Grace is a hard word for Christians to take seriously. In the past couple of weeks I have heard that blessed word used and misused and even implied but absent. The problem seems to be the radical nature of grace, our too easily yielding to the temptation to put conditions on the unconditional, our inability to take a gift at its true value, let alone at its face value. Grace is a word that requires a humble heart to understand it. As soon as grace is critically analysed, coherently rationalised and carefully explained, we betray what P T Forsyth calls our 'lust for lucidity', and therefore give in to our all but irresistible attraction to name, control, comprehend and encircle mystery with our thoughts.
Grace isn't so easily domesticated. But in much that passes for evangelical spirituality there is an alarming absence of grace as the source and resource of all Christian living. Even the great slogan 'justification by faith' can be so triumphantly trumpeted that its champions forget it is condensed, compacted theological shorthand, which once it is allowed the expansiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is found to contain realities of much greater dimensions than a polemical formula has any right to hold - to merely begin with, love, grace, reconciliation, that trinity of divine attributes gathered into the true shorthand of the Gospel of the love affair of the Triune God - "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit", and that rich eternal life of God, overflowing in creation, redemption and renewal of a fallen world.
What brought this on? I think it might be the incipient pelagianism of what is sometimes called challenging preaching, or my awareness several times recently of good Christian folk, struggling with their own views of their own inadequate Christian lives. Sometimes in a heartfelt determination to do better, they say something like, 'We need to strive harder to follow Jesus....". I know what they mean, I feel it myself. To try harder, to pray more, to feel more deeply the affections of the Christian soul - gratitude, praise, repentance, surrender, joy, peace - as if we ever really could command our emotional lives, or perfect our moral selves.
Which brings me back to grace. Paul often enough warned about abusing the grace of God. What he had in mind was the disastrous complacency that might ever think that since God is gracious, and I am forgiven, sin is no longer a problem in my life because it's forgiven anyway. That kind of spiritual chancer will get their come-uppance seems to be Paul's answer to anyone who thinks they can continue in sin that grace may abound. But on the other side Paul would still insist, and this is the astonishing truth that seems to have stopped astonishing us - "Where sin abounds, grace does much more abound". No, we don't 'need to strive harder to follow Jesus' - more important is a recovery of the affections of the soul, kindled by trusting again the grace that saves, that grace which is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God. That doesn't mean we don't strive - it means not in our own strength, not by ourselves. Ours is the call to faithfulness, God's grace is what enables, sustains, is sufficient.
I wonder if our difficulty is that we take our failures and inadequacies more seriously than God's sufficiency? That in a strange way we fail to trust the love of God to love us? Maybe that the inward curve of our self-importance acts like a concave mirror and makes our sins seem more prominent than the cross on which they are gathered, absorbed, redeemed and forgiven.
Old Samuel Rutherford, that Scottish pastor who was remorselessly critical of his own heart, nevertheless held to his own advice in a letter to someone making the mistake of thinking a Christian life is lived by trying harder. Speaking of taking up the cross he wrote:
"Those who can take that crabbed tree handsomely upon their back, and fasten it on cannily, shall find it such a burden as wings unto a bird, or sails to a ship.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is as far removed Rutherford the cantankerous Scottish Puritan as to make a conversation between them all but inconceivable - or so you'd think. Here's Bonhoeffer's take on the mistake of substituting our own striving for God's grace:
"To be conformed to the image of Christ is not an ideal to be striven after. It is not as though we had to imitate him as well as we could. We cannot transform ourselves into his image; it is rather the form of Christ which seeks to be formed in us (Gal 4.19) and to be manifested in us. Christ's work in us is not finished until he has perfected his own form in us. We must be assimilated to the form of Christ in its entirety, the form of Christ incarante, crucified and glorified." Testament of Freedom, page 321
So. To finish with Paul - "I am crucified with Christ. I live, yet not I. Christ lives within me, and the life I now live in my body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself for me".
Gave himself, made himself a gift, became what he ever is, Grace.
"The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all"