September 23, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: August 15, 2016



Glad you asked.

Christians who feel responsible for the “growth” of other Christians. When I was a youth minister charged with turning the rug rats into good little Southern Baptists, my “Grace to Works” ratio was about 10/90, i.e. I talked about grace about ten percent of the time, and rattled on about how everyone was supposed to behave decently ninety percent of the time. Yeah, what Jesus did was great, but what did you do last Friday night? Hmmmmm? That’s the real deal. Yuck. (Sorry to all the legalists I produced. Forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing.)

Pastors who want people to _____________ (fill in the blank with dozens of major church projects). The great appeal of preaching obedience and duty is that it seems to be the best way to get people to do all the stuff that has to be done in a church. Grace is icing and decoration to these people. Obedience is bricks and concrete.

If you’ve ever been around a pastor who has descended to the depths of harping and nagging to get a few bucks in the plate and a Sunday School teacher for the middle school boys, then you know why I am writing this essay. Many pastors don’t think grace preaching will keep their machine running. They may be right. Maybe they ought to look at their machine. On the other hand, I Corinthians 15:10 says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Anyone believe that?

Parents who want their kids to be Christians, and also look and act like it…..whatever that means. Grace as a way of parenting? You gotta be kidding? No. I’m not kidding. Parents need to give up the idea that God is the big stick who is going to bully you if you don’t get rid of that nose piercing. I work at a school with the children of Christian parents. A lot of those parents are worried that their little Joey isn’t going to be a worship team member and might not make it to the mission trip this year. So they’ve brought out the rules, the law, the consequences, the shrinks, the medications, the exorcists, the high pressure tactics and the Christian school with lots of rules.

Guess what? Joey’s not turning out according to plan. He’s hanging out with his goth friends, who say their strong point is that they really accept people without prejudging them on appearance and performance. Sound vaguely ironic? Yep–parents handing out rules, and peers talking their version of grace.

Of course, God is the original grace parent, and the Bible describes the rocky ride He had with his kid, Israel. He never let go, He held him and He loved him through the rough times. Israel saw his angry side, but they met his grace over and over, too. Sometimes they recognized it, sometimes they crucified it. But God eventually got what every parent wants–offspring who love him from a grateful, faithful heart. (Of course, he cheated. He made it happen.) It’s just that along the way, God showed that he had to go beyond the power of the rules–and he had good rules. God used the power of grace to win the battle so many parents are trying to win with little grace and much law.

Christians who equate grace with weakness, permissiveness and excessive leniency. Try this one out at any gathering of evangelical Christians: “Once you are justified by faith, you can do what you want. And if you want to do all the things you did before you knew Jesus, then you just don’t get it.” (Gasp) You’ll immediately notice that some Christians want it very clear that you can’t expect to be saved by grace if you don’t live right. Straighten up and fly right, and you’ll get to heaven. Oh yeah….by grace. Grace has become just a codeword for works in a lot of evangelical minds. The point to see here is that we tend to get anxious about the way God is doing things. If he starts getting all overly generous on us, we want to call him off to the side and see if we can’t add a few rules and expectations in there so WE feel better. God, of course, isn’t changing anything because we’re nervous, but he’s not stopping us from putting out our own versions of the Gospel either. Unfortunately.

Christian young people, who have been brought up in the battle for the moral high ground in our culture wars. Young people are told from birth to be good and do good. They live with rules, grades and expectations. Those who are successful in keeping those rules and meeting those expectations often find grace to be difficult to accept. To them, grace can seem like a covering for evil. They usually think that when the grace talk is over, the behavior is going to be bad, and Christian young people are usually most careful in the area of distinctive and different behavior.

Christian young people who have made different moral choices than the majority may truly not see the wonder of grace. They haven’t sinned enough. Or to be more exact, they don’t see the outrage of their own sins clearly. The foundation of morality their parents and teachers built in their lives may make it difficult to see their own sinfulness honestly. The culture war focus that rages around Christian young people puts unusual emphasis on making choices and “being righteous.” It’s not at the exclusion of the Gospel, but it’s often at the expense of the Gospel.

Most people with “Christian” books in their hands. What you can do, not what God has done, is the great theme of most of what is published and recorded in the evangelical world. Grace writers and poets stand out like lighthouses in a sea of mediocre legalism and do-it-yourself religion. Grace is an endangered species, and we all need to celebrate and promote any writer who truly, passionately communicates grace. This isn’t a matter of theological labels. We can quibble about the footnotes some other time. No matter who they are, when they wrote or where you find them, applaud, buy and give away the grace writers and artists. The beauty of what they are saying needs to be heard in a church choking on legalism, moralism and timidity about the Gospel.


  1. There is a fear in some Christian circles (and I think it may well get mentioned somewhere in the comments) of this weird creature called ‘cheap grace’ because people are truly afraid of the idea of love with no strings attached. No guilt, no passive-aggressive nagging, no come-on-I’ve-been-nice-to-you-so-you-be-nice-to-me wheedling. I have to admit, I’m not very good at it – give me a minute of my own time, and I’ll be trying to point out to God that I’m a good guy, that I might not be perfect but I’m better than those judgmental people. Whoops. Lots of self-justification, not so much relying on grace.

    • It’s not just self-justification (although that’s a big chunk of it), it’s about being able to draw boundaries and say “We’re *in*, you’re *out*.” The itch to draw those boundary lines (and place ourselves on the right side of them) is very ingrained. The OT prophets often had to remind God’s people that they and their enemies often weren’t on the sides of the line they thought they were – and they often got killed for pointing that out. Jonah had to be forced at gunpoint (metaphorically) to preach to the Ninehvites – and threw a temper tantrum when they actually listened and repented. And when Jesus pointed these examples out to His contemporaries, they were just as hostile and uninterested in listening as their ancestors were.

      When it comes right down to it, a lot of people, then and now, would rather be on the inside of the tiny circles *they* draw than admit that Christ has drawn a much wider circle and wants everybody in it.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > it’s about being able to draw boundaries

        +1,000. I still have a knee-jerk reaction to these kind posts – the grace vs. works dichotomy. And it isn’t a problem with grace: it is a problem with the term “Works”. Because we aren’t usually really talking about the demand to perform Good Works – we are talking about a demand for “Conformity: fit-in, subscribe. I remember much more legalistic days in my own life – it certainly wasn’t about a demand for “Good Works” that dogged me, it was conformity, and mostly about **not** doing things – don’t be sexual (good luck!), don’t drink, don’t swear, don’t be angry, show respect… Honestly, the demands I heard to *DO* good things were pretty low bar; mostly about attending events and giving money.

        Grace is – in a way – the far more demanding master. Graces does things, it turns outward; this definition of “Works” [conformity] is usually turned inward. Grace can be scary, Grace demands courage, the legalism of “Works” [conformity] is intimidating, which isn’t the same thing.

        Maybe it is just is that I’m not a born-and-bred Evangelical, so I don’t really understand what birth-right Evangelicals mean by “works”.

        • “I don’t really understand what birth-right Evangelicals mean by “works”.”

          I think you pretty much already nailed it above. :-/

        • Maybe it is just is that I’m not a born-and-bred Evangelical, so I don’t really understand what birth-right Evangelicals mean by “works”.

          Oh, that’s easy: it’s anything you have to DO to actually love your neighbor.

          See, you don’t have to feed the poor, help the broken hearted, change this world…none of that. That’s works. You should avoid those because of course you’d only do those things to earn your salvation. But we have grace, bro!

          It is far better and more holy to go through life believing the right doctrines and having the right opinions than to actually have to do anything.

      • When it comes right down to it, a lot of people, then and now, would rather be on the inside of the tiny circles *they* draw than admit that Christ has drawn a much wider circle and wants everybody in it.

        Crazy thought: what if there is no circle anymore. What if Christ drew a circle so large that everybody is inside it.

        …what if there was never a circle pre-Christ, but just petty tribalism and constant revisionism and bickering between priestly and kingly castes?

        • I would argue that the circle pre-Christ was set up to help Israel learn that God wasn’t like the gods of the other nations. Once that was established, and Christ came, the circle was removed.

          • Except he kinda was. Or at least certain gods of Israel were. Who is Jesus’ God?

          • I don’t buy the “YHWH-as-composite-of-Israelite-god’s” theory. All OT references to JHWH, Elohim, etc, refer to God. Just so my position is clear.

          • Who is Jesus’ God

            The crucified God…

    • Mike a dang good point. We seem to drown in obligations and it’s off putting when love makes no demands. We even find ourselves offended because love doesn’t want (or need) anything from us! “Whatdyamean my cash is no good here?”

    • Dan from Georgia says

      Then the father of the prodigal son practiced cheap grace because he didn’t berate his son when the son returned home, yet instead welcomed him with open arms!

      And no questions asked I might add.

    • Wayne Grudem has a new book out: “Free Grace” Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel. I read excerpts on Amazon and it’s what Michael was talking about. Grudem is the anti-Michael.

  2. Burro [Mule] says

    “Iff you beleef in Fat’er, Sawn, and Holy Ghawst, you can come be sinner wit’ r-r-rest off us in Or-r-rthódox Chur-rch

    Russian-born Father Arseny

    • Please extend my thanks to Fr. Arseny for his gracious invitation, but tell him that I already confess my sin, and profess my belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with another group of Christians. He is of course always welcome to join us at worship, if he happens to find himself in our neighborhood in south central PA.

  3. Sometimes on my smartphone my eyes jump past the author’s name and I launch right in to the post. It’s amazing how in two sentences, you can immediately recognize it must be Michael Spencer. He wrote with such directness and honesty – – it just punches right through the mix.
    Please note that I’m not disparaging other contibutors here; I’m just acknowledging Michael’s special gift.

    • +1.
      Michael had the rare gift of throwing himself under the bus first, before then sharing what he learned from his previous shortcomings. Case in point: the first paragraph of this post. It’s a great at method of teaching.

  4. The unlimited love and compassion and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ can seem scary and anarchic. Many people are looking for rules, boundaries. There are different reasons why people seek such rules, boundaries. Some are looking for them because they grew up in environments where an absence of healthy and respected rules and boundaries resulted in abuses that have affected them through childhood right up into adult life. In getting rid of the religious legalism that would come between people and God’s love, we should be extra careful that we are not also getting rid of, or inadvertently and unintentionally telling vulnerable people to get rid of, good personal boundaries and rules for themselves and others. That could only be destructive for the church as institution, and for the people who belong to it.

  5. There is a simple way to know when your brothers and sisters in faith truly and meaningfully love you. It’s a well kept secret but I’ll go ahead and spill the beans. Their eyes LIGHT UP when they see you and they DO NOT HAVE AN AGENDA for your improvement.

    • Boundaries are critical and indispensable in the upbringing of the faith. They play a minor to virtually inessential role when it comes to excelling in faith. Paul elaborated on that.

    • Amen

    • What if you’re a drag, no fun and with lots of emotional and relational baggage? Will their eyes still light up when they see you? Will they still have no agenda for your improvement? Should you still look for those signs of their love?

      • Great questions. Rightly or wrongly, I tend to avoid insufferable drama queens. Maybe I need to reexamine how I approach them.

      • I spent a lot of time as a young believer trying to crack uncrackable nuts. That’s over. I’m free of trying to share Christian love, intimate friendship, with every curmudgeon who walks through the door. My eyes don’t light up and you’ll see no plastic brotherly smile on my face. I’ll admit right now that there are people I don’t love. When I see them I head for the hills because they are, just as you say, a drag. But there are other people who do love them and when they see them their eyes do light up. That’s the body of Christ. I can’t play the game anymore of acting like I love everyone when some people make it virtually impossible for me but I am always surprised by how there is someone to love everyone. I don’t think it’s my job to love everyone but I think I need to remain challenged to get out of my comfort zone at times and genuinely be there for people that I clash personalities with but not to the point of forcing sweet tea from a prune. Even Jesus spent more time with some than others. You know the whole thing is organic. Sometimes it’s easy and other times it’s not. My whole point is that even if there is only one person on the earth who loves you because you are generally a pain in the ass, you know it when you see that person and you feel welcomed and accepted by them just as the Lord welcomes and accepts us. If I’m the pain in the ass then I’m looking for that one person. The people with agendas generally lack the necessary grace that by and large creates room to work through the baggage. If they are trying to make you into something it’s already over. Only the people who genuinely love us create the environment where we can loosen up and grow. I know there are people I am incapable, due to my weakness, of being graceful with but I do my all these days to be open, vulnerable and available to those who I feel I can share that open space with. It’s a mixed bag like all of life but I’ll tell you this, when I see the good deacon approaching who wishes to shrink-wrap and sort me out in his image of the perfect Christian, I don’t accept that b..s.. as love and warm discipleship and I don’t comply. There was a time, but no more. I seek out healthy interaction with people who give and accept love in my little corner of the world and I let the Lord take care of the rest.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          Personally, I think eyes-light-up describes Affection more than it describes Love. There are many people I cannot marshal Affection for, I am not sure if that is a 1:1 correlation with those I [honestly] Love.

          If we are called to Love everyone – there is no room to confuse that with Affection.

          • Yes, I am talking about affection. Those are the people I want to surround myself with by and large. Like the disciple whom Jesus loved. Very strange verse but perfectly sensible. I’m not asking for a hit parade when I walk in the door but if I genuinely feel that you are not glad to see me or that it will be your industrious effort in our time together to see to my betterment then I’m not interested in spending too much time with you. Do I need bettering? Is the Pope Catholic? I’ll be bettered by love and grace, not by someone who is looking out for the reputation of the congregation but would never think to go to a ball game or go fishing with me. Healing comes from intimacy. I think it’s a simple point. To sever affection from love creates a paper reality. You’re only loving on paper or by decree if it is devoid of affection. I’m not giving myself the ‘out’ of saying I love someone who I have no affection for and am not happy to see. I am tolerating them under orders to be kind to others. If I love someone that means they really mean something to me and I want to be in their presence and I am uplifted by our time together and I look forward to seeing them again. I’m not interested in the connotative definition of what actually may constitute love. I know by now what brings life and healing as opposed to servitude and condemnation. Of course there are many subtleties in between but the basic point is no phony baloney. Spend the bulk of your time with those who share their lives with you, not those who impose their lives upon you.

        • I’m not great at loving difficult-to-love people either. At the same time, I have admit that I’m in certain ways a difficult-to-love person myself, it’s just that I’ve learned not to let most people see my difficult side. Among church people, as in the wider world, I put on my Protestant smile, and that keeps them happy and smiling when they see me coming, at least most of them; but I know their not really smiling for me, lighting up for me, because what they’re getting is my false front. The few that know me well may not light up every time they see me coming, but I have other ways of knowing that they truly and meaningfully love me; that’s why I let them see the reality of me.

        • Now not to sell myself too short, and I’ll be succinct here, I do endeavor to bring what peace and joy I have to most everyone I meet unless I am given reason not to. But when that reason is apparent then I tend to mind my own business. If someone makes it absolutely clear that they are unwilling to accept love then I don’t fancy myself a miracle worker .

  6. Heather Angus says

    Off-topic (maybe): For Dr. Fundystan, proctologist: I’m sorry for my temper tantrums Saturday. They were out of the blue and unwarranted. Someone in my life had judged me harshly for something, and instead of dealing with it, I (unwittingly) projected my anger out on the nearest target, which happened at the time to be a religious (!) message board. Whatever my opinions, I shouldn’t have expressed them in the form I did. Mea culpa.

  7. “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”
    -Dallas Willard

  8. I think Spencer – and many others – don’t ever come to terms with the fact that our American ethic is quite simply at odds with that of most of the NT authors (Luke in particular). I certainly don’t presume that the NT authors are right, but I think we should be more honest about our ethics and how “grace” doesn’t actually mesh with it.