Monday, May 21, 2018

Grace and Truth

Grace 15
The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c1550
The beginning of Jesus' ministry is generally regarded as His baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. By the time Jesus stepped into his baptism line, John had built a truly massive ministry. (Matthew 3.5) The Lord had commissioned him to preach a message of forward looking repentance to His people, repentance of sin, and a faith in a soon coming Messiah. Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 3.2)

John, of course, did not know that this Messiah, this Christ, would be Jesus. Christ is not Jesus' last name; it is a title that means Anointed One, and is used in Scripture to designate His claim to be Israel's messiah. As John preaches, and masses of people respond, he discovers in his baptism line one day his first cousin once removed, a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus. The succeeding brief interaction between John and Jesus, and God's actions from Heaven revealed to John that Jesus was the messiah he had been preaching was about to come.

Immediately after His baptism, Jesus heads into the wilderness for a six week season of fasting and prayer. Meanwhile, John begins preaching more specifically, pointing people not just toward a coming messiah, but toward Jesus particularly as that messiah.

John 1:14–17
14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
15 John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me.
16 And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.
17 For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.

In those four verses there is one phrase used twice. Once it is used to describe our Saviour and the other time it is used to describe what He brings – grace and truth. He is full of grace and truth. Grace and truth come by Him. These two things – grace and truth – so marked the life of our Lord that after only one meeting with Him their presence made a deep impression on John the Baptist. So deep that John could not but tell people about them as he preached Jesus.

What is truth? Truth, loosely defined, is what is true. Truth is real, actual, correct, and factual. It is also dependable because it is unchangeable. This is implied in the phrase "facts are stubborn things." Facts and truth are not interchangeable but they are similar. Truth is unchanging. Truth is true regardless of whether it is popularly accepted or popularly denigrated. Truth is true whether it is in fashion or out of style. Truth is true even when it is represented as being mistaken or false.

What is grace? Grace, loosely defined, is unmerited favor. It is goodness poured out on those who do not deserve it. Its clearest use in Scripture is in relation to salvation but it is found in a remarkable variety of spiritual contexts. For the purposes of this particular post I am going to define it with another scriptural term, loving-kindness. Grace is the kindness done to me by God out of His great love for me. Turned the other way, grace is the kindness done by me toward others out of my genuine love for them – whether in my estimation they deserve it or not.

Understanding this, let me give you two applications. First, hqdefaultgrace and truth marked the life of our Lord and they ought to mark ours too. Personally, I ought to hold an allegiance to the unchanging truth, come what may. At the same time, my life ought to be marked by loving-kindness in my treatment of those around me.

This is true of you and me, individually, but it is also true of churches corporately. I am to be like Christ; that is the aim of my Christianity. But one of the three definitions given in Scripture for the church is the body of Christ. My church, Maplewood Bible Baptist Church, is to be the visible/physical extension of Jesus Christ in this corner of Chicago. As such, it too, corporately, ought to be marked by grace and truth. My church should hold an allegiance to the unchanging truth, come what may. And our ministry in this neighborhood ought to be marked by loving-kindness in our treatment of all those within our embrace.

Second, in so saying, I am asserting that both of these should be present.

Some people, some churches, some ministries are all truth. They are hard, unbending, impossible to be swayed. Such people, such ministries become marked by a my-way-or-the-highway kind of mentality. They breed a refusal to listen to any other perspective, no matter how slightly it may differ from their own. In them, loyalty to the truth is the highest compliment, and they are marked by a willingness to lead an all-out charge against anyone thought to be compromising the truth.

I can hear you from here… "Tom, you sound like you are describing the classic fundamentalist. You're a fundamentalist. What's the problem?" I am describing a fundamentalist, and I am one. The problem lies in the fact that all too often that is all we are identified with – truth. We are full of the truth – but that is all. We are loyal to the truth – but that is all. We are willing to fight over the truth – but that is all. We are inclined to drop the hat ourselves so we can fight – but that is all. Our theme phrase is "contend for the faith" with an emphasis upon the contention.

By the same token, there are other people and other ministries that are all grace. They are kind, sweet, loving. Such people and such ministries become marked by an attitude of whatever-you're-doing-is-ok. They refuse to take a stand on anything. In them, niceness is the ultimate virtue, and they are identified by a willingness to overlook practically everything in the name of grace. They are full of grace – but that is all. They are nice, the nicest people to ever grace the planet – but that is all. They are sweet, kind, forgiving, charitable, patient – but that is all. They are always wiling to see something from the other person's perspective – but that is all. Their theme phrase is "judge not" with an emphasis on the not.

I can hear you from here… "Pastor Brennan, you make it sound like these two things are irreconcilable. How then can you expect me to include them both?" They are not irreconcilable. They only seem that way when you choose one of the two to have. But you are not supposed to choose just one of the two to have. You are supposed to have both.
You are supposed to have an unalterable allegiance to the unchanging truth and to hold that truth in a spirit of loving-kindness. You are to refuse to compromise but to do so with a loving, gracious, sweet spirit. You are to cling like a bulldog to what is right but give other people the benefit of the doubt as long as possible. You are to stand up straight and tall while the rest of the world bows down, but you are to do so with a tender spirit, and a heart of love for the brethren.

In other words, you are to be just like Jesus. He went about doing good. His life was marked by compassion. But He had a backbone of steel, and on one anywhere at any time was going to push Him off the hill of truth even if He had to die on it. He was full of grace and truth. And so should we be.

I am unashamedly independent Baptist. I suspect ninety percent or more of my readers are as well. Although our movement has thousands and thousands of churches we are certainly in the minority when it comes to American Christianity. This American Christianity has been pushing leftward at an increasingly rapid clip in my lifetime. I am not talking about the Mormons and the Catholics; I am talking about our brethren in Christ, God's people. I am talking about evangelical Protestantism, non-denominationalism, the large conventions and associations that preach the Gospel but have ministries marked by compromise, pragmatism, and worldliness. And they are not just heading left; they are actively seeking to drag as many independent Baptists with them as they can.

Best-Practices-for-C-Suite-to-Manage-Both-ICD-10-and-Meaningful-UseWe live in an age of compromise, of a weak, spineless Christianity that is seeking to pull us along with it. We absolutely must develop the capacity to resist such a pull – no matter who else goes with them, no matter how isolated we get, no matter how tired we get of taking such a stand. But we just as absolutely must do this with a spirit of grace, cultivating a heart of love for those with whom we disagree.

Beloved, let us be full of grace and truth. Both.

It is the only way to be like Jesus.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Praised, Yet Awful: A Review of Philip Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace?

Grace 14

In my discussion earlier in this series of Paul's seminal Whats_So_Amazing_About_Gracestatement, Ye are not under the law, but under grace I mentioned Philip Yancey's influential book, "What's So Amazing About Grace?" I alluded to the fact that it, along with a few other original works and a whole bunch of copycats, have twisted much of American Christianity's concept of grace into something wholly unrecognizable to our forefathers. In so saying, I am not overstating its influence.

For example, it is praised by religious leaders as diverse as Larry Crabb, Brennan Manning (no surprise there), J. I. Packer, Jill Briscoe, Jim Wallis, Gordon MacDonald, Charles Colson, and the Irish rocker Bono. Tony Campolo said, "There are huge amounts of sermon material here." (No surprise there either.) Robert Seiple said, "This is beyond a doubt the very best book I have read from a Christian author in my life." Robert Jeffress said that it "did a valuable service by rescuing the doctrine of grace from the legalists." It was awarded Book of the Year by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association in 1998, and in 2006 was named as the seventeenth most influential book on Christianity Today's list of works that have shaped evangelicalism the most. Never mind the dizzying array of contradictory theological positions held by those listed in this paragraph, and how ashamed I would be if all of them praised any work of mine, let us simply agree that selling more than 15 million copies of any religious book in ten years, as this book did, qualifies as influential.

Censor-the-bible1If it is so praised why do I assert that it is awful? Let us start with the fact that for a book that purports to bring us back to a scriptural view of grace there is an appalling paucity of Scripture in it. Yancey unabashedly emphasizes this in his own introduction. "I have just read a thirteen-page treatise on grace in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, which has cured me of any desire to dissect grace and display its innards. I do not want the thing to die. For this reason, I will rely more on stories than syllogisms. In sum, I would far rather display grace than explain it."

In choosing this course Yancey does two things. First, he makes his book much more readable and thus popular. Second, and far more importantly, he writes a book almost entirely untethered from the Word of God. Yancey does an emotionally entertaining job of telling us what he wants grace to be, and a spiritually wretched job of telling us what God said grace actually is and does. It takes him forty-two pages to quote the first Bible verse. In the entirety of the book he never takes a verse, let alone a passage, and systematically explores its words, context, and flow of thought to tell us what God says about grace. Needless to say, he does not examine contrasting thoughts either. He examines nothing and reveals less of God's Word on the subject.

Curiously enough, while studiously avoiding the Scriptures, he manages to favorably quote any number of theologically sketchy characters. Roman Catholic theologians such as Romano Guardini and Brennan Manning? Check. Mystics such as John of the Cross and Bernard? Check. Intellectuals such as Mark Twain and Anthony Hecht? Check. Neo-orthodox Europeans such as Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Check. To add insult to injury, he purposely chooses to use both Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa as wonderful examples of grace.

The previous paragraph does not mark Yancey as wicked. It Pope_John_Paul_II_in_St_Peters_Square_circa_1978_Credit___LOsservatore_Romano_CNA_6_16_15does, however, mark him as severely lacking in discernment and seriously doctrinally deficient. Why conservative Christians let alone independent Baptists would look to such a man to explain and expound the Word of God is a mystery to me.

If his book does not come from Scripture where does it come from? I believe it was birthed out of a reaction to his own conservative/fundamentalist Southern upbringing. He mentions it often in the book and makes no bones that he found his home church experience wretched. In some sense Yancey is right to be appalled. The deacons of his home church patrolled the entrances to ensure no African-Americans made their way in. But in reacting against error Yancey makes the same mistake I have seen numerous acquaintances of mine make – he throws the baby out with the bathwater. At a dead run, he heads from the ditch of a harsh, racist religious upbringing to the ditch of license on the other side of the road. In the process he is highly critical of rules of any kind, and especially those of his youth forbidding rock music, alcohol, short skirts, and long hair. Those are, in his words, "pettiness", signs of a religion with no grace.

Do you begin to see his influence? The problem with Yancey, however, is much worse than that, much worse. It is not just about where Yancey was when he wrote the book, and how your friends use its arguments to overthrow their own long-held beliefs, it is even more about where Yancey's concept of grace leads, about what it produces years down the road. For example, the church here in Chicago where he served as an assistant so long believes nothing, is against nothing but taking a stand. But even more egregiously, Yancey's embrace of "grace" toward homosexuality is revelatory indeed.

mel_gary_30th_anniversaryIn the book, now twenty years old, he unabashedly promotes the homosexual Mel White as a wonderful example of Christian grace and love vs the evil, intolerant Christians who insist on shouting about doctrine. An emphasis on doctrine is "hatred" while Mel, on the other hand, evidences "a graceful spirit." Yancey likens preaching against homosexuality to the preaching against social drinking he heard in his youth, preaching that he clearly views as petty, legalistic, and beneath the spirit of Christ.

Remember, though, it is not just about where Yancey is when he writes this book, though that is bad enough. It is about where his concept of grace is going, and where it is going to take you. On his own website today on a page discussing his views of homosexuality he gives us these little gems. "In my relationship with Mel White, I have to remind myself that it’s not my job to present the absolutely proper, balanced viewpoint of the church." Somehow, after reading his book, I do not think Yancey even balances his checkbook. But I digress. Or there is this: "I intentionally don't take sides on this issue." And this: "I feel no need to represent a balanced viewpoint myself. So I don't take an official position. I simply try to love the gay individuals I know and bring a little grace and mercy to a church that puts this particular sin – if indeed it is that – in a special category." And this: "When it gets to particular matters of policy, like ordaining gay and lesbian minsters, I'm confused, like a lot of people."
I could go on in the same vein but I risk you thinking this blog post is about homosexuality. It is not. It is about where the wrong view of grace leads. It leads to repentance eliminated in favor of tolerance and forgiveness cheapened into permission. In a word, it leads to grace no longer being grace but rather being acceptance. Yancey can deny it all he wants, and your now-contemporary-used-to-be-fundamentalist friends can do the same. Their denials fade to the echoes of a whisper when confronted with their actions. What you believe changes how you live, and what you read changes what you believe.
You might want to think long and hard about that before ingesting what passes for classic discussions of grace in our day. No matter how many copies the guy has sold or how many famous religious leaders recommend it.