Tag Archives: grace

The Horror of Grace

In Lee Chang-dong’s film Secret Sunshine (2007), there’s a scene that absolutely floors me, because it captures something so true about the way humanity deals with grace. The scene takes place in a prison, as protagonist Shin-ae (whose son was recently kidnapped and murdered) goes to visit her son’s murderer, in prison for life. Shin-ae, a new convert to Christianity, wants to forgive her son’s killer. Her friends tell her she doesn’t have to see him face-to-face in order to forgive him. But she insists. She wants to see him in person and (truth be told) wants to witness the look on his face when she offers him the gift of forgiveness.

And yet when she sits down to confront the prisoner on the other side of the glass from her, Shin-ae finds him unexpectedly happy, peaceful, even joyful. “You look better than I expected,” she tells him. She goes on to tell him that she’s found peace, love, and a “new life” in God, and that that’s why she’s here. She’s “so happy to feel God’s love and grace” that she wanted to spread his love by coming to visit him. But then the shocker. The prisoner has also come to faith in Christ.

“Since I came here, I have accepted God in my heart. The Lord has reached out to this sinner,” he says.

“Is that so?” replies Shin-ae, crestfallen and shaken. “It’s good you have found God…” she says, very tentatively.

The convicted murderer continues: “Yes, I am so grateful. God reached out to a sinner like me. He made me kneel to repent my sins. And God has absolved me of them.”

And this is where Shin-ae begins to wilt, as she’s confronted by something she didn’t see coming.

“God… has forgiven your sins?” she mutters in disbelief.

“Yes,” he replies. “And I have found inner peace… My repentance and absolution have brought me peace. Now I start and end each day with prayer. I always pray for you, Ms. Lee. I’ll pray for you until I die.”

This hits Shin-ae hard. When she leaves the prison, she collapses, overcome by the horror of an idea she had not considered: that even the killer of her own son could be saved by God’s grace, and that God could beat her to the punch in forgiving the killer, offering him the only real absolving he needed. Unfortunately, Shin-ae can’t accept this seeming injustice–how can a law-abiding, good citizen like her and a convicted child-killer be on the same leveled playing field in terms of God’s grace? She can’t take that, and abandons God because of it.

This, I think, is the greatest, most mind-blowing quality of God’s grace, while at the same time being the hardest for humanity to swallow: His grace is sufficient for all, and it saves unconditionally, based not on our merits or relative levels of moral stature. We’re all sinners, fallen short of the glory of God and alienated from him, and thus we all need exactly the same grace from Him to repair the breach.

I need the same grace as anyone who has ever wronged me.

Trayvon Martin needs the same grace as George Zimmerman.

Jason Russell needs the same grace as Joseph Kony.

Barack Obama needs the same grace as Osama bin Laden.

Mother Theresa needs the same grace as Hitler.

Charlie Sheen, Tim Tebow, Whitney Houston, Joe the Plumber, Kim Kardashian,  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Benjamin Netanyahu, the pepper spray cop, Susan Boyle, Madonna, Jerry Sandusky and the boys he molested… All are hopeless and condemned without the exact same grace. That is: the grace of God, freely given through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, who–though perfect and undeserving–bore our sins on that dreadful but majestic cross.

It’s absolutely scandalous, and for many, a pill too hard to swallow. We’re prideful creatures, us humans. We want to believe that “right” living warrants us  a better standing in God’s eyes than, say, the killers and thieves and pedophiles. We don’t want to believe that we are in exactly the same predicament and in need of exactly the same salvation as the world’s most evil person. We want God to reward us for being good and punish others for being bad. Deep down, pride is what leads many to resist the free gift of grace… because they can’t stomach the notion that earning or deserving are not words that exist in God’s economy of grace.

But if we can just get over our pride, emptying ourselves in the same way Christ did both in how he lived and died, the “free to all” nature of grace begins to look beautiful rather than horrific (as it did to Shin-ae). Grace becomes life-transforming precisely because it takes us outside of ourselves, freeing us from our sinful chains and narcissistic self reliance, instead focusing our attention on Christ–and what HE did that Good Friday not just for me, or you, or the “good people,” but for the world.

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The Upside of Legalism

Part 2 of the What We Really Need Now is No” series.

“No” is the new “Yes.”

Even with Obama’s “Yes we Can” battle cry (of which, in all seriousness, I’m a big fan), I think that our society is more in need of nos now than yeses. And I think they realize it.

Detroit needs to be told no, as do greedy banks on the verge of collapse. People with bad credit and no income seeking a loan need to hear it, as do fiscally irresponsible, tax-and-spend politicians. Little boys and girls screaming for this or that at the mall need a hearty N-O from their parents, as do I when I’m in the iTunes store, preparing to buy my third digital album of the week.

We need restraint. We need to be more disciplined. We need to rediscover the beauty of not getting things we want. We need to re-introduce ourselves to the ascetic life. We need to deny ourselves daily.

I grew up in conservative Southern Baptist churches that seemed to be all about legalism. There was an abundance of things that were forbidden for members of the church to partake in: drinking alcohol, smoking, gambling, having sex before marriage, watching too many R-rated movies, etc. At the time, it seemed so stupid and so unfair.

These days, there are tons of “cool” churches that allow all of the things I’ve listed above. Many of them show R-rated movies in church, have wine-tasting events for the college groups, and don’t say a harsh word when it comes to illicit sexual activities. Little if anything is forbidden, and only the happy, “love others” passages of scriptures are preached. The Gospels get emphasized a lot more than the Epistles, that’s for sure.

Obviously I am pointing out two extremes here: the hyper-legalistic and the hyper-permissive. Both are wrong, in my view. It is a shame that, in reacting against the former approach, the latter has gone so far in the other direction. I think we’ve lost a crucial aspect of Christianity in our efforts to purge it of the much-maligned “legalism.” We’ve lost the element of sacrifice. Christ called his followers to take up their cross, to identify with his suffering, to be living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to him.

And it’s not like this is a bad life. What we take as a renunciation of the worldly things we desire is really just a renunciation of the smallest, most unfulfilling part of existence. Lewis reminds us so beautifully in The Weight of Glory that it is not that our desires are too strong, it is that they are too weak—that we are far too easily pleased. In Christ, in focusing on being in him and abiding in the future glory he promises, we discover a higher longing that frames and illuminates everything else we thought we wanted.

The Christian life is a wonderful life because it requires some pretty serious “no” discipline but ultimately offers the greatest “yes” of all: an affirmation of our part in the kingdom and royal priesthood of God, the very maker of heaven and earth. In the face of God’s grace, our excuses and quibbles and struggles look pretty insignificant. As such, we should be more than happy to give up the pursuits, pleasures, and comforts we thought we wanted. God’s grace is sufficient, but it isn’t cheap.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes it nicely in The Cost of Discipleship:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has… It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

So what does this mean for Christians? It means that we can’t be cavalier with God’s grace. We can’t live wild, hedonistic lives in which the world’s pleasures and our own deeply felt, bent urges are in competition with the call of the Christian life. We have to say no to what is wrong and stand up for what is right. We have to be willing to discipline ourselves and each other; we have to be willing to be intolerant where it is appropriate. And yes, this goes against the grain. It isn’t popular to be intolerant. But ultimately, it’s better for humanity.

Some might say that rules, boundaries, and limitations are stifling. I say they’re liberating. When individual man is the measure of morality… that’s when it’s stifling.

What Was Going to Be My Epic Calvinism Post…

So I wrote this long draft of a blog post a few weekends ago entitled “Why I am a Calvinist” and it was full of some heavy duty theologizing (for me). I spent hours and hours writing it, talking about the doctrines of predestination, the atonement, justification, and so on… I was quoting John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, J.I. Packer, John Piper, and many others. It was epic. And then I lost it. All of it. Unsaved and (somehow) un-recovered on my computer.

So of course when that happened I wondered: was this a sign? Was I being chastised for attempting to make an argument for Calvinism? Or maybe it was the devil?

Either way, as someone with a definite Calvinist bent, don’t I have to believe that the unfortunate deletion of my epic blog post was meant to happen? If God is supremely sovereign in all things (which I believe he is), why should I be worried by something like this? Surely there is a reason for me losing that work, and maybe it’s that I’m now writing this. Or maybe I can’t understand how God works or what sovereignty and free will look like. And that, ironically, is one of the main points I wanted to make in the first place.

People look at Calvinism and think of predestination, an angry God, and an elitist “elect.” It doesn’t look that attractive to the average human because it goes against (seemingly) so much of what we feel to be true: that we are aware of our choices and active in our actions, that we have free will. But my question is: why do we assume that what we think of as free will is necessarily in conflict with the sovereignty of God (which we’ve conceptualized in terms like “predestination”)? Couldn’t it be true that in God’s reality (which is certainly not within our human capacity to understand) there is no disharmony between him determining all human history and reality and it actually happening by what we call choice? I’m not saying all human dichotomies have no transcendent application (surely good and evil are transcendent categories in eternal conflict); I’m only suggesting that many of them might end up being perfectly sensible and resolved in God’s plane.

But that’s really abstract, and if anyone is going to be swayed by anything I write I should probably move into more rational modes. So briefly, here are but a few of the more concrete reasons why Calvinism is attractive and sensible to me:

• It views God in the highest way possible. He is sovereign and fearsome and awesome in ways we can’t begin to understand. To me, if there is a God, he is either infinitely sovereign or not God at all.

• In this view, God alone is sufficient to save. He doesn’t need any help (i.e. he doesn’t just “open the door” for people to choose salvation but does it all, start-to-finish, himself). Those who insist that humans have to do some of the salvation work, even just by consciously deciding to accept God’s gift, are limiting the power of God. Did not the cross accomplish salvation once and for all? Did not he say “It is finished!”? Salvation belongs to the Lord, the author and finisher of it.

• Calvinism has a much more beautiful picture of grace. It is irresistible and unconditional. When God sets his eyes on us, we can’t escape his pursuit (and who would want a God who couldn’t capture those he sought to save?). As Sufjan Stevens beautifully sings in “Seven Swans”: He will take you / If you run / He will chase you / Because he is the Lord.

• Calvinism’s view of God is ultimately the most comforting. While “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” doesn’t sound comforting, I think that I would still rather be in the hands of an angry God who is sovereign than a buddy God who is only partially sovereign and sometimes surprised (see Open Theism). In times of crisis and tragedy, an all-powerful God who effects everything to his purposes is so much more comforting than a God who isn’t in complete control.

• It rings true to me that nothing I can humanly do could ever achieve salvation—at least more true than the idea that God, the author and perfecter of our faith, saves only on the condition of some action on the part of the saved. On the contrary, the Calvinist view insists that I have no recourse to self-sufficiency or pride. As Paul writes in Galatians, “far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14).

• “God wants me” holds infinitely more weight than “I want God.”

• Calvinism is about certainty; There is no second-guessing about whether I’ve done enough or prayed the sinners prayer earnestly enough, because it has nothing to do with my own powers. God pours out his grace freely and unconditionally, and all I can do is be consumed by it.

• Calvinism emphasizes sin (total depravity) and places it at the starting point, rather than as a footnote. It cuts us humans down to size from the get go, underscoring both our desperate need for redemption and righteousness and our utter inability to achieve it ourselves. Like it or not, this makes so much more sense to me than a Christianity that isn’t first and foremost about God saving pitiful sinners.

• Calvinism fears God. A healthy fear of God is totally lost on contemporary Christianity, which sees him as more of a “buddy/friend/therapist/guru” than the creator and sustainer of the universe. We need to fear him, and respect him. He’s God, whether we like it (or believe it) or not.

• Calvinism allows the modern church to reconnect with its heritage and grounds itself in history, tradition, theology, and the bible rather than sugarcoated feel-goodisms. I like what J.I. Packer says about this when he contrasts the “new” and “old” gospels in his famous introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

“The pitiable Savior and the pathetic God of modern pulpits are unknown to the old gospel. The old gospel tells men that they need God, but not that God needs them (a modern falsehood); it does not exhort them to pity Christ but announces that Christ has pitied them, though pity was the last thing they deserved. It never loses sight of the divine majesty and sovereign power of the Christ whom it proclaims but rejects flatly all representations of him that would obscure his free omnipotence.

I could go on and on, but that’s probably enough for now. While I am more and more identifying with Calvinism these days, I don’t want to come across as some sort of apologist for it. First of all, it’s not some monolithic way of thinking or some “club” to which one must belong. On many levels I think Calvinism and Arminianism are not as diametrically opposed as they are often assumed to be.

As I stated early on in this post, I think it is beyond our rational capabilities to truly understand the mysteries of free will and determinism. And honestly, does it really affect your day-to-day life? Even if I think that God has ordained my every action, I still must make choices to either sin or strive for righteousness, and those are real choices (in a sense we can’t fully understand). And while I agree that grace is given solely by God and salvation is his work 100%, I still must actively engage people in conversations about the gospel, presenting it to them as a conduit of God’s grace, just as I must help the poor and the sick even while understanding that God controls all of it. Calvinists who shrug off these responsibilities are erring on the side of fatalism. It’s one thing to completely ignore the repeated commands of Christ (the great commission, etc), but it is also just nonsensical to assume that God disseminates his grace outside of the work of human agents. This isn’t the same as saying he needs us; just that we are his, bound up with his grand purposes on earth. Such are the awesome mysteries of being captured by God’s grace.