“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
While Jesus speaks volumes about God’s grace, we cannot ignore the fact that he will also judge. It seems paradoxical for a message of grace to also include a future warning of judgement, but it all makes perfect sense if we truly understand what grace is.
First we must understand that grace is God’s intervention in our world. Our world is defined by sin, suffering, and death. God promises that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, these three painful realities will be banished from reality. This is God’s grace. Christians often focus on the aspect of grace that means they will go to heaven, but we sometimes forget the fact grace alleviates all suffering. Put simply: God will remove the bad.
Second, we must understand our call. When asked what is most important for people to do, Jesus responded that the sum of God’s teaching is to love Him and love your fellow humans. Jesus often spoke of what such love meant, and how to differentiate it from normal human religion. He told stories to the masses to illustrate what such love looked like, and he always reminded people that the greatest example of such love was what God is doing on the earth through him. Above all else, people are called to live as if they believe evil will be wiped away from earth, and to model (even in our feebleness) the reality of grace that God is bringing. Put simply: We must act like God’s grace.
Finally, we must consider our present reality. By and large we humans do not practice such grace. Although we produce enough food to feed the world, a billion do not have enough to eat. Despite our ability to live in peace, millions die from war every decade. Despite the vast wealth of the world, over 2/3 of the world’s population live in poverty. Although it easy to point out the macro forms in which grace is not present within humanity, we cannot dismiss the individual responsibility we all share. Very few of us actually have the opportunity to oppress millions, like the great monsters of history we often invoke to ease our own conscious. We do have the opportunity to ignore injustice and even profit from it when our leaders call for it. We also have the opportunity to act in the same selfishness when we encounter or even cause the suffering of others. We are all guilty of gracelessness. Put simply: We often reject God’s grace.
This is not a world of grace. The sad truth of it is, many of us like it that way.
For God’s grace to be real on this earth, justice must be served on behalf of all those who suffer. Orthodox Christian theology believes that because Jesus died without sin, he was able to take on our collective sin and pay the price to satisfy justice. In other words, Jesus’ willful undeserved suffering paid the price owed for every bad thing that has occurred, is occurring, will occur in the future, as well as that which would have occurred had we had the chance to carry it out. This is the gospel and this is the working of God’s grace.
That last proposition though is subject of some controversy. Many people simply don’t believe it. Many people object to the necessity of righting the wrong or the insinuation of their own guilt. Even when Jesus spoke to people in his own time, people who saw Jesus in the flesh, many rejected it. Still many more reject it today.
The good news is that, as the apostle Paul put it, “where sin abounds, grace abounds.”
Grace most definitely judges, and it has already condemned. Jesus offered himself to stand in our place and all he asked in return is that we accept his grace. To accept grace is to live grace. It is to accept a reality where needs are met and suffering is banished. When Jesus told his followers that he would return and separate the peoples of the earth, he was telling them that those who accept grace show it radiating from within and those who will not accept his grace show it by the lack of grace in their own lives.
The judgement of grace is therefore a judgement of acceptance. There is no persuasion other than what has already been seen and what many have an earnest hope for. Regardless of man-made religious distinctions we have all witnessed grace, even if it was never defined in those terms, and we all have an opportunity to accept or reject it. But there is coming a day when there will only be grace, those who wish their own gain through the suffering of others will not accept such a place, and God will respect their decision.
One day while I was in seminary, a sat on a bench and had lunch with a young Christian leader who had entered during the same semester as me. He ran a rather large parachurch ministry at a public university in our city and often spoke at various churches. I had been to his house and he to mine and we both knew each others wife. We were both sharing ministry stories when the subject of the homeless ministry I ran for several years came up. After recalling several anecdotes from my time there, my friend spoke something I was not expecting.
“I don’t give money to the homeless,” he said in a very assertive voice. “If they don’t earn it, they shouldn’t have it.”
“Well,” I responded, “I did it because God freely gave me a great gift when I did not deserve it and in return I just freely give to others what little I have. It’s just my way of modeling the gospel.”
“Don’t give me that,” he retorted. “You did something for your salvation, so did I. I don’t know what we did, but we did earn it a little.”
I didn’t know how to respond. I had never heard a Christian leader say out-rightly that we “earn” our salvation. The lunch hour was coming to a close and our conversation was finished. I don’t know if it stuck with him, but it stuck with me.
The greatest threat to Western Christianity is not encroaching secularism, not radical Islam, nor the “homosexual agenda.” The greatest threat to every Christian and Christian church in the world we live in is the neglect of grace. Since mankind first left the Garden of Eden, way back in Genesis 3, we have resolved to reject the grace of God in favor of what we believe could be accomplished through our own works.
When God created humans it was an act of grace. Our very existence cannot be credited to ourselves, any more than I should take credit over my mother for my physical birth. Yet for aeons we have deluded ourselves into thinking we can thrive autonomously. It should not be surprising that humans think this way, but what should be utterly shocking is that the Church grows ever more seduced by the idea that there is no need for God’s grace. Jesus spent his ministry fighting against the notion that the people of God were born naturally (see John 3, 7,9 etc.) and that by their works could they save themselves.
Jesus told the story about the labors in the field who verbally attacked the owner for paying the same generous wage to those who did little work as those who did much more. Jesus’ message was simply stated in the owner’s response to their criticism. “Is it not my money that I am free to with as I want? Why do you begrudge me for being generous to them even when you have received your reward?” Our human nature is so wrapped in our own merit that we cannot accept the fact that God gives his grace freely.
While most churchgoers in America will readily answer that grace is the reason they are saved when asked directly, probing deeper often unearths an underlying belief that they somehow earned God’s favor wither by their actions or their ingrained nature. Put another way, many seem to think, “I earned or it or my people did.”
We often speak of Christianity as not about what we have to do, but what Jesus did. Yet we hold to countless formulas for what one must do to be saved. Did you say the “sinner’s prayer?” Did you walk down the aisle? Do you go to church?Did you repent from swearing and drinking? Have you done enough to be saved? Many Christians I know will tell you the date they were “saved.” It was September 8th, 199… when I trusted, when I accepted, when I was baptized, when I made a decision, when I, I, I. Why is the nexus of our salvation based on a moment when we did something, instead of the moment that Jesus did something? When people ask me when I was saved, I tell them, “about 33AD.”
I don’t mean to be flippant about this, but this is a serious error in theology that has last repercussions on how we live our lives. It was this “Theology of Glory” as a former professor of mine so often labeled it, that led the Catholic Church in decline during the Medieval Ages and sparked the Reformation. Reformer Martin Luther began his separation from the Catholic Church because of the very notion that God alone is our salvation; we did nothing to earn it. Yet over the years, Christians, seeking to control others and to define the parameters of unique individuals’ walks with God have reverted little by little back to the same theology of works they supposedly grew out of.
Today this deep-rooted mindset affects all Christians who live by this myth of self-salvation. A person of this error sees non-Christians as bad, the poor as lazy, the different as wrong. They clothe themselves in their own self-righteousness, at the same time piously claiming that all glory belongs to God alone. In their hearts they believe that because of their actions, or because of where they came from, they are something special. Everyone else in the world who is not part of this select group is dammed because they failed to do something about it. This type of self glory does not leave room for the humility that comes only from knowing that you were saved by God because of God. Only when the self is removed from one’s understanding of salvation (and I mean salvation in the holistic sense) is there room to love others. Only when one knows that God is the source of salvation can one truly understand that they are connected to all those around them. There is not an “us” and “them.” There is only “we.” And we are saved by God alone. My prayer is not that you do anything today, but that God fills you with the presence of his grace.
Not missile strikes, nor dictators, nor earthquakes, nor tsunamis, nor Rob Bell-inspired controversy can separate us from the love of God. For we know that we have been saved through faith, which is a gift from God, not of our own works, so that no one may boast.
Has anyone told you today that God loves you?
So that happened. While my blog’s traffic patterns have been fairly predicable, one post really sent the numbers through the roof. About two weeks ago, I didn’t write what was on my mind, I wrote about what was on my heart. I wrote about the pain, frustration, and brokenness I had been feeling. I wrote about the disapointment I had experienced with the church in recent months. Never did I imagine it would struck a chord with so many people. Within a few hours of posting, I noticed a couple friends on Facebook actually reposted the link, and I got many responses in the form of private messages on Facebook. People began sharing their stories with me about when they were hurt by the church, and a seeming solidarity of experience began to emerge. Not too surprisingly, if I sorted responses by religious affiliation. I got dozens of responses by former churchgoers, including many messages of support. I got exactly two responses from “church” people. Actually one of those was from an old friend living in Europe, so I’m not positive how active she is in church, although her husband is in a theological post-grad program.
My analysis of the reaction was reaffirmation of my disappointment in the church. While the vast majority of my audience is made up of church people, the vast majority of support came from the considerably smaller pool of unchurched people. Obviously this topic struck a chord with my unchurched friends. I may be wrong, but there seems to be a therapeutic value to sharing our stories.
So what I will ask you is to share your story. Send it to me via Facebook or send it to this blog via comment. If you want to be anonymous, that’s fine. But please share your stories. I have heard so many that parallel the experiences written about in the Bible, that I want study the relationship and hopefully one day produce something that will help people just like you who have been burned by the church, religious people, or anything else associated with God. Please send me your story!
I just read an interesting article at The Wall Street Journal entitled, God at the Grammys: The Chosen Ones. Based on several interviews, the author makes the observation that many music artists believe (at lest in part) their success is the result of divine intervention. Lady Gaga tells the reporter that she believes a “higher power” is watching out for her. Snoop Dogg also attributes his comeback as part of God’s plan.
We have all seen professional athletes point to the sky or kiss a golden cross hanging from their net. While these may not be my favorite displays of devotion, it does beg the question, did God really do that?
Well, yes. An aspect of God’s nature that we should remember and celebrate is what we call Common Grace. Common Grace is the idea that God blesses everyone in some way. Jesus told his followers, while encouraging them to love their enemies, that God sends rain on the just and the unjust. Rain was the most obvious sign of blessing from the heavens to agrarian people, and Jesus uses the powerful image of life-giving water as an image of grace.
Wikipedia’s article on Common Grace does a pretty good job summarizing the doctrine and contrasting it with Special Grace, or the grace of salvation. Here’s a good description of Common Grace as theologian Louis Berkhoff describes it.
“[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men,”
So does God have a favorite Gaga song? Maybe, maybe not. But if you do, you should not forget to thank God for it.