October 28, 2020

iMonk Classic: The Face of the Gracious God

Return of the Prodigal Son, Murillo

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From January 25, 2009

Note from CM: I can’t think of a better way to start the new year than to contemplate our wonderful, gracious God and the gifts he has for us in Christ. Wash away those false conceptions of the God who’s out to get you as you hear Michael reiterate the Good News of Him who loves you from everlasting to everlasting.

Religion #1:
God is mean, angry and easily provoked. From day 1, we’ve all been a disappointment, and God is–justly–planning to punish us forever. At the last minute, thanks to Jesus stepping in to calm him down, he decides to be gracious.

But don’t do anything to mess that up. Peace is fragile around here.

Religion #2
God is gracious, loving, kind, generous and open-hearted. He rejoices in us as his creations, and is grieved that our sins have made us his enemies and caused so much brokenness and pain. In Jesus, he shows us what kind of God he is and restores the joy that should belong to the children of such a Father. True to his promises, he will bless all people in Jesus, and restore the world by his resurrection victory.

You can’t do anything to mess this up. God’s got his heart set on a universe wide celebration.

The New Testament puts it this way:

Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. … 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The Gospel is the good news of a gracious God. It tells us again the story of the God who loves us, the God we have grieved and abandoned and the God who has taken our judgment and suffered it himself.

We have far too many people selling religion #1. Like the Pharisees, they are the authorized representatives of the grumpy, ticked off, hacked off, very, very angry God who MIGHT….maybe, MIGHT let you off the hook….MAYBE…..IF–and it’s a very big IF–you manage to believe enough, obey enough, get the theology questions right enough, find your way to the right church, follow the right script and get the details right, down to the last “amen.”

We have too many people who have heard that there is good news about God, and then discovered that the good news was covered in 25 pages of fine print explaining why God is actually quite miserable and its your fault. If you fulfill the conditions of the contract–See “Faith is obedience, perfect surrender and a good witness,” pages 203-298–then you have a reasonable hope of avoiding God’s end-of-the-world temper tantrum.

We have far too few Christians who are overwhelmed at the news that God has fired the bookkeepers, sent home the bean counters, dismissed the religion cops and bought party hats for the grumpy old people. The big announcement is this: In Jesus, we discover that God is just sloppy with his amazing grace and completely beyond common sense when it comes to his love. Just to enhance his reputation as the God who know how to throw a party, he’s inviting all of us back home, no tickets necessary, no dress code, for a party that will last, literally, forever. With open bar, and all on him. (Oh calm down Baptists. You can go to another room.)

In the story of the man who gave cash to his servants and said, “Invest it,” the loser had this speech to justify his failure to risk a cent: “I know what you’re like. You’re a power-hungry bully with no respect for people. You’re mean and I wasn’t going to have you blaming me that you lost a dollar. Here’s your cash.”

This wasn’t the right answer. The master had been generous. Gracious. But this fellow–trained in all the right seminaries and thoroughly read up in all the right books–blew it.

In the story of the prodigal son, neither son really knows what a soft-hearted, gracious, forgiving man they have for a dad. The younger boy treats dad like he’s already dead and doesn’t matter while he’s alive. The older son has dad signed on to a system where he logs in the required amount of being a good son and he gets a pay off.

Delightful kids. I wonder where Jesus came up with those characters? Hmmm?

Then the younger son tries his version of “get a deal with dad.” Thankfully, the Father decides to ignore the religion of these two boneheads, and throws the Gospel party, courtesy of the calf that made up the meal.

The Father will have his party. Even for the undeserving kid who doesn’t quite get it. Even for the Pharisee-wannabe who is horrified that dad’s not cooperating with the system.

God will be gracious. God will be good. God will be overflowing in love. God will be good to the world. God will bless the nations. God will put his lamb and his Spirit and his loving face at the center of a universe made over in the image of the greatest wedding bash/banquet you could ever imagine.

God will not be pointing at you and saying, “He wins!” or “They were right! Sorry!” Start dealing with the shock now folks. It’s not going to happen.

Your ticket to this event will most certainly NOT have a denominational name on it. Nor will your seat at the table be determined by your church or your theological team. The grace and goodness of God is going to erase all the lines, boxes, definitions, fences, dictionaries, sermons, announcements and pronouncements ever made. Your Biblical interpretations won’t amount to a hill of beans. God himself, and his good grace, will be the star of the show.

I don’t care how many times you tell us what God has to do, God is going to exactly what he wants to make Jesus the center of history. And all signals in the advance copies of the programs are that there is going to be one shock and surprise after another.

You may even have to sit by a Lutheran. I know….but what are you going to do about it?

What’s that you’re saying? Your dad was a Christian and he was mean and angry? So God is too, because he’s “our Father?”

No.

What’s that? Your preacher says that God is about to drop things on your car and punish you with his wrath when you make bad choices because we all have to live in the constant fear of the Lord? So God has to be like that, because your preacher is waving a Bible around when he says that?

No.

What’s that? A Christian at your small group says that God punishes us for everything we do wrong, and that God will discipline us with pain and suffering until we start living righteous lives that show we’re serious about Jesus. And God must be that way, because your friend has been a Christian a lot longer than you?

No.

It’s a sad fact that what God has revealed about himself in Jesus doesn’t exactly have a huge audience. But say that God is angry, mean and about to show us just how much with a few displays of wrath and suffering? You’ll fill a stadium.

You see, the grace of God just doesn’t fit in our box. How can God really–I mean c’mon!–how can God be gracious to (fill in the blank with Hollywood celebrities, famous politicians, loudmouth pundits, your jerky boss, that teacher who failed you unfairly, your ex-whatever, people with guns and bombs, and so on)?

The Prodigal Son Returns, Watanabe

God’s gracious face makes our religion fall apart. It takes away all our soapboxes. It shuts our mouths, because none of us deserve it and all of us can have it. God’s love and grace are so far beyond our ideas of what they ought to be that none of our ideas about God can survive the good news that comes in Jesus. Jesus is a salvation, grace, goodness, God revolution.

Titus 2 puts it so well: “11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people…” That’s what has appeared in Jesus. He did not come to condemn, but to save. In him, there is no condemnation. In Jesus, the Father shows his gracious face to all of us, for everything.

In Mark 3: 1-6, Jesus is in church and the religious leaders want to bust him for healing on the Sabbath. They had decided that God was the kind of mean and trivial dictator that cared more about the order of service than a human being’s suffering. So Jesus heals this man, but Mark describes something utterly unique and stunning: “5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.”

The image of Jesus healing in righteous anger at the religious bean counters–who were about to start the process of killing him–is for one simple reason: They sat in synagogue representing God as more interested in a stupid rule than in proclaiming and enjoying his gracious face of compassion for a hurting person.

So Jesus heals that man, put he’s pretty ticked off. If he was the God these guys believed in, he’d have turned them all into Alpacas. Which would have been pretty cool….but you get the point.

Let’s stop it. Let’s stop hiding the face of a gracious God. Let’s show it, sing it, worship in its light, live as if we know that gracious, glorious God as the one the Bible proclaims and who comes to us in Jesus.

Let’s enjoy the face of a gracious God. Now and forever.

Comments

  1. Rob Grayson says

    I think this is one of Michael’s finest posts. I was blown away by it when I first read it a year ago, and reading it again moves me now. This is the God I want to know more of in 2011.

  2. Christiane says

    I have been communicating with people who do not see Jimmy Carter and Billy Graham as Christians.
    I have tried to understand but I cannot understand them. I’m sorry about that, because I tried to understand their reasoning. One thing said on the blog by a minister was that some Christian denominations are sending their members to hell. The minister did not name those denominations, so I don’t know their beliefs or why he would accuse them of that.

    In the midst of all that, I come here and read ‘of God’s grace’. It is like taking a drink of cold water, and restoring my soul. Thank you for this post. It was needed and timely, in my case.

  3. The perfect post for the first day of a New Year – thank you.

  4. Reading this essay by Michael, it is clear that he was influenced strongly by Robert Capon’s Between Noon And Three. It is a scandalous book, one recommended to me by Michael, but with the warning not to let anyone else know I was reading it lest I be branded a heretic.

    It’s ironic that this essay was chosen for today’s iMonk classic post by Chaplain Mike. About the time it was appearing on our site, I was talking with a friend as she told me why she and her husband no longer attend my church. “That church is too heavy on grace,” she said. “There is no emphasis on what God expects us to do.”

    “All he expects us to do,” I said in reply, “is to see that we are dead.”

    “See,” she said. “It’s just grace. There’s more to it than that.”

    And that’s the point of this, isn’t it? There is nothing more to it than Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

    We will be focusing on our death and life in Christ this year in essays. We will be looking at the grace of God and encouraging one another that yes, this really is all there is to it.

    Starting with this classic post by our founder, the iMonk himself, was the right thing to do. Thank you, Chaplain Mike…

    • A couple of years ago, a woman attended our church for 6 or 7 months and then said much the same thing: too much grace. She just couldn’t live with that. Sad, isn’t it?

  5. Tim Becker says

    I want to believe in Religion #2, but dang it, most of the Bible reads like Religion #1.

    • Not every part of the Bible has equal weight. So “most of the Bible” is not the controlling factor.

    • I disagree, Tim. First of all, the Bible is not God. It is not the “Word” of God. The Word made Flesh is Jesus. The Bible is an inspired book, and it has one main purpose: To reveal to us Jesus. And it is only one way Jesus is revealed to us. There are billions of people alive today with no access to the Bible. Can Jesus still be revealed to them? Of course. This takes some of the luster off of the words on the pages of the Bible, yes. And it helps us not to get worked up about what you see as Religion #1 on most of the pages of the Bible.

      The Bible is not given to us as a verbal spanking. It is not God’s warning that we had better straighten up and fly right. The Bible is given to us to show us Jesus, the Son of God, on every page. This life is not about us. It is not about our efforts, our working hard to get it right. It is about Jesus, period.

      I had breakfast with iMonk writer Joe Spann this last week. We got to talking about the woman caught in adultery we read about in John 8. I want to write about this soon, but here is a small part of our discussion.

      “Joe,” I said, “what if this woman returned to her lover instead of her husband. Would she be in sin?”

      “You’re asking the wrong question,” said Joe. “Jesus had just resurrected her life by his grace. He changed her very nature. She was now dead and was alive in Jesus. She was walking in him. I don’t think Jesus was really concerned about who she went back to–her husband or the man who really loved her.”

      Radical? Scandalous? You bet. That is the nature of grace.

      • Of course, the story of the woman caught in adultery doesn’t belong in our Bibles. 🙂

      • I was going to ask, “so Jesus really didn’t say, ‘go and sin no more’?”, but, as Eric reminds us, perhaps we shouldn’t make this text the definitive one.

      • “I don’t think Jesus was really concerned about who she went back to–her husband or the man who really loved her.”

        I hope that I don’t sound harsh in saying this, but that seems rather irresponsible and escapist to me. I mean, yes, grace is necessarily irresponsible in one sense, and thank God for it! But to say that she was walking in Jesus, so it didn’t matter what man she went back to, or rather that Jesus didn’t care, strikes me as being something very different than grace. It’s almost gnostic, the way it divorces spiritual from physical, in separating grace (the spiritual) from the actual life (the physical) it applies to. Actually, it strikes me as the sort of escapist thing an addict would say to someone they’ve hurt–“How can you say it matters if I keep drinking? I’m walking with Jesus.” (And I’ve done a bit of group work as an addict, so I should know.)

        Jesus didn’t care which man she went back to? Well I bet the men sure did! And I bet it mattered to her as well! I mean, she’s been caught in adultery. Try telling the guy who’s been cheated on that since she’s walking in Jesus, it doesn’t matter who she goes back to.

        Is she forgiven? Of course. Does God love her any less because of what she’s done? Of course not. Does what she does next determine how much God will continue to like her, accept her, forgive her, love her? Absolutely not, which I think is the point Joe was making. God’s love is not contractual. But does it matter what she does next? Of course it does.

        Again, I hope that I haven’t been harsh. I love this site, I love you guys and what you do. It has been a tremendous comfort to me. And I wasn’t there for the conversation, so maybe I didn’t take that in its proper context. But I felt like that needed to be said.

        • Michael,
          I hear what you are saying, and I’m there too.
          I’m thinking that if she is now walking in Jesus, she will do the right thing, because
          that’s what Jesus would do.
          Jesus doesn’t lead us down the path to sin, because that isn’t healthy for us. Jesus wants good for us.

          • Sometimes life will get worse for a person before its gets better. And any change takes time. Evangelicals I knew were known for a lack of patiance. No life changes on a dime. You make a mistake with greed, chances are you will make mistakes in the future. The same holds true for any sin. If it’s true about Paul’s thorn in the flesh…I’d wonder what that is.

            Can you iamgine how the church would react if Paul revealed he was dealing with homosexuality? 😀 Man where would the Baptists be on that one!!

        • My complete question to Joe was this: “Let’s say that she is married. She is having an affair because something in her marriage is broken. So let’s say that her husband is abusive. Emotionally, physically, it doesn’t matter. She has found a man who truly loves her. Is she now in sin by returning to the one who loves her?”

          And that is when Joe said, “You’re asking the wrong question…” Perhaps we will explore this more. Perhaps even as a Difficult Scripture…

          • Cedric Klein says

            LOL! When I talked about “wrestling with the possibilities” in the post below, that sort of situation is almost exactly what I had in mind!

          • That context helps me understand the response much better. The scenario I had in mind assumed the husband was a decent guy.

      • Cedric Klein says

        Joe’s answer to the John 8 question just strikes me as taking it too far & neglecting the “Go & sin no more” unless one’s prepared for a LOT more wrestling with the possibilities. And I think if any of the text in that story is valid (and I do believe it is), all of it is.

        Now, here’s the big problem, and I love where St. Michael Spencer went with this & I try to promote Religion #2 as much as I can- I see an undertone of #1 in the Red Letters themselves. People who think Legalistic Sex-Hating Hellfire&Brimstone Paul created orthodox Christianity & ruined the pure teachings of Gracious All-Tolerant NonJudgmental Jesus clearly cannot read the New Testament. Jesus did warn about SinDeathJudgmentHadesGehenna a LOT – He also taught His & the Father’s Love & Grace & Forgiveness a LOT. It ain’t one or the other. It’s a matter of emphasis.

        Maybe we should look at a #3….

        “God is gracious, loving, kind, generous and open-hearted. He rejoices in us as his creations, and is grieved that our sins have made us his enemies and caused so much brokenness and pain. In Jesus, he shows us what kind of God he is and restores the joy that should belong to the children of such a Father. True to his promises, he will bless all people in Jesus, and restore the world by his resurrection victory.

        “You can’t do anything to mess this up. God’s got his heart set on a universe wide celebration.”

        BUT people can & do refuse to be part of The Party, to be the turds in the punchbowl, to hate & abuse & liecheatstealkill – in short, to clinch onto the Self so hard their hands cannot be open to anything else – to receive Grace or to surrender themselves. Yet they also are invited to The Party. It may be that God in His Grace give them such a whupping that their hands unclinch & their hearts break & then they can receive. The Bible calls this “God’s Wrath” It may happen in this life or in the AfterLife/Resurrection. Or it may be that even in the AfterLife/Resurrection, in the midst of the Party, they insist on being miserable & petty…. forever. To be trapped inside of Grace, of Love, of Yahweh/Jesus God forever & unwilling to surrender & raging to get out – that will be the Gehenna Fire.

      • Kelby Carlson says

        A slight tangent here. Bearing in mind this theology of revelation, does anyone have any recommendations of books (especially systematics0 that treat the Word in this manner? Most of the ones I possess are classically reformed, and take the “verbal-plenary” inspiration of Scripture (with the accompanying doctrine of inerrancy) and run with it. I want to better understand how to articulate my own position, which is not the same as that Reformed theologians typically advocate.

      • I had breakfast with iMonk writer Joe Spann this last week. We got to talking about the woman caught in adultery we read about in John 8. I want to write about this soon, but here is a small part of our discussion.

        “Joe,” I said, “what if this woman returned to her lover instead of her husband. Would she be in sin?”

        “You’re asking the wrong question,” said Joe. “Jesus had just resurrected her life by his grace. He changed her very nature. She was now dead and was alive in Jesus. She was walking in him. I don’t think Jesus was really concerned about who she went back to–her husband or the man who really loved her.”

        Radical? Scandalous? You bet. That is the nature of grace.

        As one that recently divorced a wife for her 9-year secretive affair with her boss, this is taking license with the passage that I believe fails to peer intently into it no matter if one believes it is a later addition to the gospel or not.

        It would be hard to miss the setting as being, well, a very deliberate setup perpetrated by jealous religious types using the poor woman as bait. Thrown unceremoniously at Jesus’ feet in disgust. Covered in the dust & shame of such public humiliation, she lay motionless in a fetal position as Jesus curiously writes in that same dust. Those fingers the very ones that also inscribed the tablets of stone given to Moses on Sinai. Jesus probably tracing again those original etchings as testimony to the event. All within that circle of men with rocks in hand should also have been at Jesus’ feet ready to be stoned. The woman’s husband also. No matter if he was abusive or passive. And the man she had been unfaithful with. All of them guilty of breaking the 2 greatest commandments. The only One capable of carrying out the penalty bent low writing in the dirt. That same dirt you & I are made out of. The immensity of this very concentrated event the entire Old Testament & New Testament in miniature…

        You & I need to be there. Cowering at Jesus’ feet rightly accused of breaking the Law. I don’t think any of us would deny this identification with the story. And when Jesus grants divine pardon & instructs us to go & sin no more, then we better understand how all those involved in the incident should have responded. Repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, transformation. For in God’s economy it was for these reasons He came. All the players needed to change their behavior to mirror a heart transformation. It started with the woman. The responses of the others not addressed directly. She was expected to do the right thing. And it could be that it rippled out to those directly involved with her personal life…

  6. I absolutely love this essay. At my funeral, I hope I will have been able to get someone to read this to the people gathered there. What better time and place to get people focusing on what really matters! I guess I could record myself reading this and make sure it is played for the people.

    Jeff writes about this new year, “We will be looking at the grace of God…” That’s great, Jeff. I think many of us need to have a better grasp of grace. I know people will be saying, “So…you guys are Universalists? Is everyone going to be with God no matter how evil they were and no matter if they said they reject God? How is that justice? And Jesus talked about people who will be left outside the kingdom. How do you resolve that?” Weighty questions! Sometimes I am the questioner and sometimes I am the answerer. I tend to like how N.T. Wright views this, but that is for another time.

    I want to “enjoy the face of a gracious God. Now and forever.” Thanks, Michael Spencer. And thanks, Chaplain Mike, for reposting this for us.

    • Jonathanblake says

      Joanie, that is a great idea! I will have to save this post for that reason.

      Thank you Chaplain Mike for posting this on New Year’s Day

  7. No. (1) begs the question of why anyone would admire or worship such a God.

    No. (2) is an improvement, though the problem of evil poses a serious challenge to its plausibility. And anyway, why should the desires and emotions of an external deity (whether benevolent or malevolent) be thought to impose meaning on our lives, above our own desires and emotions?

    It is possible to rethink the nature of the deity so as to avoid these criticisms, but the result would be less recognizable to evangelical Protestants. (This site has a schizophrenic attitude towards evangelicalism, on one hand aspiring to be “post-” while on the other hand, clinging to an evangelical culture and identity.)

    • I agree….#1 makes you want to ignore God, yet that’s how many evangelicals view God. Your other points are correct also…I’ve felt like that also.

    • “And anyway, why should the desires and emotions of an external deity (whether benevolent or malevolent) be thought to impose meaning on our lives, above our own desires and emotions?”

      I’m afraid I don’t understand this question. If God is the creator, then the only true meaning is found in his purpose for creation (including us as part of that creation).

  8. I never heard of grace. I was an evangelicla from 1999 until late 2008/2009. I heard much about God’s wrath and some of the chruches and ministries I was invovled in were far too legalistic. In CCC grace was not covered, Christianity was about behavior modification. In some of the churches I went to grace was not covered, or it was covered as a formula. To earn God’s gace you have to do this, this and then this. I remember one time going to McLean Bible in the DC area and hearing a pastor say, “Everyone wants to talk about grace, grace, grace, tell us about grace…you need to learn about how wrteched you are…” I thought to myself..gosh if we could all be honest I think we would know how sinful we all are; but in many church environments they don’t want to live in the messy day to day experiences of life. Hence you can’t be open about how wretched you are…

    If I encountered grace maybe my “faith” would have gone differently. Think of how legalisitc many programs are in evangelicalism?

    1. Ever have an accountability partner? How legalistic was that? Honestly did it work? No. It was an environment for a one sided smack down.
    2. Ever been on a men’s retreat, they always talk about one or two issues (sex/porn and alcohol) and ignore so much more…
    3. Ever have your parachurch minsitry leader, Pastor been real honest about their past and mistakes? When I was in Campus Crusade in the upper midwest I heard virtually nothing. They would say the generic..”well I partied in college”. Have you ever has a midsdeamenor? Ever been fired from a job for looking at porn at work? Did you get your girlfriend pregnant? Did you make mistakes with drugs when you were younger? Ever have a DUI? Ever deal with homosexuality and live in the tension? Did your wife have an affair? etc.. One of my Crusade directors was a Pharisee, pretty cut and dry…and in the 8 years I knew him he would not talk about his mistakes, and be transperant. Of course he had no problem weighing in on me.
    4. Ever seen grace lived out? Or were you like me where you could see past things brought up repeatedly. Makes one wonder…are you ever forgiven?

    My expereince is that grace is a myth. I don’t expect to find it, no its too easy fro most people. The gospel has to be made complex. Christians and pastors want to boast about what they did on their own labor. Not talk about what they don’t deserve and yet freely receive.

    I’m more or less an agnostic…but if you know of a community in DC that preaches and lives grace…let me know. Maybe I’ll give it another try…

    Nuff said…

    • Have you ever read Brennan Manning? If not, can I suggest his books, (The Wisdom of Tenderness and Abba’s Child are my favorites) as a prescription for those burned out religious games, pseudo-righteousness, and condemnation… Not the same as finding a community that lives grace, of course. But you seem to have encountered a heavy bit of the problem he deals with in his writing.

      Supposedly righteous people’s refusal to be transparent is particularly frustrating, isn’t it.? hmm, might not be too righteous after all…

      • Can a person strike out a third time? I mean…

        Grew up Catholic (which I have thought about spending time in again…)

        1. Burned by Mormonism (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)
        2. Burned by Evangeliclaism (Campus Crusade, various “Bible belieivng churches”
        3. Unknown…the only guidance is that I want to avoid the previous two experiences.

        • Yeah, unfortunately I think you can keep striking out over and over again in this arena.
          Hopefully the sting teaches us something though. With all of us there’s a necessity to learn to see Jesus clearly, to bring light to whatever we’re in the thick of, and to judge everything by it.

          I don’t know of a church in your area. I wish I did. Like Michael Spencer often pointed out though, for many, the pursuit of Jesus-shaped living need not include church, or at least church as we know it.

          Christ is risen, and that’s a bigger reason for rejoicing than any amount of sorrow can oppose. I can’t say much with certainty, especially about church, but I can say this: there is no suffering, and no depth to which man can sink where he is not capable of seeing God’s grace as triumphant, beautiful, sufficient, glorious, perfect, and brilliant, powerful, and secure. It’s that big.

    • Eagle,

      Try this one. It is very grace oriented.

      http://www.saint-athanasius.org/

      • Thanks, PK, for that link. I just read the sermon that was given on Christmas day this year. It is excellent!

        • And the Christmas Eve sermon there was very good. Here is one quotation from it: “He takes your human flesh, your human nature, to be His own, forever, that you may be His forever. That when He goes to the cross to die and then rise again, His death and resurrection be not just His death and resurrection, but yours. Your sin forgiven, your death conquered, your life assured.” THIS is the Gospel message.

    • I am hesitant to do so, but I would recommend Beth Messiah congregation, a Messianic congregation that is sort of in the process of degenerating into a house church. While I do not agree with all of their theology, I would say that they live grace, demonstrate acceptance and love, and avoid wearing religious masks. That particular group of people is in a process of coming out of the kind of religious bondage iMonk describes in his post and moving more and more in the direction of a theology of grace. I can’t guarantee you wouldn’t get hurt again, because people are flawed, and the process of change is imperfect. I can say that it was the only fellowship in that area I could be a part of now. So few groups are willing to accept people as they are. If you are willing to take the risk, you can contact me through my website and I will put you in touch. Or you might be able to find them by searching online. They are based near Gaithersburg, MD.

      • Peter-

        Right now as I figure things out I’m probably going to go through as long period of detox. Here are some problems that I still have to contend with…

        1. I have to live with the repercussions of 1 Pharisee in the context of my job. He thought it would be good to teach me a lesson, and has quite judgemental. The damage he did was hard and it has affected my career. I’ve had to live with his repercussions for the past several years.
        2. Given how everything was treated, everything in my life is now up for examination. For example…
        What do I believe about money?
        What do I believe about friendship?
        What do I believe about career?
        What do I believe about dating?
        What do I believe about sex?
        What do I believe about community?
        What do I believe about happiness?
        On and on it goes….but I was so tainted by everything being in God’s will, and doing everything for God, and everything being micromanaged and analyzed that it had left some bitter, bitter taste in my mouth. How bad was it…?

        I was once helping a former Bible study leader move in the DC area. He is in the orchestra of a large mega church on Leesburg Pike in Tysons Corner. At the time he was engaged to be married and one of the spiritual leaders of the orchestra pulled him aside and gave him a talk about sex. He told him that prayer has to be a deep part of the sexual act, and told him that when him as his wife had sex they spent half their time in prayer and prayed for God’s will on every sexual position, when and how to have sex, etc..

        Yeah Freaky…sound like a cult to you? And this was at a mega chruch that it strongly recomended and pushed as “healthy” So I’m going through a period of detox right now…

        3. Also after this past experience I am trying go figure out if God exists. I’ve wondered if I am agnostic, some of my beliefs are more in line with that, but I think I would be dishonest to myself if I didn’t explore that part…you know? I’ve had enough of facade and I need to be brutally honest with myself. In this process I’ve also spent a lot of time reading atheist and agnositc forums, and meeting other agnostics and atheists as well.

        • Eagle-

          I am sorry you had to deal with that. I understand the need for detox. I currently live in TN and at present am not part of any fellowship. One of my closest friends in the DC area is, I believe, part of the mega church you reference. Our friendship suffered when he started to become more involved. I don’t believe I’d call it a cult, but certainly there are a few potentially cult-like aspects to it. Your anecdote about your friend is quite disturbing.

          Although the group of people I reference is truly something different, I withdraw my suggestion. You definitely need time off. I will pray that you can figure stuff out. If the lines of communication between you and God are still open, I would appreciate it if you do so for me as well.

          Ultimately, I haven’t been able to find a community, anywhere, that consistently preaches and lives grace. Like you, I find Catholicism appealing in some ways. For example, Communion is a picture of God’s grace. A proclamation of Jesus’s death for us, regardless of what we do.

          All I can say is that you’re not alone. There are a lot of people with similar experiences to yours. The main question you have to deal with is what to do with Jesus himself. After that, the question of fellowship is still a tough row to hoe. But maybe you can find kindred spirits outside the walls of the church. In my case, here in small town TN, that place is the local coffeeshop, whose owners, while believers, can no longer be part of any church because the religious spirit. They are on the same level as family to me. I hope you can find something similar where you are.

    • Eagle,

      You need to get back to the Church of Faith instead of the Church of applied faith. I am biased in this area so I won’t go promoting one over the other so look at it as a hint. People with masks are just that – people with masks – no transparancy and only showing what they want you to see so that you can conform with the crowd and one day be on the same plane. But not all churches are this way.

      Retreats are meant to feed your soul. If it is nothing but a self-help book lived out among a group – run away.

      My cycnical thoughts for today…

    • Unfortunately, I have discovered that the Jesus I have found in the churches I have experienced does not appear to be the same Jesus I have encountered in the Gospels. He seems to be a reinterpreted Jesus. I prefer the Jesus of the Gospels. Perhaps you do also. You just gotta keep looking until you find that Jesus, and it may not be in any of the churches that are near you.

      In the DVD book “The Outsider Interviews”, Charlie, the young atheist from Seattle, seems to reflect a similar opinion. In my experience, this attitude is shared by many people under 30.

      Phillip Yancey’s book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” does a pretty decent job handling the topic. We were part of a small group that discussed the book, chapter by chapter. The rest of the group were from very conservative, fundamentalist churches, and they found much of the book unsettling. Surely God couldn’t be so free with grace, especially with certain really terrible sinners!

      Good luck on your journey. The church may have become a roadblock for you, but stopping, or turning around and going back are not the only options. How about going around this roadblock?

  9. “It’s a sad fact that what God has revealed about himself in Jesus doesn’t exactly have a huge audience. But say that God is angry, mean and about to show us just how much with a few displays of wrath and suffering? You’ll fill a stadium.”

    When I first read this I thought Michael was joking. In my experience, those churches and preachers that emphasize God’s love and de-emphasize wrath and holiness (cough: Osteen) are doing quite well. The whole seeker-driven mega-church movement isn’t exactly known for getting tough on sin.

    • Here’s the problem…you cannot talk about sin without speaking about grace. Any talk of sin without grace is legalism. I’ve seldom heard, and I’m trying to think if I had…any regular talks where the two are linked.

    • I don’t think Osteen talks about grace. He talks about having a better life through smiling, good posture and thinking good thoughts. That doesn’t have anything to do with grace…in fact, in some ways, its anti-grace, because as Capon would say, Grace is for the losers not the winners. And Osteen is just teaching how to be a winner.

      • Mj I will concede your point, and I appreciate your words.

        I still think Michael was wrong, however. Osteen and most of the others who fill stadiums are hardly doing so by emphasizing wrath and suffering.

  10. In my opinion, grace cannot overemphasized. Preaching that constantly tells us to straighten up or try harder leads to a strange mix of pride and despair.

    However, we may forget that grace, by it’s nature, is transformative. We are not only saved from the penalty of sin, but the slavery of sin. So the answer is not to try harder by our own self effort, but neither is it to do nothing. It is to spare no cost in drawing closer to Jesus, and letting our morality flow naturally out of that relationship.

  11. Steve Newell says

    There is a different way to look at “Religion1” and “Religion 2”, which is “Law and Gospel”. The Religion 1 is a “Law” based religion in that we are all sinful before a Holy and Just God. Religion 2 is the Gospel of Christ. For those in Christ, we have a loving God. The Law is proclaimed to show us our sins and to break us. The Gospel is proclaimed to show us that God has accounted for our sins through Christ.

  12. I think Romans 6:1-6 answers the questions about sinning after having received grace:

    “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin.” (NLT)

    • Paul says that it is impossible for a person to live in unrepentant and unrelenting sin after true conversion. That is the basic message of Romans 6:1-6.

      Notice that I didn’t say commit sin. There is a significant difference between committing sin and living in sin.

      • Paul does not say that, Mark. But you do, over and over again. And, for some reason, you can never seem to give any examples. Of course, it’s possible for someone to be a fake and a complete hypocrite. And the Bible teaches there is a sin of apostasy when one leaves and rejects the faith. But what is the criteria for judging anyone else? Is there a test? Is there a line where “committing sin” turns into “living in sin”? Is there a time table? Can I commit sin for a week, a month, a year, and then stop before crossing the magic line into “living in sin”?

        Mark, you put people in an unresolvable dilemma, with no assurance and no hope of ever knowing they are saved. If it depends on me and what my life looks like, I am of all men most to be pitied.

        • Chaplain Mike,

          You always turn the tables on my arguments with the same rebuttal: how much? how long? etc. How about using Scripture for once to back up YOUR arguments on this? You said that is not what Paul is talking about, but how do you explain this at the end of Romans 6:6?: “We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin.”

          I don’t put people in an unresolvable dilemma. Yes, assurance comes primarily looking to Christ and his work, but Scripture also says that our life, actions, mindset, and attitude reveal as evidence (not divine proof) whether we are saved or not. Read the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 7:13-23) and the Catholic Epistles (2 Peter 1:3-11) too (even Paul makes this claim in passages like 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-23; Eph 5:5).

          I think the many errors of Christian spirituality today is due to this easy-believism view of assurance. It’s a form of Scofield-Chaferism combined with postliberal, postmodern, emergent, and seeker-friendly theological constructs. Sorry to burst your bubble, but assurance of salvation is NOT the pinnacle of the work of grace.

          I’ve probably studied the Bible and theology more indepth than a lot of people here on a formal setting. The conclusion I have come to in all my years of studying Scripture and various theological tomes is that discipleship, transformation, inner renewal, and perseverance can never ever be separated from the divine gifts of forgiveness and justification. This is what the Bible says as a whole witness of God’s truth. If you don’t like it is too bad. Either a person can accept that and repent or perish with a false hope at the end.

          • Mark, again you avoid my questions. I am not interested in your theological constructs. No one is denying that faith is a living thing that naturally produces good works. That is basic Protestant theology.

            But what you fail to see is that theology is only valuable when applied pastorally in the context of actual living within the family of God and in the world. You have no pastoral sensitivity. You simply repeat your theological conclusions and denounce those you consider less theologically sound. You fail to see that in every instance you quote from the epistles, the author was writing to people he assumed were Christians and for whom he gave thanks throughout the rest of his letter. Of course there is a place for warning and exhorting people who may be going down questionable paths, but that is done only in very specific instances in the New Testament and always in terms of a particular pastoral situation. In contrast, you want to talk about this and emphasize it all the time, which the NT does not do. Any member of a congregation served by you would be thoroughly black and blue from being beaten up so much spiritually.

      • This passage has more to do with the death and Resurrection of Jesus than anything else. And, yes the believer’s death and resurrection with him. As proclamation, not warning. To miss that is to give away a hobby horse mentality, one probably reinforced by a select listening of well-manicured celebrity preacher-guys. While it’s excusable to maybe miss Jesus in a passage from, say Zephaniah, it’s much less so to miss him in Romans. Warning against false conversions is far from the point here, and will always be trumped by rejoicing over Christ’s victory. Yes, your thinking indeed indicates a large, brightly colored, hyped-up, hobby horse.

        • I never left Jesus out of that passage. Actually, it is because of Jesus that depraved sinners are made new.

          I think a lot of people just don’t feel comfortable with what the Bible says about the demands of the gospel. They have this entitlement attitude to heaven: I can do and believe whatever just take me to heaven with least amount of commitment to Christ.

          • See my reply below. Generalizations will no longer be accepted.

          • When you talk about true conversion vs. false without making huge deal about the Death and Resurrection of Christ, in fact not even mentioning it at all, you are indeed leaving him out of the passage. Your interpretation waters it down to man-centered do-right-isms. If Jesus was your focus, it’s not evident.

            The Bible itself doesn’t have this problem of hyping behavior. Death and Resurrection are the point of the passage, and ultimately the entire Bible. “You’re not really saved if you still sin” is a hobby horse here. In fact, the endless parade of “(fill-in-the-blank) aren’t really saved” from some Christian leaders amounts to hype, and slowly digests itself for lack of food. The entitlement you speak of is a result Jesus-lite entertainment and religious hype, not the proclamation of forgiveness and reconciliation. Relentless focus on believers’ good or bad behaviors quickly becomes a Gospel-optional scenario and produces more fake religion, not less. If this is the best thing you can get out of Romans 6:1-6, you did indeed, for all intents and purposes, leave Jesus out.

          • At bottom, this is a worship vs. idolatry issue. Is God’s grace in Christ good enough to look at without qualifications about how we’re supposed to behave? Or do we need to gaze on ourselves equally as much as Jesus. Any opportunity to stop looking at myself and start looking at Jesus, I’ll take, thank you very much. Of course it’s true that true faith produces transformation, but it’s also true that light is both a particle and a wave, and that the Bears won the 1986 Super Bowl. True does not equal food. Don’t mistake the fruit for the vine. What you dwell on is the point here, not what’s propositionally true.

          • Nate,

            Reading your comments to my posts here, I see that you don’t understand how I relate faith and works to our salvation – which is the view of the Reformers.

            I never confused the fruit with the tree, or the water with the spring. Why do many people think that the slogan “faith without works is dead” is the same as “try your best to earn a place in heaven”?

          • Mark, I don’t think those two statements are the same. I understand that faith without works is dead, and I QUICKLY MOVE ON to the real meat of the Gospel: Jesus crucified and risen. That’s because that’s where the food is. Again, It’s a matter of what you dwell on, not what is propositionally true. If “faith without works is dead” is your drumbeat, you can say goodbye to any real fruit to speak of. Once again “The Saints won the Super Bowl last year” is a true statement. Yet we don’t sit around and dwell on it because it doesn’t generate anything. Your reading of Romans 6:1-6, indicates a hyped up hobby horse, not a fascination with Christ crucified and Risen.

  13. I disagree with Religion #1 and #2.

    I have to say though I don’t see anything Pharisaic about saying that God demands that his people be righteous, kind, merciful, generous, compassionate, etc. (whether to loved ones or strangers) as an indispensable sign of salvation.

    I think the most crooked and demonic theology out there is any view of salvation that says one can continue to be willfully and unrepentantly hateful, racist, injust, greedy, self-oriented, etc. and still be saved at the end.

    • And, who in the world promotes that “one can continue to be willfully and unrepentantly hateful, racist, injust, greedy, self-oriented, etc. and still be saved at the end”?

      • A lot of people who claim to be evangelicals. Some people who participate on this board frequently.

        • Mark, these generalizations are unacceptable. Please engage in actual thoughtful discussion with one of these “some people” you are talking about. No one here is an enemy, we’re trying to have a talk.

  14. It’s not just churches. The family I grew up in was/is very much Type 1. It’s been only very recently that I have come to see how very abusive this is. And so just as the healed blind man was “put out of the synagogue,” so have I been put out of my family of origin.

    • I’m sorry to hear about that, Patricia. Unfortunately, it is all too common for so many these day. Proclaiming that Jesus has done it all, and we play no part in salvation, is not a message many want to hear today. Not only will those who fall on the grace of God be “put out of the synagogue,” but they will, like you, find themselves on the outs with their families and friends.

      And yet it is the only option offered us who seek to walk with Jesus up to the High Places…

      • It’s not merely a matter of theology. It’s the posturing that says, “No matter what we do to you, you deserve it.”

        • Well, now that is getting into emotional abuse. Do you have a trusted friend you can share this with? A counselor or pastor you can talk this over with?

          • My husband and our teen sons were there at the time and saw/heard everything. I have a friend I talk to by phone or e-mail.

  15. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face etc. We are justified by grace, Jesus stands in our place, but we are still sinners. Having been a sinner for 70+ years, it’s hard to change, I can’t do it on my own, but Jesus and the Holy spirit are there for me.

  16. God’s grace destroys petty power plays and systems. That alone explains why it often gets second billing. The irony is that it replaces petty systems with the true power of compassion and sacrifice as we follow Jesus, but so often we miss this. I’m glad to hear IM will be focusing on God’s grace in 2011.

  17. I’ve never understood why people/Christians don’t ‘understand’ the Old Testament and see God as a God of wrath. Oh my, I remember reading through the OT for the first time(about15 yrs ago) and thinking, wow, how good is God, how gracious, how merciful…it was all I could see; it broke me. I was just coming back to having a relationship with God, after walking away since high school(10 years earlier), and realized I’d never read the whole Bible; I did not even know what it had to say–and I’d been raised in a very evangelical/fundamental home.
    It (OT) changed my life–I realized that it wasn’t just Jesus who extended grace (which, of course, I’m sure I’ll never grasp that reality in its entirety) but that it was God, too, who continually gave grace. Blew my mind, still does. Just finished an OT class at a well-known Bible college near me, and it was so great because the prof kept reminding the students and pointing out over and over God’s mercy and grace–I hope they heard it and get it before they are stuck in Religion #1!

  18. The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Yeah, preach sin, hellfire & brimstone. If it is not countered by even more grace, you have missed the gospel message by a divine stadia (or equivalent).

    “Grace–the last best word.” ~Philip Yancey

    Sin can never trump grace. That is the way the divine game of heaven or hell is played…