October 20, 2017

Scandalous Grace of God

This appreciation is by Jeff Dunn.

I first met Michael Spencer, via the telephone, after I had my heart turned inside-out by a bit of writing most would never have dared to compose.

It was shortly after his (in)famous collection of posts, The Coming Evangelical Collapse. As a literary agent, I spent considerable time “scouting” for new writers and/or new ideas to write about. When I read the Christian Science Monitor’s version of The Coming Collapse, I immediately went to the Internet Monk’s site. There I found a treasure chest filled with posts and essays on all sorts of topics: the Bible, Christians and depression, contemporary Christian music, and one titled Our Problem With Grace. (If you are fairly new to this site, I recommend you start with this essay. It will give you a great picture of Michael Spencer’s heart.) I printed off a number of these and stuffed them in my brief case. I had a business and family trip to make to Ohio and wanted to take them with me. Before I left, I emailed Michael and set a time to talk with him the following week.

The night before we were to visit, I pulled out the stack of posts and began reading. I wasn’t just taken by his writing ability—which was strong—but with his vulnerability. He was pouring out his life in these words and then posting them for people to read, dissect, critique, and ridicule. There was no pretense in what Michael had to say. He just said what needed to be said with no pride and no false humility. Writing like this, I thought, changes lives.

And I was right. My life was about to be changed.

When I talked with Michael on the phone the next day, I told him he had cost me a good amount of sleep the night before.
“I read many of your posts and essays and am really impressed,” I said. “Then I got to one titled Our Problem With Grace. That one was not just good. It is revolutionary. God used that last night to really mess in my heart. I sat up praying and thinking and repenting for some time.”

Here is the opening paragraph of this essay:

“Amazing Grace” may be the church’s favorite hymn, but I’m not the first person to recognize that the subject of God’s actual grace seems to give many Christians a case of the hives. Singing about it is way cool. After that we need a team of lawyers to interpret all the codicils and footnotes we’ve written for the new covenant.

Or this:

For me, the Gospel itself is “the Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). The Bible is incomprehensible apart from grace. It is the tidal wave predicted in the first scenes, and it eventually arrives to soak everything and everyone in Jesus.

Michael was really moved that I was moved by something he had written many years before, but still considered it one of his most important essays. We talked further about grace and our reaction to it when we meet it head-on. Michael accepted my offer to represent him as his literary agent, and a major relationship in my life had begun.

Each time we talked, I steered our conversation (after a visit about our mutual love for the Cincinnati Reds) to the topic of God’s grace. One day Michael dared to recommend a, well, scary book to me. “I don’t suggest this book to very many people,” he said. “And be careful who you let see you reading it. It is a challenging book to read, but if you go at it prayerfully, it will melt your mind.”

So I sought for, found, and ordered Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon And Three. Michael was right. This book cannot be read by just anyone. Most would stop after a chapter or two and declare the author a heathen. Others would get halfway through and tear the book apart—literally—before burning it and organizing rallies to keep anyone else from buying it. But the few—the very few—who will read this book prayerfully will come to see God’s grace in an entirely new light. God’s grace will be viewed as scandalous, radical, ridiculous and impossible. It is especially uncomfortable for the religious as it needs no religion at all to operate.

A rather tame passage from Capon:

I said grace cannot prevail until law is dead, until moralizing is out of the game. The precise phrase should be, until our fatal love affair with the law is over—until, finally and for good, our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed. As long as we leave, in our dramatizations of grace, one single hope of a moral reckoning, one possible recourse to salvation by bookkeeping, our freedom-dreading hearts will clutch it to themselves.

Both Michael Spencer and Robert Capon approach grace in way that says the prodigal got nothing he deserved and was the winner, and the elder son gripped tightly to what he deserved and came out on the short end. And both Michael and Fr. Capon want to know just why we have so much trouble with God giving his forgiveness away freely, even sloppily. Their questions continue to echo in my heart to this day.

Is it really OK for God to forgive freely even those who don’t deserve it? Oh I hope so, for I stand at the front of the undeserving line.

Grace: God’s Redemption Act Covers Everything. I just made that up, but it seems to fit. And it leaves no room for me to hang additions on it to make it more acceptable to my performance-oriented religion.

I presented Michael and his writings to several publishers, but only one was brave enough and possessed the foresight to sign him to a book contract. I have just finished reading through the nearly-final edited manuscript for Michael’s forthcoming book with Random House/Waterbrook, Mere Churchianity. My oh my, there is going to be quite an outcry when this book hits the shelves in September. Church leaders will scream at the top of their lungs just how wrong Michael is. Or, perhaps, how right he is but not about their church. This is not just going to be another book on the shelf. This is going to be a stink bomb rolled into Evangelical churches all across the country. A much-needed stink bomb, if you ask me. This is a book you need to buy and read as soon as it is available. Then buy several more copies and give them away.
I no longer work solely as a literary agent. I have started two new publishing companies in the middle of the biggest upheaval seen in the book world since Gutenberg. But I remain committed to Michael and the platform he built on which to share his thoughts.

Michael may not be with us much longer, but his passionate heart for Jesus and His grace, as seen through Michael’s words, will live on.

Jeff Dunn is the publisher of Electric Moon Publishing and the just-formed Special Author Publishing (which publishes the works of authors with behavioral and physical handicaps). He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a hopeless fan of the Cincinnati Reds.

Comments

  1. Thanks, Jeff, for the reminder about Capon’s Between Noon And Three. I read one of Capon’s books on the parables and I can understand how Michael was so struck by the things that Capon wrote. I will read this book, too, eventually.

    And thank you for being Michael’s literary agent. I have his book pre-ordered and am looking forward to reading it!

  2. Thanks for pointing out “Our Problem with Grace”… what a wonderful, wonder-filled essay that is. To God be the glory for his scandalous, prodigal grace.

  3. David Cornwell says:

    Michael Spencer’s writings and this website are like a beacon of light to some of us who have needed it. I found it late in my journey, but it has opened my mind and encouraged my spirit, a breath of fresh air blowing through the staleness of my orthodoxy. All I can say is thanks to God and to his servant Michael.

  4. “Between Noon and Three” is definitely not for everyone, but the awesome message of grace is so freeing. This is one of my favorite passages:

    ” Restore to us, Preacher, the comfort of merit and demerit. Prove to us that there is at least something we can do, that we are still, at whatever dim recess of our nature, the masters of our relationships. Tell us, Prophet, that inspite of all our nights of losing, there will yet be one redeeming card of our very own to fill in the inside straight we have so long and so earnestly tried to draw to. But do not preach us grace. It will not do to spit the pot evenly at 4 a.m. and break out the Chivas Regal. We insist on being reckoned with. Give us something, anything; but spare us the indignity of this indiscriminate acceptance.

    Lord, let your servants depart in the peace of their proper responsibility. If it is not too much too ask, send us to bed with some few shreds of self-respect to congraulate ourselves upon. But if that is too hard, leave us the consolation of our self-loathing. Only do not force us free. What have we ever done but try as best we could? How have we so hurt you, even by failing, that you should now turn on us and say that none of it makes any difference, not even our sacred guilt? We have played this game of yours and it has cost us.

    Where do you get off suggesting a drink at a time like this?”

    If you think a book like “The Shack” is full of heresy, I strongly suggest staying away from this book, otherwise you will probalbly want to form a mob and burn it in a state of effigy.

  5. Another Mary says:

    Thank you for your post and for having the courage and insight to publish Michael Spencer’s writings. Living in a rural area I am limited in the nubmer of churches available. (And it doesn’t look like I will be moving anytime soon.) Sometimes I come away feeling so untouched. I used to blame myself for not being spiritual enough. Reading Michael’s essays has encouraged my heart and faith so much. I keep grabbing people at church and telling them “You’ve got to read this guy’s stuff, it’s rich!”
    I keep praying for Michael and his family and that they will reap some of the rewards and appreciation of his bright gift here on earth. I have preordered the book too.

  6. Thank you for writing this while Micheal is still alive. I hope he is well enough to read your tribute, and that he knows his readers heard your heart.

    I wish you well on your journey into newer ways to publish. Those of us not in the industry don’t appreciate the loyalty and fierce tenderness agents give their writers.

    There may well be an outcry when the book comes out. Some of us will just cry.

    Go under the mercy.

  7. In any relationship, each person has two options: to focus on one’s self, or to focus on the “other”. This seems to me to be the problem we have in in our individual relationships with God. God keeps the focus on us–his “other”– but we don’t keep the focus on God–our “Other”. We focus instead on ourselves. (How am I doing? Have I do enough? Will I be saved? How bad am I?) But when we turn the focus on the Other, our emphasis changes. We can wonder at the love of One who loves us always. We have the freedom to love. When we are no longer obsessed with ourselves, the perspective shifts to grace we receive from the relationship.

  8. I got an up close and personal look recently at the love affair Christians have with the law – and it ain’t pretty!

    My husband taught Keller’s “A Prodigal God” to our bible study in three parts. In his second session, when he got to the elder brother and spoke about moralizing and its effect both on the church and unbelievers, the sparks really started to fly. Emails buzzed around and all kinds of concerns raised about “who” my husband was referring to. He was a bit stunned, as he was absolutely referring to NOBODY in particular, but apparently the moralizing shoe fit some people quite well and they weren’t happy about it. My husband ended up being questioned about his Christianity in ways we would have never predicted, with people apparently having concerns about him not believing in “inerrant” scripture – as if the concept of grace is not found in “inerrant” scripture.

    For all of our talk about grace, wondrous grace, glorious grace, amazing grace, we’re really quite leery of God’s scandelous grace!

    • I highly recommend your husband never attempt to teach anything by Capon then. He would be stoned in the church parking lot…

      • Savannah says:

        I’ll pass that along to him. I think he has hung up his teaching hat for the foreseeable future, though, as he is no masochist!

        I will be recommending Capon’s book to him, though, and will read it myself. Thanks.

        • Please be forewarned that it, like grace itself, is scandalous. If you are offended by the way Capon presents grace, please don’t throw any rocks at me!

          • Savannah says:

            No need for concern. “Scandal” doesn’t concern me and I’m not easily offended by the viewpoints of others, particularly if they are on the side of grace, not law. There are no rocks coming your way, regardless.

    • “The Prodigal God” is a real eye opener. I’d read at least two other books about the parable and still didn’t GET IT until we did a study on this in our church. Amazing indeed.
      Some folks had a problem with describing God as prodigal, as a lavish spender who didn’t blanch at the cost. On the whole, my Lutheran church accepted the content of the book without any stress or strife.
      Thank you Michael S. for all you have done with this website!

      • Savannah says:

        J Voss, I never “got” this parable, either, until I read Keller’s book. In fact, I was so taken aback I had to turn right around and re-read it.

        Part of the problem in teaching that book is that it forces people to confront their misconceptions about what Jesus was really saying in this parable, and not surprisingly, some people are not that thrilled with that prospect.

  9. Sorry, that should have been “scandalous grace”. I can spell, but apparently I can’t type!

  10. Todd Erickson says:

    Brennan Manning quotes Capon quite a bit in his books. And refers to “Scandalous Grace”. He’s generaly been branded a universalist and a heretic as a result, but I take a good bit of refuge in his books.

    • So are Universalists proponents of what we are calling “scandalous grace”?

      • Todd Erickson says:

        Anybody who advocates a system in which A. we can choose for ourselves, and B. we don’t have to pay our way, is generally branded a Universalist at some point.

  11. I remember Dave Busby saying that grace that can’t be abused is no grace at all.
    BTW isn’t “Between Noon and Three” a 1970’s western starring Charles Bronson?