Chapter OneSomething Is
On a blustery October night in a church outside
Minneapolis, several hundred believers had gathered for
a three-day seminar. I began with a one-hour presentation on
the gospel of grace and the reality of salvation. Using Scripture,
story, symbolism, and personal experience, I focused on the
total sufficiency of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on
Calvary. The service ended with a song and a prayer.
Leaving the church by a side door, the pastor turned to his
associate and fumed, "Humph, that airhead didn't say one thing
about what we have to do to earn our salvation!"
Something is radically wrong.
The bending of the mind by the powers of this world has
twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted
the image of God into an eternal, small-minded
bookkeeper. The Christian community resembles a Wall Street
exchange of works wherein the elite are honored and the
ordinary ignored. Love is stifled, freedom shackled, and self-righteousness
fastened. The institutional church has become a
wounder of the healers rather than a healer of the wounded.
Put bluntly, the American church today accepts grace in
theory but denies it in practice. We say we believe that the fundamental
structure of reality is grace, not works-but our lives
refute our faith. By and large, the gospel of grace is neither proclaimed,
understood, nor lived. Too many Christians are living
in the house of fear and not in the house of love.
Our culture has made the word grace impossible to understand.
We resonate to slogans such as:
"There's no free lunch."
"You get what you deserve."
"You want money? Work for it."
"You want love? Earn it."
"You want mercy? Show you deserve it."
"Do unto others before they do unto you."
"Watch out for welfare lines, the shiftless street people, free
hot dogs at school, affluent students with federal loans-it's a
"By all means, give others what they deserve but not one
A friend told me she overheard a pastor say to a child,
"God loves good little boys." As I listen to sermons with their
pointed emphasis on personal effort-no pain, no gain-I
get the impression that a do-it-yourself spirituality is the
Though the Scriptures insist on God's initiative in the work
of salvation-that by grace we are saved, that the Tremendous
Lover has taken to the chase-our spirituality often starts with
self, not God. Personal responsibility has replaced personal
response. We talk about acquiring virtue as if it were a skill
that can be attained, like good handwriting or a well-grooved
golf swing. In the penitential seasons we focus on overcoming
our weaknesses, getting rid of our hang-ups, and reaching
Christian maturity. We sweat through various spiritual exercises
as if they were designed to produce a Christian Charles Atlas.
Though lip service is paid to the gospel of grace, many
Christians live as if only personal discipline and self-denial will
mold the perfect me. The emphasis is on what I do rather than
on what God is doing. In this curious process God is a benign
old spectator in the bleachers who cheers when I show up for
morning quiet time. We transfer the Horatio Alger legend of
the self-made man into our relationship with God. As we read
Psalm 123, "Just as the eyes of slave are on their masters' hand,
or the eyes of a slave-girl on the hand of her mistress," we
experience a vague sense of existential guilt. Our eyes are not
on God. At heart we are practicing Pelagians. We believe that
we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps-indeed, we can do
Sooner or later we are confronted with the painful truth of
our inadequacy and insufficiency. Our security is shattered and
our bootstraps are cut. Once the fervor has passed, weakness
and infidelity appear. We discover our inability to add even a
single inch to our spiritual stature. There begins a long winter
of discontent that eventually flowers into gloom, pessimism,
and a subtle despair-subtle because it goes unrecognized,
unnoticed, and therefore unchallenged. It takes the form of
boredom, drudgery. We are overcome by the ordinariness of
life, by daily duties done over and over again. We secretly
admit that the call of Jesus is too demanding, that surrender
to the Spirit is beyond our reach. We start acting like everyone
else. Life takes on a joyless, empty quality. We begin to resemble
the leading character in Eugene O'Neill's play The Great God
Brown: "Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and
rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to
live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors
of the earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid to love, I who
Something is radically wrong.
Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling
for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves
while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating
to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace.
Our approach to the Christian life is as absurd as the enthusiastic
young man who had just received his plumber's license
and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute
and then said, "I think I can fix this."
The word itself, grace, has become trite and debased
through misuse and overuse. It does not move us the way it
moved our early Christian ancestors. In some European
countries certain high ecclesiastical officials are still called
"Your Grace." Sportswriters spoke of Michael Jordan's "easy
grace," while business mogul Donald Trump has been described
as "lacking in grace." A new perfume appears with "Grace"
on the label, and a child's report card is called a "disgrace."
The word has lost its raw, imaginative power.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky caught the shock and scandal of the
gospel of grace when he wrote:
At the last Judgment Christ will say to us, "Come, you
also! Come, drunkards! Come, weaklings! Come, children
of shame!" And he will say to us: "Vile beings, you
who are in the image of the beast and bear his mark,
but come all the same, you as well." And the wise and
prudent will say, "Lord, why do you welcome them?"
And he will say: "If I welcome them, you wise men, if
I welcome them, you prudent men, it is because not
one of them has ever been judged worthy." And he will
stretch out his arms, and we will fall at his feet, and we
will cry out sobbing, and then we will understand all,
we will understand the Gospel of grace! Lord, your
I believe the Reformation actually began the day Martin
Luther was praying over the meaning of Paul's assertion that the
gospel reveals the righteousness of God to us-it shows how faith
leads to faith. In other words, the righteous shall find life
through faith (see Romans 1:17). Like many Christians today,
Luther wrestled through the night with this core question: How
could the gospel of Christ be truly called "good news" if God is a
righteous judge who rewards the good and punishes the evil? Did
Jesus really have to come to reveal that terrifying message? How
could the revelation of God in Christ Jesus be accurately called
"news" since the Old Testament carried the same theme, or for
that matter, "good" with the threat of punishment hanging like
a dark cloud over the valley of history?
But as Jaroslav Pelikan notes:
Luther suddenly broke through to the insight that the
"righteousness of God" that Paul spoke of in this passage
was not the righteousness by which God was righteous
in himself (that would be passive righteousness) but
the righteousness by which, for the sake of Jesus Christ,
God made sinners righteous (that is, active righteousness)
through the forgiveness of sins in justification.
When he discovered that, Luther said it was as though
the very gates of Paradise had been opened to him.
What a stunning truth!
"Justification by grace through faith" is the theologian's
learned phrase for what Chesterton once called "the furious love
of God." He is not moody or capricious; He knows no seasons
of change. He has a single relentless stance toward us: He loves
us. He is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners.
False gods-the gods of human manufacturing-despise sinners,
but the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do.
But of course, this is almost too incredible for us to accept.
Nevertheless, the central affirmation of the Reformation
stands: Through no merit of ours, but by His mercy, we have
been restored to a right relationship with God through the life,
death, and resurrection of His beloved Son. This is the Good
News, the gospel of grace.
With his characteristic joie de vivre, Robert Capon puts it
The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering
drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty
basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old,
two-hundred-proof grace-of bottle
after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which
would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly.
The word of the gospel-after all those centuries of trying
to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the
perfection of your bootstraps-suddenly turned out to
be a flat announcement that the saved were home before
they started . Grace has to be drunk straight: no water,
no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness,
nor badness, nor the flowers that bloom in the spring of
super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.
Matthew 9:9-13 captures a lovely glimpse of the gospel
As Jesus was walking on from there he saw a man named
Matthew sitting at the tax office, and he said to him,
"Follow me." And he got up and followed him. Now
while he was at table in the house it happened that a
number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the
table with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees
saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your master
eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When he heard
this he replied, "It is not the healthy who need the doctor,
but the sick. Go and learn the meaning of the words:
Mercy is what pleases me, not sacrifice. And indeed I
came to call not the upright, but sinners."
Here is revelation bright as the evening star: Jesus comes for
sinners, for those as outcast as tax collectors and for those
caught up in squalid choices and failed dreams. He comes for
corporate executives, street people, superstars, farmers, hookers,
addicts, IRS agents, AIDS victims, and even used-car salesmen.
Jesus not only talks with these people but dines with them-fully
aware that His table fellowship with sinners will raise the
eyebrows of religious bureaucrats who hold up the robes and
insignia of their authority to justify their condemnation of the
truth and their rejection of the gospel of grace.
This passage should be read, reread, and memorized. Every
Christian generation tries to dim the blinding brightness of its
meaning because the gospel seems too good to be true. We think
salvation belongs to the proper and pious, to those who stand at
a safe distance from the back alleys of existence, clucking their
judgments at those who have been soiled by life. In the name of
Grace, what has been the verdict of the Christian community on
the stained life of the late Rock Hudson? To the disclosure (the
$4.5 million settlement to his lover Marc Christian notwithstanding)
that he called a priest to his deathbed, confessed his sins, and
cried out to God for forgiveness?
Jesus, who forgave the sins of the paralytic (thereby claiming
divine power), proclaims that He has invited sinners and
not the self-righteous to His table. The Greek verb used here, kalein, has the sense of inviting an honored guest to dinner. In
effect, Jesus says the kingdom of His Father is not a subdivision
for the self-righteous nor for those who feel they possess the
state secret of salvation. The kingdom is not an exclusive, well-trimmed
suburb with snobbish rules about who can live there.
No, it is for a larger, homelier, less self-conscious caste of people
who understand they are sinners because they have experienced
the yaw and pitch of moral struggle.
These are the sinner-guests invited by Jesus to closeness
with Him around the banquet table. It remains a startling story
to those who never understand that the men and women who
are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into
the darkness of their imperfect existence. Perhaps it was after
meditating on this passage that Morton Kelsey wrote, "The
church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners."
The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The
sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception.
It keeps us from denying that though Christ was
victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages
within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge
that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful
with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my
white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves
me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this I don't
need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to
Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness
As C. S. Lewis says in The Four Loves, "Grace substitutes a
full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our need, a joy in
total dependence. The good man is sorry for the sins which
have increased his need. He is not entirely sorry for the fresh
need they have produced."
As the gospel of grace lays hold of us, something is radically
right. We are living in truth and reality. We become as honest as the
ninety-two-year-old priest who was venerated by everybody in
town for his holiness. He was also a member of the Rotary Club.
Every time the club met, he would be there, always on time and
always seated in his favorite spot in a corner of the room.
One day the priest disappeared. It was as if he had vanished
into thin air. The townsfolk searched all over and could find no
trace of him. But the following month, when the Rotary Club
met, he was there as usual sitting in his corner.
"Father," everyone cried, "where have you been?"
"I just served a thirty-day sentence in prison."
"In prison?" they cried. "Father, you couldn't hurt a fly.
"It's a long story," said the priest, "but briefly, this is what
happened. I bought myself a train ticket to go into the city. I
was standing on the platform waiting for the train to arrive
when this stunningly beautiful girl appears on the arm of a
policeman. She looked at me, turned to the cop and said, 'He
did it. I'm certain he's the one who did it.' Well, to tell you the
truth, I was so flattered I pleaded guilty."
There's a touch of vanity in even the holiest men and
women. They see no reason to deny it. And they know that
reality bites back if it isn't respected.
When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes.
I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I
hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling
guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still
play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an
angel with an incredible capacity for beer.
To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story,
the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side, I learn
who I am and what God's grace means. As Thomas Merton put
it, "A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the
goodness of God."