October 21, 2020

iMonk 101: Our Problem With Grace

samaritan.jpgOne of my all time favorite Internet Monk essays is this one: “Our Problem with Grace.” If you know my admiration for the writing of Robert Capon, you’ll recognize his influence on this piece. I’m convinced that grace is one of the most difficult concepts for Christians to live with and live by. But if we understand that the grace of God is the great transforming power in the Gospel, we’ll always want to hear more about it. I hope this essay will create in you the desire to be where the grace of God is celebrated, not turned into legalism or manipulation.

This essay represents what I believe most deeply in my faith. This is what holds me together. I hope it encourages you.

My apologies for the change in type-face in the second half of the essay. Maybe I’ll clean it up later.

READ: “Our Problem With Grace.”


  1. Wow.
    Accepting grace is definitely the hardest thing for me to do, as someone just trying to get acquainted with that puzzling, difficult Jesus.
    I’ll leave the arguments to you Bible wonks (no insult intended; this is my favorite blog because the theology flies!).
    One of your points, if I understand it, is that theology is of no help without acceptance of the mystery of grace.
    Thanks for that reminder, and the good news citations that make it pretty clear.
    Susan F

  2. I used to think that grace meant works were not something I ever had to think about.

    Somebody told me to “love God, and do what you want.” I thought that was cool. I would automatically want to do good things.

    One day, later on, I thought about how even though I did want to do good things, I still wanted to do a lot of dumb bad things, too. I was doing too many bad things, and I felt really stupid saying, “oh, that’s just the old sinful guy in me doing it. It’s not really me.”

    I knew it really was me doing all that junk.

    That’s when I decided I needed to think about my works. Not for salvation or holiness, because the Bible said Jesus already gave me that stuff for free. No, I just thought about how God just doesn’t like it when people do bad things and he does like it when they do good things. I also thought about how he told me to do good things and not do bad things, and how Jesus who was my master was always doing good things and never did bad things.

    “But why,” I whined at the sky, “don’t you just make me want to do good things and make me stop wanting to do bad things? Isn’t that what grace is all about? That’s what my Christian friends told me.”

    I kept thinking about it, and I thought that it sure doesn’t seem like Holy Spirit has turned me into a puppet. I thought about how Jesus set me free from sin, and how I now could do good things that I didn’t used to be able to do. I thought about it and said, “Hey, because I’m saved, I’m kinda like Jesus now. I have a human will and, because of the Holy Spirit in me, I have a divine will, too. Only my human will got messed up a long time ago and now it’s all addicted to doing bad things.”

    I thought about it and decided that if Jesus made me able to do good things, then I should try to do them, because that’s what his will in me wants and because he gave me the Holy Spirit to help me. I figured I’d still sometimes rather do bad things because that’s what my human will likes. I thought about how if I’m a bad-things addict, then it won’t be easy. It will be hard, like quitting smoking or something, and I’d probably mess up a lot. I decided to try to kick the habit anyway.

    When I did try, I found out that it got easier to say no to bad things the more I did it, and it was a lot of fun to do good things. Sometimes, though, I’d do a bad thing and, especially if it was really bad, it was like getting addicted again, because I would keep wanting to do that thing again and I’d have a harder time saying no. But the really great thing was that the Holy Spirit kept helping me every time. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to do it, but with him, it’s like nothing can stop me but myself. I really like the Holy Spirit. I started to wonder if the Holy Spirit himself wasn’t grace itself. But I can never figure out stuff like that, so once my head started hurting, I started thinking about other things.

    I also decided I should also tell my Christian friends that they also should try this do-good-things-and-don’t-do-bad-things deal, because I found out that it was a good plan. So I went over to them and said, “Hey, you should do good things.” They got mad at me and got in my face, calling me names like “legalist” and “works-righteousness heretic.” They made fun of me and told me I didn’t know much about grace and I must not read my Bible much.

    I was really sad, because I really did read my Bible a lot, and I kept finding Jesus and Paul and Peter and John and James and the anonymous writer to the Hebrews telling me I should do good things and not do bad things. So I ran back to my Christian friends, and I said, “See, look, Jesus and Paul and Peter and John and James and the anonymous writer to the Hebrews all say that we should do good things and not do bad things!” My Christian friends just laughed at me and told me that’s not what those guys really meant. They said I should learn Greek and learn something about hermeneutics if I really wanted to understand what those Bible authors were saying.

    So I looked up hermeneutics in the dictionary and I learned some old Greek words and I found out that those guys really were saying that we should do good things and not do bad things. They said a lot of other stuff too. I went back to my friends and I said, “Hey guys, in Greek, this means, ‘do good things,’ and that means, ‘don’t do bad things!'”

    My Christian friends got really impatient with me, and they said, “Look, dude, it’s not about you. It’s about God. All you need is faith. Just love God and do what you want, and it will all be taken care of.”

    “Well then,” I said. “I want to do good things, and I don’t want to do bad things, even though I still want to do bad things, too.”

    “You’re so hopeless,” they said. “Maybe you should go be a Catholic or something.”

    Why are they so bothered? Was it something I said?

  3. Larry - KY says

    Great article on Grace, one of the BEST I’ve read. I hear and share your same struggles over grace and too as I get older have come to see it differently, rather more brightly, than when I first came to faith. The suffering of the first death is the great equalizer I often tell a pastor/elder friend of mine. If what you are preaching cannot survive the suffering of the fear of death, then it cannot be the Gospel.

    I’ve heard it said many ways but the ONE single thing that holds us from Grace is not our obvious evil works or inclinations. Who in any resemblance of a right mind would go before God and say, “Well I lusted after this or that woman, hated so and so, stole here and there, gossiped over so and so and did it repeatedly, SO based on these works let me into heaven.” Not even the blindest of heathen would be so foolish, NOT even when I was a rank atheist would I have thought that. BUT, what holds us from grace is our “good works” and our goodness. It’s as Luther said, “The Law of God is the most salutary doctrine of life, but it cannot help a man toward salvation, in fact it HINDERS him.” (paraphrased from HD Thesis 1). The observer of works in us, the old man, cannot grasp grace because to do so LITERALLY means his death. Luther captured it under Theology/religion of glory (all fallen ideas/philosophy/religion) Vs. Theology/religion of Cross.

    Where we have the MOST trouble in American Christianity today is POST conversion, how does grace LOOK. TOO often it looks like the Pharisee, or some would so think it does. But a quick glance at Luther’s paradox shows some very revealing things about faith/assurance and what true “obedience of faith” actually looks like:

    Theology of Glory (pietism and its kindred) functions thus (I experienced this a lot in my former denomination SB):

    1. Christ is presented or represented subjectively within the heart or inwardly. Assurance is ALWAYS directed inwardly. E.g. conversion experience or some pulling of the soul’s eye to the self which is ironically the very definitive essence of sin.
    2. THEN works, fruit and good deeds take on an objective delineated form. They can now be marked out, numbered, delineated, measured and all of the same refined over time (i.e. the numbers smaller and finely tuned). This is the squeezing effect of the Pharisee living by the Law as opposed to the RELEASE of the Gospel.

    The sum of what you have is doubt about salvation since number 1 is subjective and hard to estimate, find or number, yet “good works” become increasingly a numerical finite pile of certain churchyard things done and measured for quality, quantity, frequency and magnitude.

    In a word: GRACE (false grace) is subjective since it is tied inwardly and “to you”, innumerable and so elusive resulting in doubt and NOT faith NOR assurance. And WORKS become the objective thing that is numbered and relentlessly refined, narrowed and sought after (the Pharisee’s tightening).

    Theology of the Cross (the true faith) functions thus:

    1. Christ and His work is presented and GIVEN objectively FOR me (the Gospel is ultimately in the FOR ME) in objective Word and objective Sacrament. (you begin to see the reality of the objective necessity of the sacraments as REAL means of grace based upon God and not some secondary work loosey goosey detected inwardly as in number one above)
    2. Works, that is true fruit of faith or the true obedience of faith that really is living itself out, then takes on a subjective undelineated form (i.e. no measuring stick of any kind and again this also shows why the Sacraments MUST be objective and sacraments, otherwise the “fruit rod” or “fruit ruler” has to come out and measure the works). What comes at you in life in your stations, all that you do is truly fruit of faith, literally faith living.

    In a word: GRACE (true grace) is objective since it is tied to God and His name, numerable (only Word and two sacraments, here grace is found not searched for inwardly), and so clear and apparent resulting in faith/trust and bold assurance (hope or expectation), and NOT doubt. And WORKS become the subjective things that are innumerable and naturally coming at you as life comes at you in your stations in life, widely everywhere and NOT sought after (the Gospel release).

    The sum of what you have is sure assurance as Christ is very specifically objectively given in Word and two specific Sacraments, very distinct as opposed to a subjective conversion experiences or some other such subjective nonsense that leads into an infinite search for “grace” (false grace) working IN me. And works become “where you are”, what you are, to whom you are, completely unnumbered and coming “at you” as opposed to seeking them out in the numbered box of “church works” as defined by the opinions of men EVEN if they derive their delusions from Scripture.

    When we speak about the obedience of faith it is important to understand that the truly NEW MAN sees this as indicative as to how faith operates and NOT as the OLD MAN reads it as yet another task on the works list. Even the simple term “obedience of faith” is heard differently by the new man of as opposed to the old man of works.

    This is how true saving faith operates (live and walks), it so trusts that the least of things it does is holy and God pleasing because it roots itself in trusting, yet it NEVER considers the “deed done”. Thus, only saving faith WOULD actually without nervousness or doubt rest most peacefully in the most seemingly meaningless act as an outcome of itself (operation, life, walk), though it NEVER considers what it does. Rather this is describing HOW saving faith operates or lives. Picking a daisy is a glorious work as saving faith does it. This seemingly NOTHING act is “obedience of faith” as faith does it without concern for this faith lives in and by Christ alone. The flesh, however, would never and can never trust such a thing for it is far too tiny. Why? It is showing forth its operation or its livingness or walk and that is by works it lives, literally, that’s why it measures the ‘daisy picking’ as an unworthy work. Think about that for a minute. Right now many reading this who are Christians are saying to themselves, “picking a daisy”, that’s not good works, that’s not evangelism or missions or being a doctor (nothing wrong with those things, it’s the principle of living faith versus a deluded false faith that is really a code word for works, it goes back to WHAT really prevents a man from actual saving grace, namely the BEST works do or rather the fleshes glory in them). Why would ANYONE react to “picking a daisy” this way? There is but ONE single answer, you are living works and not faith in spite of what you profess. Your works so spoken show forth what you REALL believe, that was James’ ENTIRE point.

    This is why Jesus said ‘giving as little as a cold cup of water in His name’ is rewarded. The key is IN His name, “In HIM I (the Father) am well pleased”. Why? Because that has now become a good work to do and be executed? No, that’s the old man’s interpretation of Jesus. The old man just hears another law ‘now to do’ and says, “I must be about doing cold cups of water or washing feet”. The old man must execute what he thinks is a prescription of law to be done in order to have favor with God. The old man doesn’t perceive that Jesus is NOT ‘prescribing’ but ‘describing’ so the old man just “chalks up” another duty to do that has just been prescribed, picking up on #2 of the ToG. But faith perceives with TRUE ears to hear and TRUE eyes to see. Faith says, “Ahhhh, it is still Christ alone and my Lord is describing by way of example how true saving faith operates, lives and walks…it does ANYTHING, small things, mundane and very ordinary things…it changes diapers and plants flowers and sleeps at night and enjoys a good meal, wine and beer and tea and coffee because it lives by Christ alone in naked trust and worries not the least about the work…it just lives in the offices of life that it is given to work in.”

    At the end of the day this is nothing less than two different religions EVEN if both label themselves “Christian”.

    Larry KY