Reading

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest, was one of my favorite authors and theologians.  He died last night.

I first read Capon when I was studying for my PhD at Emory.  My advisor, Walt Lowe, turned me on to Capon and assigned him in numerous courses, for which I was his teaching assistant, at Candler School of Theology. Now that I teach my own classes, I assign Capon’s work.

Capon wrote about the radical grace of God in a way that kept me sane while I was deep in academic theological studies.

Here are a list of some of his books. Below are quotes and excerpts.

Books

Quotes & Excerpts

“The cross is a sign of the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems.” -Robert Capon

 

“The church’s job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it.” -Robert Capon

 

“The name of the game from now on is resurrection, not bookkeeping.” -Robert Capon

 

“Jesus came to raise the dead. He didn’t come to teach the teachable, improve the improvable, or reform the reformable.” -Robert Capon

 

“The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands. The world is drowning in religion. It is lying full fathom forty in the cults of spiritual growth, physical health, psychological self-improvement, and ethical probity—not to mention the religions of money, success, upward mobility, sin prevention, and cooking without animal fats. But it is scared out of its wits by any mention of the grace that takes the world home gratis.” –Robert Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 105

 

“Christianity is not a religion; it is the proclamation of the end of religion. Religion is a human activity dedicated to the job of reconciling God to humanity and humanity to itself. The Gospel, however—the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the astonishing announcement that God has done the whole work of reconciliation without a scrap of human assistance. It is the bizarre proclamation that religion is over—period.” – Robert Capon, The Mystery of Christ…and Why We Don’t Get It, page 62

 

“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.” –Robert Capon

 

“We are in a war between dullness and astonishment. The most critical issue facing Christians is not abortion, pornography, the disintegration of the family, moral absolutes, MTV, drugs, racism, sexuality, or school prayer. The critical issue today is dullness. We have lost our astonishment. The Good News is no longer good news, it is okay news. Christianity is no longer life changing, it is life enhancing. Jesus doesn’t change people into wild-eyed radicals anymore; He changes them into ‘nice people’.”Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 120

 

“Marginality, in short, leaves the church free, if it is faithful, to cherish its absurdity; establishment just makes it fall in love all over again with the irrelevant respectability of the world’s wisdom and power.” Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart, page 64

 

“Just remember that what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the cancer cell, the liver fluke, the killer whale, and the loan shark–that if God is holding all things in being right now, he’s got some explaining to do if he hopes to maintain his reputation as the original Good Guy. Or, more accurately (since God steadfastly refuses to show up and explain anything, except by announcing mysteries and paradoxes), we’ve got a lot of explaining to do if we are to go on thinking of him in terms of his reputation. The point is this: if God seems to be in no hurry to make the problem of evil go away, maybe we shouldn’t be, either. Maybe our compulsion to wash God’s hands for him is a service he doesn’t appreciate. Maybe — all theodicies and nearly all theologians to the contrary — evil is where we meet God. Maybe he isn’t bothered by showing up dirty for his dates with creation. Maybe—just maybe—if we ever solved the problem, we’d have talked ourselves out of a lover.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word

 

“Let me tell you why God made the world. One afternoon, before anything was made, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit sat around in the unity of their Godhead discussing one of the Father’s fixations. From all eternity, it seems, he had had this thing about being. He would keep thinking up all kinds of unnecessary things – new ways of being and new kinds of beings to be. And as they talked, God the Son suddenly said, “Really, this is absolutely great stuff Why don’t 1 go out and mix us up a batch?” And God the Holy Spirit said, “Terrific! I’ll help you.” So they all pitched in, and after supper that night, the Son and the Holy Spirit put on this tremendous show of being for the Father. It was full of water and light and frogs; pine cones kept dropping all over the place, and crazy fish swam around in the wineglasses. There were mushrooms and mastodons, grapes and geese, tornadoes and tigers – and men and women everywhere to taste them, to juggle them, to join them, and to love them. And God the Father looked at the whole wild party and said, “Wonderful! just what I had in mind! Tov! Tov! Tov!” And all God the Son and God the Holy Spirit could think of to say was the same thing: “Tov! Tov! Tov!” So they shouted together “Tov meod!” and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum, Amen.

It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a Trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.” –Robert Capon, Romance of the Word

 

“Let me tell you how God redeemed the world. On the eve of the Big Bang, over single-malt scotch and cigars, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were making a final run-through of their plans for the event. The Son was enthusiastic. ‘I think we’ve nailed it,’ he said to the Father. ‘I’m going to speak everything into being as your Word, and the Spirit here is going to breathe life into it. Then the two of us toss it back to you, and the cosmic party dances itself right into our Trinitarian lap. Elegant! Tov meod! Kala lian! Valde bona, and all that!’

‘I have a problem, though,’ the Spirit says. ‘I’m the one responsible for the PR in all this, especially when it comes to the fail-safe gambit of the Incarnation we’ve planned to cover both creation and redemption. The Son really does make the world, right? But with the human race locked into time and space, it’s going to look as if we haven’t seriously tried to redeem the mess they’ve made until Jesus shows up late in history. The fact that we’ve had the Son in there tidying things up from the beginning is the last thing they’ll think of. How do I convince them that the Incarnation isn’t just an afterthought?’

‘Easy,’ says the Father. ‘Sure, it will look as if the Incarnation of my Word is simply a response to sin. But since all three of us will have been intimately present to everything from square one, all you have to do is give them images that show both creation and redemption going on full force from the start. From before the beginning, in fact, since we’re talking about it right now. What’s the problem with that?’

‘The problem,’ the Spirit explains, ‘is precisely with the images. However many mysterious, right-brain images of the Word’s age-long presence I give them, they’re going to dream up transactional, left-brain ones and view him as something you inserted late in the day. Think of the damage they can do to your reputation as the Father who creates or even to the Son’s, as the one who redeems if they decide to think of you as the coach in a football game and the Son as the quarterback. Since you’re not going to reveal the Word’s Incarnation until some two-thirds of history has gone by, how do I stop them from thinking you kept him in the locker room until the fourth quarter? We three may know he’s been in there right from the first possession, but no one else will. Even your biggest fans are going to be hard put to sell that as brilliant management.’

‘Listen,’ the Father says. ‘I decide what’s brilliant management, not the fans. And as for my reputation, that’s your department, not mine. Besides, haven’t we talked about this practically forever? You know the drill. All through the process of revealing my Son in history, you keep slipping them images of the hiddenness of his Incarnation – of the mystery of the Word’s activity in the world even before you arrange for him to be born of Mary. You’re going to hang images like the Paschal Lamb and the Rock in the Wilderness in their minds. After that, all you’ll have to do is get somebody like Paul to say that those things were presences of Christ before Christ – that the Lamb and the Rock are in fact my Incarnate Word anticipating himself. What’s so hard about that?’

‘Plenty,’ the Spirit answers. ‘I’ve been doing simulations of human thought in my mind. I think we’ve underestimated the effects of cooping people up in four dimensions. Look at it from my point of view. You plunk Jesus into the world at one spot in history, and then you expect me to convince them he’s present as your Word in all of history – before, during, and after Jesus?’

The Son interrupts him. ‘But I really am going to be present. Or to put it their way, I really will have been all along. So I don’t see…’

The Spirit’s patience is wearing thin. ‘Give me a break! Since I’m the one who has to take everything that’s yours and get it across to them, I’m trying to solve your problems here too. Just think about what they’ll do with a Jesus who stays in history for only thirty-three years. Even if I get John to say that he’s the Word who made everything from the beginning, they’ll probably imagine him as a pot of holy soup we delivered too late for a good many of our customers. And after they’ve jumped to the conclusion that the Word wasn’t present to anyone who lived before Jesus, they’ll leap to the even more dreadful notion that nobody who lived after him can have his benefits until their assorted churches get him canned, marketed, and distributed to them.’

The Father tries to break in. ‘But what about the Pentecost party we’ve planned to get the church going? Won’t that…?’

‘I’m sorry,’ the Spirit insists, ‘but I’m afraid Pentecost will be just one more thing for them to misread. Don’t get me wrong: I’m totally on board with both of you. But suppose I do give you the rushing mighty wind and the party hats made out of fire. Even suppose I throw in the mystery of speaking in different languages in order to get the universality of the Son’s work into the picture. They’re still going to think the church is in the world to sell clam chowder to customers who never had it before. I mean, think of the possibilities for ecclesiastical arrogance. Jesus takes away the sins of the world, right? In him, everyone who ever lived gets free forgiveness for whatever went wrong in full, in advance, and all in one cosmic shot, no strings attached. I’m even going to get the church to include ‘one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins’ in the Nicene Creed so they’ll see that the Baptism of Jesus himself does the whole job, even if no one else ever gets baptized. But do you know what they’re going to do with that? They’re going to paint themselves into a corner and say that the unbaptized go to hell or even that sins after Baptism make forgiveness flake off like a bad paint job, and that unless Christians go to confession for a second coat before they die, they’ll go to hell too. Oh, sure. We’ve also agreed on this Reformation business where I convince them that nobody has to do anything to be forgiven except trust the grace that Jesus has already given everybody. But give them a hundred years after that and they’ll manage to turn faith itself into a requirement for grace: no faith, no forgiveness. Out the window again goes the free gift we’ve given them once and for all; and back in comes forgiveness as a deal that’s good only as long as they behave themselves.’

‘But why on earth,’ the Son wonders, ‘would they balk at getting something for nothing like that? Free grace and dying love isn’t enough for them? Would they rather we dealt with them on the basis of accountability?’

The Spirit just keeps pressing his point. ‘I don’t understand it any better than you do; all I know is what my simulations tell me. Human beings aren’t afraid of accountability; they’re crazy about it. If they can’t get credit for themselves or dish out blame to others, they cry “Unfair!” That’s why I pleaded with you to let me include something less subtle in the revelation. Remember? I suggested an image of the Son hiding a box of chocolates in every person’s house: the gift would be there whether they know it or not, like it or not, believe it or not. Maybe then they’d see that their faith doesn’t do anything to get them the chocolates of forgiveness; it simply enables them to enjoy what they already have. If they don’t trust the gift, of course, it won’t mean a thing to them. But the chocolates will always be there. I was even willing to make them miraculous, just to keep the element of mystery in the mix: no matter how many pieces anyone ate, the box would always be full. I still think it would have been a good idea.’

Finally, though, the Father has had enough. ‘I understand your difficulties,’ he says; ‘but after all, somebody’s got to be in charge here. In my mind, we’ve come up with a revelation that does the work of your chocolates without making us look like candy-pushers. The Son and I have every confidence in you. If you want to inspire the odd Christian apologist here or there to come up with images like that, be our guest. As I said, it’s your department. But we’re coming down to the wire here, so let’s call this a wrap. We have a big day tomorrow’.” –Robert Capon, The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect through a History of Images, pages 1-4

The Bible and Anglican Liturgy

The Bible and Anglican Liturgy

Carl Trueman writes that in the Anglican liturgy, one finds “a structure of worship which is determined by the interface between theological truth and biblically-defined existential need.”  Trueman’s blog post is about about his visit to an Anglican service and the realization that Anglican worship services are both filled with and shaped by the Bible more than “any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life.”

Readings I have found helpful in thinking about a theology of liturgical worship:

In For the Life of the World Alexander Schmemann suggests an approach to the world and life within it, which stems from the liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church. He understands issues such as secularism and Christian culture from the perspective of the unbroken experience of the Church, as revealed and communicated in her worship, in her liturgy – the sacrament of the world, the sacrament of the Kingdom.

Zahl writes: “I believe in Bible-based verticality, which is another way of saying formal-litiurgical worship.” He reminds us that worship should be vertical, biblical, and Godward. No element of worship should creep into a service without having to pass this one-question test: “Does it accurately reflect Bible truth about God, Christ, and human?”

The worship of the Christian community, properly understood and done, leads worshipers to act out in their lives the love of God, which is at the heart of our worship. Worship also provides the power and the sustenance which makes this style of living possible. This Christian style of living, moreover, drives those who are committed to it back to the worship of God, to find forgiveness and strength. When this interdependent relationship is understood, the power of worship is illuminated and the power to live increased.

Liturgy For Living remains a classic text in the field of Anglican/Episcopal liturgy. This highly readable overview explores the meaning of worship from a theological, historical, and spiritual perspective. It then examines the history, theology, and meaning of specific Anglican liturgies including: Holy Baptism, Confirmation, the Daily Office, the Holy Eucharist, and the various pastoral offices.

Excerpts from Trueman’s blog post:

“So what exactly had she witnessed, I asked myself? Well, at a general level she had heard the English language at its most beautiful and set to an exalted purpose: the praise of Almighty God. She would also have seen a service with a clear biblical logic to it, moving from confession of sin to forgiveness to praise to prayer. She would also have heard this logic explained to her by the minister presiding, as he read the prescribed explanations that are built in to the very liturgy itself. The human tragedy and the way of salvation were both clearly explained and dramatized by the dynamic movement of the liturgy. And she would have witnessed all of this in an atmosphere of hushed and reverent quiet.”

“In terms of specific detail, she would also have heard two whole chapters of the Bible read out loud: one from the Old Testament and one from the New. Not exactly the whole counsel of God but a pretty fair snapshot. She would have been led in a corporate confession of sin. She would have heard the minister pronounce forgiveness in words shaped by scripture. She would have been led in corporate prayer in accordance with the Lord’s own prayer. She would have heard two whole psalms sung by the choir. She would have had the opportunity to sing a couple of hymns drawn from the rich vein of traditional hymnody and shot through with scripture. She would have been invited to recite the Apostles’ Creed (and thus come pretty close to being exposed to the whole counsel of God). She would have heard collects rooted in the intercessory concerns of scripture brought to bear on the real world. And, as I noted earlier, all of this in the exalted, beautiful English prose of Thomas Cranmer.”

“Yet here is the irony: in this liberal Anglican chapel, the hijabi experienced an hour long service in which most of the time was spent occupied with words drawn directly from scripture. She heard more of the Bible read, said, sung and prayed than in any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life. Cranmer’s liturgy meant that this girl was exposed to biblical Christianity in a remarkably beautiful, scriptural and reverent fashion. I was utterly convicted as a Protestant minister that evangelical Protestantism must do better on this score: for all of my instinctive sneering at Anglicanism and formalism, I had just been shown in a powerful way how far short of taking God’s word seriously in worship I fall.”

Apologetic of Mercy

Apologetic of Mercy

My friend and former student, Chris Sicks, wrote an important book titled Tangible: Making God Known Through Deeds of Mercy and Words of Truth. In today’s Church there seems to be two well-intentioned groups. “Deed” people feed the hungry and help the poor while “Word” people proclaim the Gospel and engage in apologetics. The two often seem to compete with one another, but God always intended them to be partners. Sacrificial love can grab the attention of those we serve, opening their ears and minds to the words we share.

Chris was my student at Reformed Theological Seminary, where his personal ministry and his studies in my apologetics course combined to develop his thesis, which forms the basis for his book. His labors have resulted in a great book that I am proud to endorse and plan to assign in future courses. Chris cares passionately and has thought deeply about this topic.

He invited me to write the foreword, which is below.


 

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that He was the fulfillment of these words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). In this declaration and in His ministry Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed are at the very center of His divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was His sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection, which set His people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet His teachings and example show us that if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power, the proclamation of the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors.

Historically, the Christian church has at its best been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to “the least of these”—the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. The fourth-century church provides one example:

In his attempt to reestablish Hellenic religion in the empire, [the emperor] Julian instructed the high priest of the Hellenic faith to imitate Christian concern for strangers. . . . He therefore instructed the priest to establish hostels for needy strangers in every city and also ordered a distribution of corn and wine to the poor, strangers, and beggars. “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”

In more recent history, Christian churches of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led the charge for the abolition of slavery, again providing a strong apologetic for the Christian faith and visibly embodying Jesus’ mission to proclaim liberty to captives.

Mercy ministry is an opportunity for Christian churches to take the gospel to those most in need, provide the marginalized and oppressed an alternative community centered on Jesus (the church), and show the transformative power of the gospel to the watching world. Moreover, responding to social injustice in our communities is a way the church can practice the charge of Jeremiah 29:7 for God’s people to seek the welfare of the cities where God has placed us, and to obey the call of James to practice “pure religion” (James 1:27) by caring for the most vulnerable.

Chris Sicks knows firsthand that mercy ministry is an effective apologetic for the gospel. A former atheist who rejected many intellectual apologetic arguments, Chris is now a pastor who leads numerous mercy ministry initiatives. He has seen with his own eyes how God uses the church to both help hurting people and to reveal Himself to them and others. In the midst of their suffering, people need to see God as Rescuer, Healer, Comforter, and Savior. Thousands of Christians are already serving the poor and oppressed, and many are also committed to the work of apologetics. Sicks’ intent is to help the church see how deeds of compassion can be a compelling argument for the existence of a loving God.

Chris is not promoting a repackaged Social Gospel. He understands that the gospel cannot be communicated through deeds alone; as Duane Litfin has written, “If it is to be communicated at all, the gospel must be put into words.” In this book, Chris repeatedly emphasizes that deeds of mercy are insufficient in themselves, and do not by themselves form an apologetic. Instead, the combination of deeds of mercy and words of salvation comprise what Chris has called the apologetic of mercy.

Most apologetic strategies target the head. In contrast, the apologetic of mercy begins with the heart. It is often in the midst of our pain that the “God of all comfort” makes Himself known most clearly. This is not a new idea, but it is the pattern of God’s gracious interaction with His people in the Old and New Testaments, and continues in His dealings with us today.

God has placed each of us in a particular place, in relationships with people who have needs. If we ask Him to use us to reveal Himself, we will have the privilege of showing His compassion and love to hurting people. As we make meals, give rides, or provide shelter, we will build relationships. When we share the gospel in the context of a merciful relationship, we speak with authenticity. Our words about God’s love are believable because we have shown God’s love in action and in truth (see 1 John 3:18).

Introduction to Acts

Introduction to Acts

I had the privilege of writing the notes on Acts for the Gospel Transformation Bible, which features all-new book introductions and gospel-illuminating  notes written to help readers see Christ in all of Scripture and grace for all of life.

Below is the introduction I wrote, which is included in the free sample. You can find out more here and get a copy here.


 

Author and Date

Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physi- cian who traveled with the apostle Paul. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar, c. a.d. 62. Many scholars assume Acts was written then because it does not record Paul’s defense, release, and further gospel preaching. Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection.

The Gospel in Acts

Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world, from the cross and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Nothing is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel. Jesus promises a geographic expansion at the outset (1:8), and Acts follows the news of his death and resurrection as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the faraway capital of Rome.

The preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central in Acts. The Greek verb for “preach the gospel” (euangelizo) occurs more in this book than in any other in the New Testament. About a third of the book of Acts consists of speeches, and most of these are speeches of Peter or Paul proclaiming the gospel. The good news of the salvation accomplished in Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit extends to the “ends of the earth” through preaching.

In Acts, “grace” is a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation.” Jesus’ message is summarized as “the word of his grace” (20:32), believers are said to have received “grace” or to be “full of grace” (6:8), and they are challenged to continue in grace. The missionaries in Acts proclaim the grace of God, and it is through this grace that people are able to respond with faith.

Acts reveals God’s passionate pursuit of his people, beginning with his followers in Jerusalem, expanding to Samaria, then to the rest of the world. By the end of the book we see Paul living in Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all bold- ness and without hindrance” (28:31). The gospel draws people in, consti- tutes them as the church centered on the grace of Jesus, and then sends them out in mission to the world. The new group of believers is marked by the Holy Spirit, who creates such a distinctive community that others are drawn in, experiencing God’s grace. At the same time, they take the gospel message to new people and new lands, making God’s grace known to the ends of the earth.

The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Luke consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are invited to enter and participate in a story that is much bigger than we are.

In Acts, the gospel expands not through human strength, but through weakness, opposition, and persecution. Demonic forces, worldly powers and authorities, governmental opposition, language and cultural barriers, intense suffering and bloody persecution, unjust imprisonment, unbelief, internal disunity, and even shipwrecks and snakes all threaten to slow down the gospel’s advance. But opposition and suffering do not thwart the spread of Jesus’ grace; rather, they fuel it.

The gospel spreads despite barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture, gender, and wealth. Many of these barriers appear so inviolable that when the gospel is preached to a new segment of society, riots ensue. But Luke makes clear that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power, nor is anyone exempt from the need for God’s redeeming grace.

All people receive the grace of God through one man, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ gospel goes out to all places and all types of people, because Jesus is Lord of all.

Outline

I. Preparation for Witness (1:1–2:13)
II. The Witness in Jerusalem (2:14–5:42)
III. The Witness beyond Jerusalem (6:1–12:25)
IV. The Witness in Cyprus and Southern Galatia (13:1–14:28)
V. The Jerusalem Council (15:1–35)
VI. The Witness in Greece (15:36–18:22)VII. The Witness in Ephesus (18:23–21:16)
VIII. The Arrest in Jerusalem (21:17–23:35)
IX. The Witness in Caesarea (24:1–26:32)
X. The Witness in Rome (27:1–28:31)
Grace Is the Opposite of Karma

Grace Is the Opposite of Karma

A Q&A with Justin Holcomb on the release of his newest book, On the Grace of God.

 

Question: So let’s start with the big idea. Give us a quick summary of what the Bible says on the grace of God.

Justin Holcomb: “Grace” is the most important concept in the Bible, in Christianity, and in the world. The shorthand for grace is “mercy, not merit.”

Grace is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve. Grace is the opposite of karma. Grace is the love of God shown to the unlovely, the peace of God given to the restless, the unmerited favor of God. Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving. Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it. Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues. Grace is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against him. Grace is one-way love.

Question: “The opposite of karma.” That’s good. In fact, that all sounds pretty good. And yet in the book you talk about how grace is actually offensive. Can you explain why a concept that involves unconditional love could make people mad?

JH: 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. 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.”

“Karma is all about getting what you deserve. Grace is the opposite.”

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 and fear, 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.

Question: Many of those words aren’t generally associated with the concept of grace outside the church context. How do you think people in general define grace?

JH: I 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.

Question: Which of course raises the same question Paul talks about in the book of Romans. If grace is a gift that we receive freely—if our acceptance is based on grace and not whether we obey God’s law—what’s to prevent people from abusing the gift and ignoring God’s commands? How do you tackle this issue?

JH: When it comes to grace and law, it’s not a matter of keeping them in balance, but using them correctly. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intensified the law when he took the Ten Commandments and told us that it’s not just about our outward behavior. If you sin inwardly you have broken all of the law. Then, in Matthew 22:36–39, he summarizes the law with two prongs. He’s asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He replies: “Love God with all your heart” (which sums up the first four commandments), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which sums up the last six). Jesus made the law even more dangerous and intense than it was in the Old Testament. He wasn’t just explaining an ethical code for his followers—he was freaking people out so they would know their need for a Savior.

“Grace is the end of religion.”

The law is a mirror. It reflects to us our problem, our condition, our need, and our death. The law is good because it shows us reality. Like a mirror, the law shows us our problem. But a mirror can’t change what it shows us. It reflects our problem, but it can’t fix it. The law cannot generate what it commands. When applied to sin, the law curses us with judgment. In the presence of the law, only a holy substitute can save us. Look at what the Apostle Paul says: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Rom. 7:24–8:3).

Jesus died on the cross in our place to take away the curse we bear for breaking God’s law. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, there is an answer to the disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” The good news comes when Jesus says, “With man [salvation] is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). That’s the point of the law and the gospel: with us, salvation is impossible (law), but for God, everything is possible (gospel). It’s when we face the impossibility of doing anything to save ourselves that the grace of God floods in.

Question: Talk more about the difference between grace and religion. How do you distinguish the two?

JH: “Religion” is shorthand for the human propensity is to establish negotiated settlements with God. Robert Capon explains: “The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands.”

Grace reveals our natural pride of self-sufficiency, as well as the pride of spiritual progression. God’s grace pushes us to recognize our sinfulness and reject all confidence in our abilities and ourselves. Grace is the end of religion because the secured promise of the gospel frees us from the supposed promises of our religious self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-justification.

“The cross is a coup de grâce, a ‘stroke of grace.’”

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 un-coerced 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 grâce, meaning “stroke of grace,” which refers to the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering.

Question: That’s a great way to put it. Grace not only trumps religion, but also evil and suffering. What are some other ways that God’s grace can influence our day-to-day lives?

JH: 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, NIV)! 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.

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.

 




Do you want more? Grab a copy of On the Grace of God by Justin Holcomb today.

“Gratuitous” Grace

“Gratuitous” Grace

The following is an excerpt from On the Grace of God on John Calvin’s understanding of “gratuitous” grace.

In the Christian tradition, there are many adjectives that have accompanied the word grace: amazing, free, scandalous, surprising, special, inexhaustible, incalculable, wondrous, mysterious, overflow- ing, abundant, irresistible, costly, extravagant, and more. My favorite is from John Calvin—”gratuitous” grace. Gratuitous is the idea of something being unwarranted or uncalled for. Though we yearn des- perately for grace, the beautiful extravagance of God’s love in Christ is utterly uncalled for. Gratuitous. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes: “We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists. . . . Faith begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it” (Institutes 3.2.24).

In Calvin’s theology, the knowledge of God the redeemer focuses on the “gratuitous promise” as the main theme of Scripture. The gratuitous promise in Christ is the substance of Scripture. The various terms denoting the gratuitous promise of God exist throughout Calvin’s writings in countless variations: “gratuitous mercy,” “gratuitous favor,” “gratuitous goodness,” “mere good pleasure,” and “gratuitous love” (Institutes 2.7.4; 2.16.2; 2.17.1; 3.21.5; 3.21.7; 3.31.7)  These expressions are also found throughout his commentaries, especially his Commentary on Romans and Commentary on Genesis.

God loves you with gratuitous grace, the only kind there is. God’s grace is unconditioned and unconditional.

Grace All The Way

Grace All The Way

We must always hold Ephesians 2:10 together with 2:8–9.

Some of my friends and others who reviewed my book On the Grace of God have told me that the fifth chapter was their favorite. So, I thought it would be a great idea to give it away for free! You can download a copy of chapter 5 here. In the meantime, here’s a post adapted from the chapter.

High-Octane Gospel of Grace

Ephesians 2 is filled with the high-octane gospel of grace for both our justification and sanctification. It begins with how believers were dead in their sins, then moves to how God loved us and rescued us from this death by his grace, bringing salvation to all in Christ, uniting Jews and Gentiles as one people in which the Spirit of God dwells.

The first half of the chapter focuses on God’s rescue operation for his people, which delivered us from our sin and God’s wrath, and ends with verse 10, which centers on how God’s deliverance means we are created anew for lives of righteousness. As one commentator notes, salvation has already been described by Paul as “a resurrection from the dead, a liberation from slavery, and a rescue from condemnation”; he moves now to the idea of a new creation.

Grace Takes Center Stage

The theme of Ephesians 2:8–9 is clear: grace. This theme was already mentioned in verse 5, but what was then more of an “undercurrent” now becomes the main point. We are saved by grace, not anything we have done. The passage is a traditional one used to support the idea that justification before God is by grace alone, and not anything we do—and for good reason.

Good works can’t be the cause of our salvation—they just don’t work like that.

The verses strike with great emphasis the note of salvation as a complete “gift of God.” We have done nothing to bring it about that could lead us to boast about it. And yet it is nearly impossible not to boast in the radical love of God when we grasp this reality.

We now move to Ephesians 2:10 with its focus on “good works.” It is tempting at first glance to think that verses 8 and 9 are about grace and verse 10 is about works. But this would be to miss something very important that we easily neglect: everything is grace. Or, as one scholar puts it, “It is grace all the way.”

So what does that mean exactly?

Walking In Good Works

Notice how God-centered Ephesians 2:10 is. In the Greek, the first word in the sentence is “his,” which is an unusual placement and puts the emphasis squarely on God. We are “his workmanship.” We “are created [by God] in Christ Jesus” for good works. These good works were those “that God prepared beforehand.” Clearly works are important to Paul, but his emphasis here is on God bringing them about within us.

Notice that this verse does three important things:

  1. It gives the reason why Paul can say in verses 8 and 9 that salvation is a complete gift of God: because we are his workmanship, re-created in Jesus Christ.
  2. It points forward to other places the new creation idea is found in the epistle (Eph. 2:14–15; 4:24).
  3. It completes the section of Ephesians 2:1–10 in a fitting way by using again the idea of “walking,” which contrasts with verse 2 where Paul talks about how we used to “walk” in sin, following the “course of the world.” Now we “walk” in good works God has set before us.

The Goal, Not The Cause Of

Ephesians 2:10 continues, saying that we have been created in Christ Jesus “for good works.” So we are saved for the purpose of walking in good works. Good works are never the ground or cause of our salvation. They can’t be—they just don’t work like that. They are not the cause but the “goal of the new creation.” And God has already prepared them for us ahead of time.

We must always hold Ephesians 2:10 together with 2:8–9. The Bible paints a holistic picture of the believer as one whose life is continually lived in grace that bears fruit, fruit that is used by God to bless others.

 


 

Want more? Grab the book.







This post was adapted from On the Grace of God, by Justin Holcomb, copyright © 2013.

Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us (Book Highlights)

Tribes: We Need You To Lead Us (Book Highlights)

How do successful leaders turn a group of people into a tribe and movement?

Tribes BookTribes: We Need You to Lead Us

by Seth Godin

New York: Portfolio, 2008.

 


 

A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.

–Seth Godin
Tribes, p. 2

In recent years the concept of tribes has been rising to prominence as a way of understanding the way people associate with one another, follow leaders, and rally around ideas. This idea has been popularized by the entrepreneur and author Seth Godin in his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us (2008).

In Tribes, Godin offers an explanation for the human desire to belong to something greater:

Human beings can’t help it: we need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people. We are drawn to leaders and to their ideas, and we can’t resist the rush of belonging and the thrill of the new. (p. 3)

The desire to belong to a tribe is part of human nature.

The New Internet Style

As Godin argues, tribal associations used to be limited more by geography: people connected with those in their own village or city. But now globalization and the Internet have allowed tribes to spring up and flourish without regard to geography. The result:

This means that existing tribes are bigger, but more important, it means that there are now more tribes, smaller tribes, influential tribes, horizontal and vertical tribes, and tribes that could never have existed before. Tribes you work with, tribes you travel with, tribes you buy with. Tribes that vote, that discuss, that fight. Tribes where everyone knows your name. The professionals at the CIA are a tribe and so are the volunteers at the ACLU. (p. 4–5)

Rather than creating a new phenomenon, the Internet simply empowers and amplifies the natural human urge to connect: “Before the Internet, coordinating and leading a tribe was difficult. It was difficult to get the word out, difficult to coordinate action, difficult to grow quickly. . . . Twitter and blogs and online videos and countless other techniques contribute to an entirely new dimension of what it means to be part of a tribe. The new technologies are well designed to connect tribes and to amplify their work” (p. 6).

Get ’em Together

The main idea of Tribes is that because it is now easier than ever to form, coordinate, and lead a tribe, anyone can become a leader. “Every one of these tribes is yearning for leadership and connection. This is an opportunity for you—an opportunity to find or assemble a tribe and lead it. The question isn’t, Is it possible for me to do that? Now, the question, is, Will I choose to do it?” (p. 8).

Leaders need to focus their message.

The most successful leaders, according to Godin, are those who turn their tribe into a movement by challenging the status quo: “Heretics are the new leaders. The ones who challenge the status quo, who get out in front of their tribes, who create movements. The marketplace now rewards (and embraces) the heretic. It’s clearly more fun to make the rules than to follow them, and for the first time, it’s also profitable, powerful, and productive to do just that” (p. 11).

Successful movement leaders inspire people rather than dominate them. These leaders “don’t care very much for organizational structure or the official blessing of whatever factory they work for. They use passion and ideas to lead people, as opposed to using threats and bureaucracy to manage them. . . . Great leaders create movements by empowering the tribe to communicate. They establish the foundation for people to make connections, as opposed to commanding people to follow them” (p. 22–23).

L’il Communication

There are two things that are required to turn a group of people into a tribe: 1) a shared interest and 2) a way to communicate. Communication can be between the leader and the tribe, between tribe members, and between tribe members and outsiders. A leader can help make a tribe and its members more effective by:

  • Transforming the shared interest into a passionate goal and desire for change
  • Providing tools to allow members to tighten their communications
  • Leveraging the tribe to allow it to grow and gain new members (p. 25)

Great leaders create movements, and a movement has three key features:

  1. A narrative that tells a story about who we are and the future we’re trying to build
  2. A connection between and among the leader and the tribe
  3. Something to do—the fewer limits, the better (p. 27)

Hey Leaders

Godin argues that leaders need to focus their message on what will motivate their own tribe. “Great leaders don’t try to please everyone. Great leaders don’t water down their message in order to make the tribe a bit bigger. Instead, they realize that a motivated, connected tribe in the midst of a movement is far more powerful than a larger group could ever be” (p. 67).

The vision of leadership laid out in Tribes is about attracting, connecting, communicating with, and motivating followers of a tribe. As Godin summarizes, “Leaders challenge the status quo. Leaders create a culture around their goal and involve others in that culture. Leaders have an extraordinary amount of curiosity about the world they’re trying to change. Leaders use charisma (in a variety of forms) to attract and motivate followers. Leaders communicate their vision of the future. Leaders commit to a vision and make decisions based upon that commitment. Leaders connect their followers to one another” (p. 126).

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Sexual Assault Awareness Month

Books and articles on protecting children, training them, and caring for abused children.

The month of April has been designated Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the U.S. The goal of SAAM is to raise public awareness about sexual violence and to educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence.

The campaign this year is child sexual abuse prevention. Here are some resources I wanted to make available on this issue.

Rid of My Disgrace

In honor of SAAM, the ebook edition of Rid of My Disgrace is available for $0.99 until Monday, April 8th.

Posts On Protecting Children

Recommended Reading On Training Your Children

Recommended Reading On Caring For Your Child If They Have Been Abused

Resources From GRACE

I serve on the board of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). Their resource page has some helpful articles and videos:

The Respond Conference

Matt Chandler, Greg Love, Paul Tripp, and myself will speak at Respond—a free, one-day conference at The Village Church advocating a biblical response to sexual assault.