June 26, 2017

The Face of the Gracious God

UPDATE: My essay “Our Problem With Grace” deals with some of the issues critical commenters are raising. I recall that Lloyd-Jones said that you can generally be sure that you’ve preached the Gospel when you’re accused of going too far in the direction of grace.

And just a few weeks ago, it was The Gospel and Legalism.

As always, dedicated to Fr. Robert Capon, a light for me upon the gracious face of God.

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:

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-word 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)?

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. Michael,
    I like what you said about hope in near universalism. I feel as though I am needing to hope in that too in order to have any hope at all. I recently just had to start taking prozac because the bible was freaking me out so much. Since I seem to be heading down the same path as you with the near universalism, i wonder if you could give me a little guidance. I suppose you have to have some hope for another chance at repentance at the resurrection right? Otherwise it would already be case closed for the billions who have died in ignorance of the gospel. And I wonder what verses of scripture help you hope for that last chance of repentance for those who have already died. thanks for any insight for a fellow pilgrim.

  2. “Goliath:

    I’m sure that can be arranged.”

    Ah, the typical Christian response: when all else fails, threaten with hellfire, perdition, etc. Way to show that Christian “love”!

  3. “I’d rather burn in hell for all eternity than follow Goliath’s (above poster) god.”

    And just what makes you think that I worship a god?

  4. Oh — I get it. Goliath — “Go ahead, little man — see if you can kill me a with smooth theological stone.”

    While you sit there alone in your defiant unbelief hoping to disrupt this open and mostly loving discussion of the similarities and differences in our faith and worship of the One who made us and saves us, every molecule, atom and particle of your being is singing praises to our Great God in perfect beautiful harmony.

    Thank you for showing up with your beautiful symphony.

  5. iMonk,
    These sermons on God’s Grace are truly wonderful–it is the indwelling Spirit speaking through you, filling you to overflowing with God’s Grace.

    I believe you are absolutely correct–God’s Grace is so loving, so undeserved, so liberating it’s absolutely RADICAL–and religious folk cannot deal with it. So, mirroring Galatians, they want to return to the Old Testament and the Mosaic Law–not even realizing this is apostasy and denies Christ Jesus and the Gospel.

    The most convicting thing about all this is I find it necessary to pray for those Christians who preach this false Gospel and to LOVE them.
    🙂

    Amen.

  6. “You may even have to sit by a Lutheran.”

    ::she takes a bow:: Can’t wait to shake your hand and buy you a drink.

    Thanks for the most fun I’ve had reading about the generous grace of our Lord all month.

  7. Maybe I’ll be stuck between Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden. I hope so; it would make for some fascinating dinner conversation, at the very least.

    Hell is a choice or it is not hell. Grace is unconditional or it is not grace. We, all of us, are dead in the law: tried, convicted and executed. Only the unmerited love and favor of God offered through Christ can bring us back to life.

    Just my two cents…

  8. This was a great post, iMonk.

    Protestants aren’t the only ones who fall into Religion #1, though. The reports of many of the people who see visions of the Virgin Mary tend to be heavy on the “wrathful God” thing. According to them, there will be dreadful punishments very soon unless everyone follows certain rules. Some of the rules are extremely nitpicky, too.

    And Catholics have an opportunity to fall into even more error here, because there are quite a few cases in which Mary supposedly tells them that *Jesus* is extremely angry and that *she* is the one holding him back from destroying anything.

    Fortunately most of the Catholics I know well don’t think this way.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “Goliath:

    I’m sure that can be arranged.”

    Ah, the typical Christian response: when all else fails, threaten with hellfire, perdition, etc. Way to show that Christian “love”! — Goliath

    You mean you’d rather kiss a Wookee?

  10. Thanks for this, I came from a fundamentalist background and still suffer from seeing God as too perfect to care. Your description of Religion #1 is on the spot, the attitude I had then was motivated by fear, I felt like a cornered rat. I saw the Kirk Cameron interview with John McArthur, as much as I loved the way that John gave it to them straight, I also feel that he was pointing to a Religion #1 version of God. Someone who just wants to save us from Hell, someone who expects us to suffer. He only loves us because of His Son’s sacrifice, other than that we are pretty worthless. Sinners in the hands of an angry God. I just cannot live this kind of religion.