarnation and work of Jesus as, “the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” The New Covenant is grace and truth from Jesus, as contrasted with the law that came through Moses. (Consult Hebrews for the difference.) Every single New Covenant blessing comes through grace. Listing the scriptures that substantiate this would be woefully redundant to most of my readers. The air of heaven is grace. The heart of the Father is grace. The “Good” in the Good News is grace.

Paul knows that grace is a potent brew, and so in Romans 6 he anticipates the objection that is running around in the minds of thousands of evangelical preachers. “Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound?” In other words, how can we be sure people will live the way they are supposed to if this grace thing is as good a deal as it appears to be? What a great opening for a chapter on all the things we HAVE to do to really, really, really be serious Christians. Get ready to take notes.

Instead, we get a list of the miraculous accomplishments of grace, all done by Christ, for us, outside of us and in the past, accompanied by an expanded admonition to “consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Yes, I know he says to “yield yourselves” to God, which sounds like works, but keep reading. “…As men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:13b-14).

Ahem. In other words, the entire sixth chapter of Romans says act like God has graciously done everything necessary for your salvation and you can’t do anything to save yourself. Grace, not legalism, not works, is the great motivator of the Christian life. Every appeal in Romans 6 is based on what God has done that we cannot do, and the greatest obedience flows from the grace of God.

The reason for this is clear: grace magnifies the giver.

It’s not that obedience has no capacity to magnify God. It does–if it comes from hearts ravished by grace, and not the accounting department.


  1. Michael has hit another home run here and we imonks have all apparently been struck dumb by its magnificence.

  2. Amazing!

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    A warning from observations over at Wartburg Watch:

    A LOT of Moses Model, control freak, abusive churches and organizations these days have “Grace” in their name. It has become a HyperCalvinist buzzword for the Truly Reformed Red Guard, redefined into a diabolic meaning of HyperLegalism and Spiritual Abuse that would make Screwtape proud.

    Treat any church with “Grace” in its official name as a Third World country with “Democratic” and/or “People’s” in its official name until proven otherwise.

    • “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 🙂

      • Scott, I was about to ditto what HUG said, and add “gospel” to it, with Inigo Montoya’s quote in reference to that, but you beat me to it. .

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          It’s a Christianese version of TV Tropes’ “People’s Republic of Tyranny”, where the more adjectives about Democracy there are in a country’s official name, the nastier a dictatorship it is.


    “There is a kind of writing, preaching, and talking about grace that instead of offering grace and extolling the goodness of God, seems to use grace as the backhand of God that is used to grind humans into the ground as it talks about grace. I’m having a hard time being gracious about this.

    It is the sort of communication that does extol grace, God’s good grace, but it makes that grace an angry thing God has to do because he is gracious. God, being so loving but downright ticked off with humans for their sins and stiff-neckedness and hard-heartedness, is still gracious to us. That sort of idea.

    This is a massive distortion of what God actually does to us. James tells us, ‘don’t forget, that if we ask God in faith that God gives to us simply or unbegrudgingly’ — and the grace grinders tend to make God a begruding God of grace rather than a delightful and pro-active God of grace.

    These people can’t talk about grace without emphasizing that we are wretches;
    they can’t read Yancey’s What’s So Amazing…? without saying it isn’t the whole story;
    they can’t preach obedience without saying this isn’t works;
    they can’t talk about grace without talking about all those who are on their way to hell;
    they can’t preach love without showing holiness is behind it all;
    they can’t talk about grace without reminding us that it is all for God’s glory and that God didn’t have to do this and that we ought to consider ourselves lucky;

    in other words, they can’t accept that God’s grace is God’s benevolence toward us because of who God really is (a gracious loving God) and because of who we are: his chosen people in whom he delights and for whom he has crafted a gospel that restores us to be Eikons who are in union with God and communion with others.

    Forgive me if I’m being ungracious to the grace grinders, but it wounds the gospel to use grace as a grinding instrument.

    Grace, so it seems to me, should make us aware that we are special to God not the reluctant objects of mercy.”

    • “God is love”

      and count the number of beats until someone screams ALL LIVES…excuse me, I meant “But also holy!!”

    • The grace-grinders. I like that and will use it.

    • “Grace, so it seems to me, should make us aware that we are special to God not the reluctant objects of mercy.”

      Grace-grinders. Exactly. It’s as if their New Testaments don’t contain Luke 15.

    • Michael Spencer could have written that. Good stuff.

  5. In preparing for a sermon a few years ago I stumbled across a parallel between Romans, chapters 6-7-8, and First John chapter 2. It goes something like this:

    Romans 6: Sin may lead to grace, but should we sin that grace abound? By no means.
    Romans 7: I can’t stop sinning.
    Romans 8: Christ cancels sin; nothing can separate us from the love of God through Christ.

    1 John 2:1
    I write these things that you may not sin…
    But if you do sin…
    You have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.

    Coincidence? It’s grace.

  6. “The Bible is incomprehensible apart from grace.”

    Well, yes, except that grace is one of those religious words that ordinary people don’t use and religious people use as if everyone knows what it mean, except no one does, or at least no one agrees. And please, please don’t give me that unmerited favor baloney. Michael defines it as “The air of heaven is grace. The heart of the Father is grace.” Give me a break, Michael. Yes, that sounds warm and wonderful, but just what are you talking about?

    Grace, salvation, sin, gospel, incarnation, covenant, law, string these words together and what have you got? Religious gobbledygook. People don’t talk like that. Preachers talk like that. People don’t know what those words mean. Religious people think they know what those words mean until they start getting down to brass tacks and find out they are talking apples and oranges. If hearing words like that makes you all warm and fuzzy inside, go for it. I’m concerned with those people who have no idea what you are talking about and aren’t going to stand for a five minute explanation of what a five letter word means. Just for drill, I quickly checked with Dr. Strong, and King Jim lists only five uses of the English word “grace” in the Gospels, two of them in the same sentence, none of them spoken by our Lord Jesus. New Revised Standard only has four. You have to go to Paul and friends to fill out the page. Jesus talked concrete things like farmers and merchants and crops and money and, dare I say it, love.

    I use the word grace myself when talking with God, in my blessings and devotions, and God knows what I mean. My neighbors don’t, and I don’t use the word with them. If the subject happens to come up, I do my best to use plain English, not high falutin’ religious verbiage suitable for preaching to the choir. The Bible is incomprehensible because you’re not using plain English to explain it, and using plain English involves first really understanding what you’re talking about. That’s a lot easier said than done, but at least give it some effort. What is this “grace” business you keep talking about? Can we find a better word that actually means something?

    • Christiane says

      “What is this “grace” business you keep talking about?| ”

      “My soul is at peace, for long ago, I ceased to belong to myself.”
      (Therese of Lisieux)

    • Last time I checked, Charles, this was a Christian blog. I don’t use the word grace in my workaday world; but when I come here, I see no reason why I shouldn’t use it, or read it being used. That Paul uses the word much more than the Gospels is no problem for me, though it I know it is for you and some others. I accept Paul’s witness to Jesus, and the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, as being on an equal footing with the witness of Gospels, and as indispensable to the wholeness of the total witness of the New Testament. But we’ve been over this ground before, and I’m sure that going over it again would yield the same results: we all end up entrenched in the positions we had before we started. But please don’t hold the bakers at fault if they talk the language of flour and eggs at a baker’s convention.

      Here is some of what grace means to me: I don’t have to climb up any ladder to ascend to God, because he came to me in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ; he remains with me through the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in my life; and he is leading me into the Kingdom of his Father, which is the heart of this world and is closer to me than my own breath.

    • Well, maybe a few suggested answers to your questions will make a nice blog post, Charles.

      I would start by asking what the word meant in the Greco-Roman culture around Paul. I believe there is a good background in their cultural practice of patrons and clients that can inform us of what Paul was speaking about. Plenty of down-to-earth parallels from which to draw. I have an idea Paul used it specifically because of that background, since he was missionary to the Gentiles. This is also why you don’t find the word much in the Gospels.

      However, we might also explore the Jewish background by looking at the Hebrew word chesed, which is usually translated “faithful love,” “lovingkindness,” “mercy,” or “loyal love,” or even “covenant love.” This is THE word in the First Testament with which to explore relationships with God and other people. And once again, I think it is street level theology that comes out.

      • Surely, CM, there is noting wrong with using the word grace as a shorthand for all you say here, as well as many other things. That’s what it is, shorthand.

        • You are correct, Robert, but Charles also has a point that certain words become Christianese and lose their impact. An occasional reminder of where these words come from and how they would have been heard by their first audience is never a bad thing.

          • Yes, I can see that point; but I wonder if that’s what Charles meant, of if he is suggesting something akin to what Paul van Buren was saying in his book The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, which involves not a just reminder of where the words come from, but a rejection of the words and the concepts that go with them in favor of a reinterpretation into supposedly non-religious categories and terms. That was already tried in the sixties and seventies, and failed.

        • Jesus came to save all the world. Christians only please, others need not apply. Fluency in shorthand required. Jesus saves Christians.

          • That’s a completely unfair criticism. When you say, Jesus came to save all the world, you are using language filled with Christian shorthand, fluency required to understand. If I may apply your own requirement to you, please translate that into “plain language”.

          • Charles, Do you really think that sentence, “Jesus came to save all the world”, would seem less like shorthand, or be less off-putting, to any non-Christian visitor to this site, who happened upon our discussion, than the the use of the word “grace”?

          • >> When you say, Jesus came to save all the world, you are using language filled with Christian shorthand . . . .

            Yes, Robert, using Christianese in a tongue-in-cheek jab pointed with sarcasm, which sailed right on by. Michael lets Titus summarize the incarnation and work of Jesus as ““the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” You call for translation, I submit “the Love of God has appeared, bringing healing for all people.” As to that churchy word “incarnation”, it pretty much means what it says, in a physical meat body, tho needing translation from the Greek or Latin. You and most Christians like to hold up the concept of God appearing to us once upon a time bodily in Jesus, which is so, but what you and most Christians fail to recognize is that God is in you just as He was and is in Jesus, God is incarnate in you as a given, the basic meaning of grace. We don’t have to seek this, or earn it, or deserve it, or understand it all, we don’t have to invoke it, invite it, mumble prayers or formulas, we just have to realize it and get our selfish ego out of the way and let God shine. You may have noticed that this is easier said than done. It’s our main task here, and too often the church is the last to wake up and smell the coffee.

          • Charles, “The love of God has appeared, bringing healing for all people” is fine with me, but would still require a non-Christian reader to learn a lot of shorthand.

            I’m in total agreement that we don’t need to seek, earn, deserve, etc. to have the presence and love of God in our very being, but I don’t believe we have to get our selfish egos out of the way to receive it either. God is incarnate in me, yes: that happened when I was conceived and born. But I’m not God in the way Jesus was, this I know, because God would not have missed your tongue-in-cheek pointed with sarcasm.

    • And Charles, when you ask that we use plain language to explain things like grace, so that people will understand us, please be mindful that the very word God is not self-explanatory either. Jesus used the word God assuming that his listeners were familiar with God-language, with its conventions, usages and structures; he extended the limits of the conventional God-language, yes, and used “plain language” in that endeavor, but he emphatically never made the referent of the term God equivalent in any way with the concrete words and images he used to fill out and extend the meaning of that term. Given your demand to use concrete and plain language, one might as properly ask these questions as the ones you ask: What is this “God” business you keep talking about? Can we find a better word that actually means something?

  7. Christiane says

    ” grace magnifies the giver ”

    “The quality of mercy is not strained.
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
    ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
    The thronèd monarch better than his crown. . . . ”

    (Wm. Shakespeare)

  8. At the risk of sounding trite, I like these acrostic definitions;

    Grace means God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
    Faith means Forsaking All I Trust Him.

    An old, old gentleman in the Assemblies of God brought light to my darkness when he told me the difference between grace and mercy. Grace, he said, is getting something you don’t deserve, and mercy is not getting something you do deserve. They are two sides of the same coin.

    I hope these simple words will clear things up for Charles and others.

    • >> Grace, he said, is getting something you don’t deserve, and mercy is not getting something you do deserve.

      I picture a father setting down at the head of the supper table with his wife and children. Everyone bows their head and the father says, “I’m going to let you eat this food even tho none of you deserve it. Furthermore I’m not going to beat the hell out of you, even tho you all deserve it. Amen.” What’s wrong with this picture?