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Jul 24, 2013

On the Grace of God

An Interview with Justin Holcomb |
On the Grace of God
Courtesy of Crossway Books

How can grace be seen as offensive?

Unconditional love is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. Many of us think (whether we admit it or not) there must be some breaking point where God gives up on us. Even if we successfully avoid believing this fallacy, others' overzealous cries still reach our ears: certainly there must be some sin or amount of sin that is just too much. Our natural human tendency is to establish negotiated settlements with God through religion, but grace undermines our religious attempts. As Jacques Ellul said, "Grace is the hardest thing for us to be reconciled to, because it implies the renouncing of our pretensions, our power, our pomp and circumstance. It is opposite of everything our 'religious' sentiments are looking for."

The human propensity is to establish negotiated settlements with God through religion, which domesticates grace.

The human propensity is to establish negotiated settlements with God through religion, which domesticates grace. Religious people don't like grace because it messes up their gig: giving advice, telling people what to do and not to do, parenting, marriage, being a boss. Grace undermines condemnation, fear, and threat, which are the best tools for religion.

In the Christian tradition, there are many adjectives that have accompanied the word grace: amazing, free, scandalous, surprising, special, inexhaustible, incalculable, wondrous, mysterious, overflowing, abundant, irresistible, costly, extravagant, and more. John Calvin calls it gratuitous grace. Gratuitous is the idea of something being unwarranted or uncalled for. Though we yearn desperately for grace, the beautiful extravagance of God's love in Christ is utterly uncalled for.

How does a biblical understanding of grace differ from an American cultural understanding of the word grace?

In English, the word grace has to do with charm, elegance, beauty, or attractiveness. The word grace as used in the Bible has very little to do with what is commonly understood by the English word. In fact, Scripture tells us that grace isn't a personal virtue at all; rather, it is undeserved favor lavished on an inferior by a superior. Grace is unmerited favor or a kindly disposition that leads to acts of kindness.

In our culture, the word grace has a lot to do with charm, elegance, beauty, or attractiveness. This has very little to do with how the Bible uses the word.

We actually bought a shampoo one time called "Amazing Grace." I couldn't resist. The description on the bottle was the best example of a bad definition of grace I've ever seen. I had to write it down: "Life is a classroom. We are both student and teacher. Each day is a test. And each day we receive a passing or failing grade in one particular subject: grace. Grace is compassion, gratitude, surrender, faith, forgiveness, good manners, reverence, and the list goes on. It's something money can't buy and credentials rarely produce. Being the smartest, the prettiest, the most talented, the richest, or even the poorest, can't help. Being a humble person can and being a helpful person can guide you through your days with grace and gratitude."

This may sound nice, but it turns grace into a chore and a platitude. In our culture, the word grace has a lot to do with charm, elegance, beauty, or attractiveness. This has very little to do with how the Bible uses the word. Grace isn't a personal virtue at all; Grace is unmerited favor or a kindly disposition that leads to acts of kindness. Grace is a gift.

How can grace play out in everyday life: marriage, parenting, work, friendships, family, etc?

God's grace is overflowing and abundant. It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: "The love of Christ compels us!" (2 Cor. 5:14). Similarly, "God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance" (Rom. 2:4). The principle that grace motivates ought to permeate our lives, work, and leadership.

For leaders, this means that when you want to see better performance from your staff, don't threaten demotions or probation; instead, provide security, offer freedom for self-direction, and help them see the larger significance of their work.

For parents, if you want your children to be more obedient (not just compliant), don't give them threats, but talk about Jesus' obedience on their behalf and dazzle them with grace.

The principle that grace motivates ought to permeate our lives, work, and leadership.

For pastors, when you want to see more faithfulness in your congregation, don't just hammer them with the demands of the law; rather, tell them about Jesus' faithfulness on our behalf, even and especially when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). You will be amazed at the fruit the Holy Spirit produces when you focus on grace, rather than threats and incentives. Grace motivates.

In marriage, friendships, and other relationships, being a recipient of God's grace is the foundation for and motivates being gracious and forgiving toward others. The more I'm reminded of the mercy and kindness showed me by God, the more I'm eager to respond with kindness and mercy toward others.

How does grace address the age-old question of the problem of evil and suffering?

In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God's plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with His image bearers, who were to glorify Him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God's intended blessing and His wise rule, is called shalom. Evil is an intrusion upon shalom. The first intrusion was Satan's intrusion into God's garden, which led to Adam and Eve's tragic disobedience—the second. When sin is understood as an intrusion upon God's original plan for peace, it helps us see the biblical description of redemption as an intrusion of grace into disgrace or light into the darkness of sin or peace into disorder and violence. Just as sin and evil is an intrusion on original peace, so redemption is an intrusion of reclaiming what was originally intended for humans: peace.

Because God is faithful and compassionate, he restores his fallen creation and responds with grace and redemption.

Because God is faithful and compassionate, he restores his fallen creation and responds with grace and redemption. While the Fall brought a curse upon creation, God did not leave his image-bearers to rot under its effects forever without hope of rescue. From the very beginning, God made provisions through establishing sacrifices to deal with guilt from sin. God's desire for shalom and his response to violence culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The restoration of shalom is fully expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and its scope is as "far as the curse is found."

In religion you get what you deserve. It is the same with karma. Karma is all about getting what you deserve. Christianity teaches that what you deserve is death with no hope of resurrection. Grace is the opposite of karma. While everyone desperately needs it, grace is not about us. Grace is fundamentally a word about God: his uncoerced initiative and pervasive, extravagant demonstrations of care and favor. The cross is God's attack on sin and violence; it is salvation from sin and its effects. The cross really is a coup de grace, meaning "stroke of grace," which refers to the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering.

You talk about "sinners" and "sufferers" but can you talk about the grace of God specifically to victims of tragedy or perpetrators of child sexual abuse?

Victims of tragedy: We learn from the Bible and Jesus that God understands the pain you experienced, that he mourns and grieves for the sins done against you, and that he is angrier than you are for the sins done against you. In his incarnation, suffering, and death, Jesus entered into your pain. God can handle your emotions. Don't run from him in anger but toward him. The intent of the evil done against you is to create distance between you and God, the only one who can bring real healing to you. Please realize this and bring your emotions and thoughts to God. The psalms are filled with a wide spectrum of emotions related to God: shame, fear, sadness, reverence, anger, love, joy, and doubt. The psalms provide release, rationality, and relief for our emotions. You won't find yourself blamed, laughed at, mocked, or punished. You'll find yourself embraced by the love of a God who meets you in your pain.

God can handle your emotions. Don't run from him in anger but toward him.

Perpetrators of sexual abuse/assault: Sexual assault is a sin and a crime. You have committed a serious sin and crime. First, for your sin, you need forgiveness. Trust in Jesus because he died in your place and for your sin of sexual assault and all other sins. On the cross, he was treated like a perpetrator so you could place your trust in him and be declared righteous and forgiven and innocent before God. There is no sin beyond the grace of Jesus. You can't out-sin his abounding grace. Second, for your crime you deserve justice and need to make restitution. This means you will need to turn yourself in to the proper authorities. You should also repent and apologize to the person or people you sinned against. Offer to pay for the counseling they endured because of your crime.

You and your wife counsel victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. How does the message of God's grace relate to that type of counseling?

Victims of sexual assault experience many devastating physical, psychological, and emotional effects. The most prevalent responses include denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair. If this is you (or someone you love), you need to understand that the gospel of Jesus applies to each of these. In our book Rid of My Disgrace, my wife Lindsey and I go through each of these common responses to assault and abuse to show how God's grace is the answer.

The gospel gives you a new identity through the redemptive work of Jesus.

For example, sexual assault attacks your sense of identity and tells you that you are filthy, foolish, defiled, and worthless. It makes you feel that you are nothing. The gospel gives you a new identity through the redemptive work of Jesus. Through faith in Christ, you are adopted into God's family. You are given the most amazing identity: child of God (1 John 3:1–2). God adopted you and accepted you because he loves you. You didn't do anything to deserve his love. He loved you when you were unlovable. The gospel also tells you that through faith in Christ, his righteousness, blamelessness, and holiness is attributed to you (2 Cor. 5:21). If you are in Christ, your identity is deeper than any of your wounds. You can be secure in this new identity because it was achieved for you by God—you are his, and he cannot disown himself.

Some say the Old Testament is about works or obedience and the New Testament is about grace. Is the grace of God important to understanding the Old Testament?

God's overabundant grace is a major theme throughout the entire Bible, not just the New Testament. One of my favorite theologians, J. Gresham Machen, writes: "The center of the Bible, and the center of Christianity, is found in the grace of God." God's desire to restore peace and bring redemption is expressed throughout the entire Old Testament, as God graciously acts to save his people and points ahead to the ultimate redemption coming in the Messiah. The themes of God's righteousness and his people's failure point to the need for the Savior who will fulfill the law and bring salvation. Everything ultimately ties together and leads up to God's grace poured out through Jesus Christ.

Genesis 3 is a great place to see grace highlighted. Right after Adam and Eve disobey God and commit cosmic treason, God responds with grace. First, After Adam and Eve disobeyed, they realized they were guilty and tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. God replaced their leaves with garments made from animal skins. This is the first demonstration of God's grace to fallen humanity. Where Adam and Eve's attempt at clothing themselves was rather poor (fig leaves would not last long), God demonstrated humility and grace by making by himself clothes for the man and the woman. Second, God did not desert them to the futility of sin's harsh dominion. Even before covering them, God declared a plan to redeem them from sin and death: "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Gen 3:15).

God's redemptive plan unfolded through the history of the Old Testament and was fulfilled in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The exodus is the greatest divine act of salvation and grace in the Old Testament. The exodus brings three redemptive themes together: God com- passionately responding to his people by freeing them from their bondage, atoning for sins in the Passover, and fighting against their enemy. These are all based on his promise to be their God and for them to be his people (Ex. 6:7; 25:8; 29:45–46). The grace revealed in Exodus occurs because of God's love and compassion for his people. This is clearly proclaimed in Exodus 34:6–7: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithful- ness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty." It's precisely because of his love for his suffering people that God conquers their enemy. That is grace.

Throughout the Old Testament, God made covenants with his people. He promised to be a deliverer, protector, provider, and benefactor to his people, and his gracious one-way love, mercy, and compassion flow out of his covenant promises. Though he was not obligated to show kindness to humanity after we rebelled and betrayed him, he freely chose to pour out grace and deliver us, and in fact he went so far as to obligate himself to do so by promising deliverance. God's redemptive plan unfolded through the history of the Old Testament and was fulfilled in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Is it possible to see perpetrators of violence through the lens of the grace of God while actively protecting the safety of self and others? Are the two at odds?

After the fall, humankind was enslaved to idolatry (hatred for God) and violence (hatred for each other). Sin inverts love for God, which in turn becomes idolatry, and inverts love for neighbor, which becomes exploitation of others. Instead of loving one another as God originally intended, fallen humanity expresses hatred toward their neighbors. Sin perverts mutual love and harmony, resulting in domination and violence against others. Violence is sin against both God and his image bearers. In our hatred for God, we hoard worship for self and strike against those who reflect God's glory.

Violence is enslaving to both the victim and the perpetrator. In addition to the victim receiving grace, perpetrators need to hear about the grace of God and forgiveness of sins, which can bring freedom from the cycle of violence. It is helpful to know that many perpetrators of violence have been or are also victims of violence. That does not excuse them for their sins, for which they are responsible, but it does help us understand them better.

Extending grace to perpetrators is not sanctioning the violence they did. It does not mean that you do not actively protect yourself and others and it does not mean that you do not participate in activities that impose consequences on evil behavior such as calling the police, filing reports, church discipline, criminal proceedings, etc. Proclaiming grace to perpetrators is not at odds with protecting yourself or others and attempting to prevent future violence.

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Related Topics:Grace; Sex and Sexuality
Posted:July 24, 2013 at 10:00 am


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On the Grace of God