The Grandeur of Grace

Grace. Amazing Grace. It is a theme richly woven within every fiber of the tapestry of the Christian faith. Yet, it has become so much a banal staple of the parlance of Christian discourse that the term has lost its luster. It no longer excites the passions of believers beleaguered by indifference. But, Oh! How glorious is that grace that set the captives free—the fountainhead of God’s love for a world trapped in its own destructive melee.

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God’s grace in its simplest expression is unmerited favor. It speaks of a particular kind of love largely unrecognized in even the most compassionate enclaves of human kindness expressed in this world we inhabit. It is reserved for those who embrace it and thus become privileged to be named as His children. It is a moving display of affectionate passion that forms the very ground of God’s redemptive actions toward rebel souls. This grace is a gratuitous, ill-deserved reward; a prize conferred for no achievement. It issues forth from the incalculable benevolence of its heavenly source. God’s grace is unfettered and free, bounding forward into the hearts of receptive sinners like you and me.

This is to say no one is able by the strength of moral will to gain God’s favor. Virtually every religious system conceived by mankind is rooted in the ability accorded to ourselves. Religious man is transparently focused on the self. He thinks he is fully capable of appeasing what ever powers he imagines through his own self-inflated perception of success. However, God’s grace only extends toward those who recognize their utter failure in meeting the terms necessary to attain salvation.  Ironically, the force of grace is only apparent when such individuals recognize how unworthy they are of its benefits.

While grace is without cost to its beneficiaries, it incurred an incalculable expense to God. It required Him to send His Son to this sin stricken earth as a vicarious sacrifice on behalf of others; to pay the price of punishment for crimes He did not commit. The condescension of Christ to bear the burden of sinful creatures on a shameful cross casts a transcendent light upon this unearthly love—pure and undefiled. He was whipped and beat, spat upon, cruelly mocked and despised. He was left to die a cold and lonely death outside of Jerusalem while His detractors retreated into the warmth of the city gates. Christ’s physical agony pales in comparison to what He experienced in His spirit. Few are those who appreciate the magnitude of humiliation the divine Son of God underwent so humanity might have the proffer of the only genuine freedom that exists.

The abundant character of God’s divine mercy is unbounded in its ability to meet every need of every sinner. No amount of malice that seethes through the veins of the vilest offender can thwart the designs of grace to erase the impossible stains left in the wake of such transgression. One need only look at the Apostle Paul—a formerly horrible blasphemer and violent persecutor of Christians—in order to see God’s kindness toward His enemies. The tenderness of God invaded the stony regions of  Paul’s heart and led him to instruct his readers, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

That the Creator of the universe died for His special creatures is nothing less than astounding. Perhaps the only thing more astounding than this marvelous extension of love, is how so many refuse it. But for those who do not, the love of God for as wretched sinners as they is grace—nothing less than Amazing Grace.

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Book Review: Counterfeit Gospels

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Counterfeit Gospels by Trevin Wax is one of a plethora of so-called “gospel centered” books that have become popular over the last several years. Wax has hit upon popular conceptions of the gospel in American Christianity that fall short of the real gospel and thus become manifestations of a counterfeit gospel. They have many of the trappings, language and features that mark the real gospel, but when examined more carefully they fall short.

The book is well organized around a threefold definition of the gospel and how two counterfeit versions distort or deny each of these key components. Thus, the book is divided into three sections of three chapters each (9 chapters altogether). The first chapter of each section explains one of the the principal components of the gospel while the remaining two chapters of the section expose counterfeits that focus on that particular component. What is useful here is how Wax summarizes how each counterfeit actually distorts or denies all three of the components using memorable graphs. The whole book is clearly written and well illustrated. Wax is also careful to make practical application of the principles he conveys throughout the book.

The threefold definition of the gospel Wax uses is what he calls Story, Announcement and Community. I think this is a useful way to frame the gospel although I feel it is a little artificially constructed in order to make the contents of the book fit together in a more cohesive and memorable fashion. In either case, it works well enough. The Story component is the context for the Announcement, the latter being what we might typically call the gospel message proper. The Story in the meta-narrative of Scripture commonly divided in theological parlance as Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. I thought this was the best chapter of the book. Understanding the gospel in the context of the larger story-line of the Bible has become very important in our post-Christian environment as Wax has made clear. The Announcement refers to the culmination of the Bible’s story-line and focuses upon the meaning of the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ. The Community refers to the corporate dimension of the gospel. In other words, the gospel is not merely about individual redemption, but God gathering together a people for Himself – the Church.

Chapter 2 deals with the Therapeutic counterfeit. Here Wax indicates that many confuse symptoms of the Fall (e.g. bad marriages, anger, drugs, etc.) with the underlying disease which is sin. As a result a psychologized gospel is constructed which treats these symptoms instead of the cause. In this regard, sin (i.e. bad stuff that happens to us) is an obstacle to finding fulfillment or happiness. Wax says in this view, God is like Ronald MacDonald who wants to give us a Happy Meal instead of redeem us from the root causes of human misery, our corrupted hearts. This is the gospel of self-esteem in which God wants us to feel better about ourselves. Wax is pointed when he says that our problem is not that we ‘feel’ guilty but that we ‘are’ guilty. Furthermore, Jesus is not an addition to our lives as we already exist in order to make life better. He came to radically alter our lives from what they are. Nor is Jesus like a vending machine (think prosperity gospel/ Joel Osteen) where if we put in a token out comes a prize. This sort of false gospel leads to disillusionment when the reality of life’s difficulties sets in. The reason why is because sin is not treated as rebellion against God but as obstacles to unfulfilled desires and those things that act against what we determine is in our own best interest (i.e. felt needs). I thought this was the most insightful chapter of the book and exposes a lot of what passes today as the gospel in many pseudo-evangelical churches.

Chapter 3 is the Judgmentless gospel. This gospel leaves out the important reality that sin incurs God’s wrath. Proponents of this false gospel focus on God’s goodness at the expense of His holiness. Salvation is an expression of God’s goodness (true) but at the expense of His judgment (not true). This sort of gospel typically embraces universalism of the Rob Bell variety. Hell is unjust, therefore all will eventually make it to heaven. Wax indicates that when we take away judgment we lose the gravity of sin and I would add that you also lose the magnanimity of grace by which God averts His rightful judgment to save ‘ill-deserving’ (HT: J. I. Packer) sinners.

Chapter 5 deals with the Moralistic gospel. This is a common conception of Christianity practiced by many in America. It is the idea that salvation is overcoming sin by sheer willpower and a little help from God. A person wins God’s favor and help by their own moral efforts. The church is where people gather to affirm one another in their co-belligerence against moral challenges to themselves and society. The problem here is that it denies the impact of the Fall. Moralism sees mankind as basically good with an occasional moral miscue here and there. Thus, this is a gospel of self-justification in which we seek to prove that we are good enough to make it to heaven. Wax says the moralistic gospel has us turning to Christ for “help” while the true gospel has us turning to Christ for “rescue.” There is a vast difference between the two.

At this point I need to explain my less than stellar review. There are two shortcomings to this book that kept me from giving it my unequivocal recommendation. First of all, I felt Wax did not make adequate use of Scripture to make his arguments. He quotes scripture from time to time, but largely his points are made without appeal to specific texts. To be fair, he gives a list of Scriptures at the end of each chapter as a sort of supplement to the chapter’s content. But I wouldn’t expect too many readers to consult these passages. Furthermore, to be effective they would require explanation. Having said that, for the most part I believe Wax’s arguments were in fact Biblical. However, the power of Scripture to make one’s case is far better than to simply state it without reference to God’s words. Show us the connection to what divine Scripture actually says.

The second shortcoming of the book was chapter 6 on the Quietist gospel. First of all, the term quietist is misleading. One thinks of the Quietism movement of the late 17th century that focused on a kind of inner spiritual contemplation that is akin to mysticism. I also was thinking perhaps he was referring to something along the lines of the Keswick movement or the Higher Life spirituality promoted in the late 19th century. This is a passive sort of approach to sanctification that is captured in the popular phrase, “Let go and let God.” However, that is not exactly what Wax means in this chapter. The fact is, I was unclear what precisely he means by quietism. He says this sort counterfeit gospel is something private and personal as opposed to public. I am still not sure what he really means here. He suggests that the gospel is not isolationist but requires a public manifestation. By this, Wax seems to indicate that the gospel involves acts of public (civic?) good such as showing concern for the poor and needy and addressing injustices in the world.

However, chapter 8 specifically identifies this notion as the Activist gospel if I understand Wax correctly. In this case, the gospel is conceived as a means of advancing the kingdom of God via efforts by Christians to build a just society. This manifests itself in more conservative circles by political activism that seeks to fight things like gay marriage and the pro-abortion movement. On the more liberal end of the spectrum it might mean championing things like environmentalism and feeding the poor (i.e. the old social gospel movement). Wax does not deny such things are important, but he says these activist agendas confuse the “effects” of the gospel with the gospel itself. Yet that seems to be what he is subtly advocating as a proper dimension of the gospel in the Quiestist chapter. At the very least, what he says in that chapter is unclear. Certainly the gospel requires public proclamation and often activist pursuits like meeting the needs of the poor can be a tool of evangelism. He quotes a passage like James 2:16 (in chapter 6) as if helping the poor is part of the gospel. Thus, chapter 6 and chapter 8 appear to contradict one another. The bottom line is Wax needs to clarify more precisely what he means by the Quiestist gospel and how the antidote to that counterfeit is not the error he points out in chapter 8 as the Activist gospel.

In some ways the counterfeit he exposes in chapter 9, the Churchless gospel, sheds some light on perhaps what he is concerned about in chapter 6. The Churchless gospel champions individualism in which the gospel becomes privatized. Often those that privatize their faith not only shun the local church as a place to express one’s faith publicly and in community, but they also shun any expression of their faith period and thus avoid evangelism or openly identifying themselves as believers. I think where Wax tends to lack clarity is that he seems to confuse issues of ecclessiology and sanctification with the gospel. Many Christians fail to express their faith through engagement with their communities as opportunities for evangelism, but this is a failure of evangelistic methodology not a false gospel. Furthermore, passages like James 2:16 are dealing with the fruit (i.e. “effects”) of the gospel, something Wax makes more clear in chapter 8. In other words, sanctification expressed in good works naturally follows genuine gospel transformation but this must be distinguished from the gospel itself. That is not made clear in the chapter on Quietism (chapter 6) and I think it may have a tendency to confuse readers.

Let me say a few more things about chapter 9 on the Churchless gospel. I think Wax targets an increasingly important matter here. Not only does the Churchless gospel champion individualism and the privatization of one’s salvation experience (whatever that looks like), but it also stems from a distrust of authority that is pandemic in our society as well has disdain for tradition and associating the organized church with corporate corruption. Those who eschew the church tend to have a naive idealism where the simplicity of having no ecclesiastical structures is somehow good. The fact is, the gospel is not just about personal and individual redemption, it is about the redemption of a community of people called the body of Christ. As such, the gospel reconciles us not only to an estranged God but also to estranged human beings, a dual breech the Fall created. The individual believer needs to see himself as part of this larger community of believers (thru the local church) because it is here that he finds the nourishment of the gospel and its after-effects for the Christian life.

Aside from the two caveats I detailed, this is otherwise an excellent antidote to many prevailing false notions of the gospel and of what Christianity itself looks like. Trevin Wax covers most of the bases that afflict people’s wrong conceptions in America and elsewhere. For that reason, this is a good book to sort through these counterfeit versions of the true gospel.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Book Review: Stepping Out in Faith

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Stepping Out in Faith: Former Catholics Tell Their Stories is a short book edited by Mark Gilbert and published by Mathias Media, a Christian publisher located in Australia.  It is an excellent book for Roman Catholics who are questioning their faith, perhaps disillusioned and wondering whether Protestantism represent the truth about life, God and salvation. It contains 11 testimonies of people who left their Catholic upbringing and came to understand and embrace the gospel message as revealed in the Bible.

There are several features about these testimonies that were common refrains.
1) Roman Catholics are not bashed as sometimes can happen among Bible believing Christians. Most of these people had strong ties to their Catholic upbringing and it was difficult for them to leave it.
2) Most of these testimonies uniformly affirmed that their Catholic upbringing led them to believe that their salvation depended on themselves instead of the finished work of Christ on their behalf. Salvation was achieved by good deeds and adherence to religious rituals and dogmas. Many were shocked to discover that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
3) Many report that their Catholic upbringing left a strong pall of guilt over them. As Angelo Porcu noted, the Catholic Church emphasized guilt instead of forgiveness. There was an oppressive spirit about many of their experiences in the church of Rome.
4) Many had never read or studied the Bible as Catholics. Studying the Bible for the first time was an eye opening experience for them as they learned things they were never taught in the Catholic Church. This opened them up to the truth of the gospel.
5) Many found that Bible believing Protestant Churches were shockingly different. They were more vibrant, friendly and relevant to their lives. The preaching was especially different and seemed to connect truth to daily living.
6) Many of the testimonies report that the priests in the Catholic Church did not seem very concerned for them individually. Sometimes the priests could not be trusted. There was an uneasiness about the idea that a priest could forgive sins. Furthermore, many lied to the priest in confession fearing to reveal the truth about the real sin in their lives.
7) For many, it took a long time to leave the Catholic Church. Even though many of these people did not have what I would consider a strong commitment to Roman Catholicism, just mainly going through the motions, it was still extremely difficult to give up everything they had grown up with. Mark Gilbert, the editor of the book, describes himself attending mass on Sunday for 10 years while simultaneously attending a Protestant Bible study during that same time. He continued to go to mass because he felt a certain obligation, whereas he went to the Bible study because he loved it.
8) For most of these former Catholics, their introduction to the gospel came through ordinary Bible believing Protestants who had the courage to share the truth with them. No one’s conversion was instantaneous. Often they went to a Protestant Church or Bible study they were invited to by an attendee and remained for some time before becoming convinced of the truth they were hearing. It was a slow learning process often marked by key events along the way that opened their eyes a little more to the truth.

This is a great book to give to a Catholic friend who is interested in the Bible and the gospel. It is non-offensive but very frank about the struggles many people have with their Catholic upbringing. It is a very interesting, easy and enjoyable read. I highly recommend it.

Review: Blood Work

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Anthony Carter’s book, Blood Work: How the Blood of Christ Accomplishes Our Salvation, is a simple and straightforward exposition of the principal passages of the New Testament that mention the blood of Christ in connection to the believer’s salvation. The 13 chapters are short, clearly written and chock full of Scriptural supports for the themes he covers. While the title and the principal passages focused on might seem to suggest a narrowly focused study, in reality the book is a wide ranging survey of key doctrines of salvation. As such, the book would serve as an good primer for new believers who would like to understand the gospel better.

I was surprised at how many passages in the New Testament treat the death of Christ by appealing to the image of the shed blood of the cross. Carter points out that the word “blood” is used 3 times as much as the word “cross” and 5 times as much as the word “death” in the New Testament. Clearly it is a powerful term employed to speak of the work of Christ – the blood work if you will. These passages connect the shedding of Christ’s blood to themes such as purchase, propitiation, justification, redemption, drawing near, peace, cleansed consciences, sanctification, ransom, and freedom. Of course these represent the main chapters of Carter’s book. Carter writes from a solidly Reformed perspective as you would expect from the Reformation Trust (i.e. the publishing arm of R. C. Sproul’s ministry). Subsequently, from my perspective, Carter’s soteriology is dead on and sorely needed in a day when the gospel has been watered down so much.

I loved how Carter interspersed stanzas from new and classic hymns in the text of the book that all contained refrains about the blood of Christ. You often hear about the “blood hymns” especially if you grew up in a Baptist church, but I never paid attention to how many hymns and songs of the Church use this imagery to convey the truths of the gospel. The book has an appendix listing 18 such classics.

The only disappointment I had with this book was that I was expecting more depth to the discussion of Christ’s blood. The book is really geared more as a primer than an in depth discussion of any one topic. I think Carter missed an opportunity to investigate more thorough going reasons for the blood imagery that is obviously so present and important in the New Testament (and of course the whole tenure of Scripture). For example, why is Christ’s blood mentioned more than “cross” or “death” when describing Christ’s atoning sacrifice? Clearly it is a stand in for these more straightforward descriptions, but why “blood”? That never seemed to be teased out. At the very least the spilling of Christ’s blood speaks of the violence of his death and that seems significant. Jesus’ death was not the result of an accident, or natural causes or some other fatal demise. Rather His blood was violently extracted from his body and that seems to speak of the horrific nature of what he accomplished. Furthermore, it was a death specifically as a result of severe punishment not only from the human perspective, but more importantly from the divine. To think Christ served as a substitute for believers due to the violent penalty they deserved is a sobering reality that needs teasing out in a book about Christ’s blood. I was hoping to see more of that here.

I recently viewed the latest film in the series known as Dispatches from the Front, entitled, “The Rising of His Power” (Episode 6). These films are documentaries chronicling gospel work currently being done around the world. They are worth every minute of your viewing time. The latest episode tracks missionaries in Bangladesh. In a very powerful and graphic scene, the film makers capture a yearly ritual in which Muslims in the city of Dhaka sacrifice multitudes of cows in the middle of the city by pinning them down and then slitting their throats. You can’t help but cringe as the blood spurts out and the cows are thrown into a violent death struggle as their captors try to keep them pinned down. In the aftermath of this ritual atonement, which ironically is only for the righteous not sinners, blood flows everywhere down the already dirty streets making it hard to avoid stepping in the coagulating mess. The narrator is saddened by the amazing picture of Christ’s death this could allude to and yet so many Muslims miss the connection, believing that Christ was never crucified. Yet if they began to understand and embrace the true blood work of Jesus who is far more than a prophet, they would be freed from the fear-ridden and hopeless lie that Islam so relentless promotes to its adherents.

That sort of real life picture makes the blood of Christ so much more powerful and precious. I am glad Carter picked up on the implications of this amazing truth, but I wish he would have driven it home with more poignant illustrations and deeper probing of the powerful word “blood.”

I receive a copy of this book from the publisher as compensation for my review.