October 20, 2020

Monday with Michael Spencer: Grace is as dangerous as ever

“Neither do I condemn you. Now go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

When the quality of God’s mercy in the Gospel no longer amazes you, you will begin to justify the dilution of amazing grace into religious grace, or moral grace, or grace in response to something.

Real grace is simply inexplicable, inappropriate, out of the box, out of bounds, offensive, excessive, too much, given to the wrong people and all those things.

When God’s grace meets us, Jesus has to order away the accusers of our conscience. Satan. Religion. Parents. Church members. Culture. Morality. Legalism. Civility. The oughts. The shoulds. The of course we know thats. The I’d like to but I just can’ts.

Jesus orders them away so he can tell us that grace is doing what only grace can do, and we must go and live in the reverberation of forgiveness. We must live with the reality of grace when it makes no sense at all, can’t be explained and won’t be commodified or turned into some form of medicine.

You may not know that this story of the woman caught in adultery is a bit of a homeless story, banging around various manuscripts of the New Testament with no real home. It comes to rest in John 8, but it’s not part of the original. It’s a story that the Jewish leaders of early Christianity wouldn’t have liked, and recovering Pharisees would probably have been happy to lose it.

But it persisted, and is in our New Testament, I believe, because at the heart of true Christian experience is this inexplicable, annoyingly inappropriate, wondrously superlative experience of Jesus saying, “I don’t condemn you. Go and live your life.”

He says it to the divorced. To the expelled. To the unemployed. He says it to criminals. To perverts. To the damaged and the worthless. He says it to cutters, to whores, to greedy businessmen, to unfaithful husbands, to porn addicts and thieves. He says it to the lazy, the unholy, the confused and even the religious. He says it to you and to me.

It’s how he changes lives, and it’s as dangerous as ever.

• • •

From a 2007 post


  1. Amen, Michael. My soul magnifies the Lord….for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

  2. And if I can’t pray
    what matter is that to God
    who speaks to my soul?

  3. “Grace is wildly irreligious stuff. It’s more than enough to get God kicked out of the God union that the theologians have formed to keep him on his divine toes so he won’t let the riffraff off scot-free. Sensible people, of course, should only need about thirty seconds of careful thought to realize that getting off scot-free is the only way any of us is going to get off at all.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon, The Romance of the Word

    • BTW, it was Michael and Jeff that led me to read Capon.

    • Which is why a lot of “sensible” people stop thinking at about the 29-second mark – or to play it safe, much sooner. :-/

    • flatrocker says

      >…”getting off scot-free…”

      Interesting how Capon is drawing contrast through generalized remarks concerning one group by invoking a disparaging and biased term describing another group – all while attempting to define grace. Misses the mark by a country mile.

      • I’ve known quite a few theologians in my time, especially in the Reformed camp. I’ll grant, many of the professional ones are gracious folk. But just as many of the pros, and legions of the amateurs, fit Capon’s description to a tee. The shoe fits, so it is hardly unfair to ask them to wear it.

      • That Other Jean says

        Wait, what? The term “scot,” not capitalized, is a Middle English term for a tax, a fine, or a contribution. Scot-free simply means “without penalty.”

  4. Ronald Avra says

    I dry much needed this today.

  5. john barry says

    Was the woman told by Jesus to go and sin no more not live your life? Just asking

    • Could you clarify that please?

    • Dana Ames says

      jb, (and Joel)

      this is again a question of interpretation – what it means to sin.

      One of the things I love about the Eastern Christian way of looking at it is that sinning is not what we were created for. “Not-sinning” is in fact what is proper to our human nature. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that we have a “sin nature” – that is simply a bad and misleading translation of “flesh” as St Paul uses the term. So when Jesus tells the woman to sin no more, he is, indeed, telling her to “live your life” – the life she was meant to live as a truly human being, her particular self – a life without “missing the mark” of true humanity (of which Jesus himself is the first specimen… “Behold, the human being” is what Pilate said, prophetically).

      In EO, “sin” is not understood as breaking moral law or defying commandments. At its root, it is anything that leads to and feeds death – all kinds of death, but primarily the kind that is non-existence, the kind that ends in the corruption (phthora in Greek) and dissolution of the grave – and thus the thwarting of God’s creation plan. Sin is primarily relational, a result of cutting ourselves off from God, and then trying to find the life of the Age to Come (“eternal life”) from our own resources and the drive that comes from the fear of death/non-existence (Heb 2), manifested in how we treat others.

      So in those moments when we, by God the Holy Spirit working in us (grace in EO), manage to do things from self-giving love and not from self-preservation, we are living as Truly Human Beings – the persons God created us to be.

      This is one of the things I understood Scripture to be saying (thanks to Willard and Wright) some time before I came to EO, and I was completely awe-struck and delighted to find that it was part of Orthodox interpretation.

      Christ is risen!

      • john barry says

        Dana, thanks for the excellent and understandable viewpoint of your faith. I can follow the ball if it is dribbled slowly and close to the ground so I appreciate how concise you explain EO teachings.

        In the context of the verse quoted John 8.11 the woman knew that she was breaking the moral and civil law of her time. Jesus came, gave her salvation and instructed her to sin no more as he was on this side of the cross. Now we give our sins to Jesus where they were washed away by his blood, the other side of the cross.

        Also to me, we do not know the decision of the woman, what path did she take? Did she accept the command or request, whatever it was , to sin no more. To poorly learned me again it is just another foreshadowing of salvation though Jesus, our Savior. We agree that sin does separate us from God, thanks to Jesus we believers have no sin, Again it is all in interpretation and I thank you again for your explanation of EO belief.

        • jb, But the story is not about the woman; it is about her accusers, and the difference between Jesus and the accusers. When we focus on the woman, we are missing the point. The story is pulling us into recognizing ourselves in the accusers, and seeing the tremendous gap between their reaction (which is also ours, in one form or another) and Jesus’ reaction. By focusing on the woman, we evade the confrontation with our own sin that the story is moving us toward.

          • john barry says

            Robert F. good point and of course you are right, it is about the “woman” but also about the accusers.
            John 8.11 was specific to the command to the woman . It is about both. The accusers were the law which we all know cannot save you but condemn you.

            Even as a kid, I wondered why was the man involved with the woman not judged by the “law” aka it takes two to tango. I am glad that most cities now arrest the “johns” as well as the ladies. The only person there who could stone the woman showed mercy to the woman. Jesus did live in a glass house and still did not throw stones, because he came to heal , love and forgive.

            We do not know from the Bible what decision , what change the woman made but we know the accusers did not change and only proved the law without mercy would even condemn the innocent.

  6. Burro (Mule) says

    Grace for the lynchers? the wifebeaters? the Gileadites? the Tiki-Torchers? that guy in the Stasi, the Gestapo, the Okhrana, the Siguran?a knocking at your door at four in the morning? the tipos en the Santiago stadium, the ethnic cleansers, or just that guy who lives next door to you who wishes that all these fags, trannies and semi-women who have crawled out of the uncanny valley and taken up residence would just go away?

    C’mon Christians, lets see your stuff.

    • Quite simple – if there’s Grace enough for them, there just might be hope for me. For who is worse – those who know not God, or are at least His honest enemies, or those who claim to/think they know Him and His will and still don’t do It?

      So yeah – either Grace for Everybody with a Capital G or a Capital E, or let’s just get to WWIII and have done with it.

    • Yep, grace for everyone.

    • Absolutely. More than one homophobic visitor to my parish has found themselves getting free coffee refills to counter their angry glares, and the person who spent the most time working against my membership and I are friends (and he’s better at grace than I am, given what he does in other parts of his life!). It’s the Lord’s way.

      Otherwise, there’s really no point to the Jesus Prayer, I think.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        I love it that you and I are in the same communion.

        • –> “…are in the same communion.”

          And there’s where it’s at, really. No matter our differences, we share the same communion.

        • Me, too!

          It is hard to stay sometimes, but impossible to leave, if that makes sense. Home is like that.

    • Grace all around, for everyone.

    • Christiane says

      Hello Burro,

      “Grace for the lynchers? the wifebeaters? the Gileadites? the Tiki-Torchers? that guy in the Stasi, the Gestapo, the Okhrana, the Siguran?a knocking at your door at four in the morning? the tipos en the Santiago stadium, the ethnic cleansers, or just that guy who lives next door to you who wishes that all these fags, trannies and semi-women who have crawled out of the uncanny valley and taken up residence would just go away?

      C’mon Christians, lets see your stuff.”

      Yes. . . . . if you’re talking about the grace that comes to you ‘as you are’ and changes you, then ‘yes’

      . . . as Michael says, though, ‘grace is dangerous’ and when it comes in the way that it knocks you off of your horse and temporarily blinds you to get your attention and convict you, then I believe Michael is right.

      As far as the depth of the trouble those people you describe are in, and the severity of the condition of their souls, a verse from sacred Scripture does indicate, this:
      ” . . . where sin increased, grace increased all the more ” (from Romans 5:20)

      We can’t figure it out that the worst among us who do unspeakable evil might be extended grace, but we might consider this:
      “Hurting people are the ones who hurt people” (Wade Burleson wrote that his wife believed that)

      Maybe ‘grace’ is a force that stops the cycle of abuse? We see it as an ‘intervention’, yes. And it is supernatural. And it does change lives. Even the lives so messed up and so destructive that we can’t possibly imagine it might change? So, ‘yes’. When Christ ‘assumed’ our humanity during His Incarnation, He assumed our entire humanity, so He could have the chance to heal it. . . . . so the possibility of divine grace impacting the worst of our kind IS there, IN Christ, already. 🙂

    • Clay Crouch says

      Yeah, for everyone except those Russian oligarchs.

    • Of course, it’s easy to say, “Yes, grace for everyone.” But the devil is in the details. God’s grace to other people will cost us something; just ask the older brother in the parable about the Prodigal Son. There is pain involved, and it’s messy, not clean. There is grace offered in stopping, or trying to stop, those intent on doing harm, up to and including the use of force.

      • Christiane says

        I think ‘grace’ from God is ‘interconnected’ and what benefits one, in time and maybe in another fashion, will benefit those connected with their first one blessed . . . . but ‘grace’ can be ‘painful’ depending on how prideful a person is and how much stock they put into non-essentials

  7. Love keeps no record of wrongs is a part of this. And it means that you will not be judged in the end by them. And that doesn’t fit with many a theology. And it doesn’t seem proper that people get away with detestable things in this life. And as to who will then be saved it means all are, some are not. That illogic is also confounding. And just one more thing. This does make one consider what record is kept.

    • Christiane says

      “Love keeps no record of wrongs is a part of this.”

      I thought this means that when you ‘love’, you don’t keep a list of grudges against someone who has offended you . . .

      it may be a cultural thing, but we Western folks are from the Anglo-Saxon ‘weirguild’ where when some wrong was done, there had to be a payment worthy of one’s loss . . . . . this concept weighed heavily into the Dark Ages and Middle Ages among people of Anglo-Saxon derivation and you can see its impact in their Christianity rather starkley

  8. Actually what Jesus said to the woman was: “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (NIV) – not “I don’t condemn you. Go and live your life.” as stated in the article. It is an important distinction I think. “Leave your life of sin” is quite different than simply ” go and live your life.

    • It’s also an important distinction from, “Shall we stone this slut as Moses commanded us?”

    • Joel, I agree with you on this one. It’s like St. Paul said “ Should we keep on sinning so that grace may abound ?” Jesus showed his grace towards the woman but as Eeyore says I think Jesus told her to quit being a slut. In John Jesus heals a lame man and tells him “now you are well so stop sinning or something worse may happen to you “. I don’t believe these examples are given to say to just live your life. There is more to it than that. But it is true that only the grace of Christ can help me.

      • That’s not what I said.

      • Stbndct, you must be reading the NIV…atrocious translation.

        “What! shall we continue in sin?” NOT “shall we continue sinning?”

        “Harmartia” is a noun, not a verb. Paul is using the term to denote a place or realm or domain, not a continuing action. Rhetorical device. “If we’ve left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn’t you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land!”

  9. Love this post!

    I happened to be reading a few of my old poems last night and stumbled upon this one. Seems to fit Michael’s message.


    The Best of Rick Rosenkranz
    Rick Rosenkranz (2009)

    The noisy racket
    of the lives around me
    has me troubled,
    for what makes me think
    I’m living my life any better?

    I am afraid,
    for as I listen
    to the din of the world around me
    I fear I haven’t given it my best,
    or if I have, that it’s not good enough.

    I’m afraid,
    afraid that when my life-song ends
    I’ll approach the gates of heaven
    and when I play for God “The Best of Rick Rosenkranz”
    He’ll ask me, “Is this all there is?”

    I am afraid,
    afraid that the moments of goodness
    in my collection of greatest hits
    will be sadly meager, overwhelmed
    by my vast library of cacophonic catastrophes.

    I am afraid
    that my selfish noodling and
    my musical wretchedness
    has made me a one-hit wonder,
    a one-and-done musician.

    I’m afraid God will see all I’ve done,
    frown like a disappointed father,
    tell me that he expected more from me,
    and then begin to weep.

    I’m afraid he’ll cry as he tells me
    my disharmonies can’t enter his holy home
    that my life-music is too dissonant
    that he can’t allow the dark sounds of my soul
    to taint his chorus of angels.

    I’m afraid my best is not good enough
    and never will be
    and I’ll be turned away.

    I fall down at the cross
    cry out for help where he, as a man, died.

    Tears fall upon my head
    his holy rain touches my each missed note
    flows into my each bad stanza;
    A melody begins to form inside the impure noise
    as he cleanses my life-long recording.

    My music will never be good enough, I fear
    and it’s with that fear that I put my songs
    into the hands of the only one I know
    who can turn a person’s music
    into what it was meant to be.

    “The Best of Rick Rosenkranz.”
    It isn’t very good, never will be,
    but it’s being infused now
    with the sweet sound
    of his grace.

  10. Ronald Avra says

    I seem to have observed, and it is increasingly tending toward conviction, that those who consider themselves among the “redeemed, slaves set free,” are too relieved to bother counting the sins of their colleagues, while those who number themselves among the “elect, the chosen,” are more concerned about filtering through the crowd to make sure that none of the ineligible have crept in.

    • Christiane says


    • Burro (Mule) says

      I have been tempted at times to think that this is the root of the Devil’s condition.

    • Captain Kevin says

      Are they not synonymous? I would consider myself, along with all believers, among the elect, the chosen, the redeemed, a slave set free. That being said, hopefully I tend to be too relieved to bother counting others’ sins.