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The Problem With Grace

April 18, 2008

My Biblical Theology professor Clint McCann makes the best point ever about grace.  He asserts that “Everyone says they believe in grace, but no one really does.  We want people to get what they deserve.  Grace means just the opposite: people don’t get what they deserve.”

C.S. Lewis used to make a similar point – that other religions believe in karma (what goes around comes around) while Christians believe in Grace.

That is part of the problem with the now-overcooked Jeremiah Wright controversy.  Never mind that Wright is quoted out of context, is quoting a US Ambassador, and that we don’t know how that sermon ends.  Black liberation theology, deeply influenced by the neo-orthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr, begins with the absolutely orthodox confession that we are all sinners and we deserve to be punished.   Taken in the context of that theological framework, the idea that we deserve wrath and judgment is not all that radical.

But McCann is right.  We in the church say we believe that we are all sinners who deserve punishment and are saved only by grace, but we don’t really believe it.  We believe we are the good guys.  “Sure, I’m saved by God’s grace, but I sure didn’t need as much grace as that guy over there.”

I also believe that many Americans have a good amount of difficulty discerning between patriotism, nationalism, and religion.  I believe that having American flags in the church sanctuary borders on idolatry.  I recently saw a sermonspice film comparing the hill at Iwo Jima with Golgotha and I was utterly offended.  Seriously – too many American Christians have enough trouble knowing the difference between the cross and the flag.  I find it ridiculous when a church has no problem lowering the PowerPoint screen down in front of the cross (I’ve seen it with my own two eyes!) but would throw a fit if you were to move the flag out of the sanctuary.

Of course, the difference between patriotism and nationalism is a discussion for another day – but I don’t think it too hyperbolic to say that one is an expression of love while the other is idolatrous.  The similarity between patriotism and religion can be stark – the chill bumps I get while singing The Star-Spangled Banner are similar to the chill bumps I get when I sing Amazing Grace.

What does that have to do with our understanding of grace?  Everything.  I get offended when there is critique of the United Methodist Church.  I have my own grievances, but it the United Methodist Church is where I discovered God’s love for me and God’s call upon my life.  I get offended when I hear critique of Christianity in general because I found hope for the future and meaning in the present through Christianity.  I get offended when I hear criticism of The United States of America because I am grateful to have been born here and I love the Constitution and the principles it is based upon. But if I don’t take the sins of the church, the sins of the UMC, and the sins of the USA seriously I am guilty of failing the Grace test.  When I don’t take those sins seriously I fail to recognize that we all deserve judgment: individuals, churches, institutions, nations.

And the recognition that I/we deserve worse is what makes grace taste so sweet.  So sweet, in fact, that it kindles a flame of gratitude that warms us to holiness.  It makes me want to be better, to do better.  Judgment?  Yeah, I’ve probably got it comin’.  But somewhere along the way grace happened.  Thanks be to God.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Layman Erik permalink
    April 19, 2008 12:00 pm

    Interesting thoughts on Grace Will,

    In my classes when we discuss the philosophy of religion we talk about the paradox that God is said to be a just God, and also a Merciful god. And that, at least on the face of it, these do not seem to be not compatible traits. The firm awareness of our depravity is what is appealing to me in Jonathan Edwards, and could almost make me a Calvinist…

    *** PS. ** I hesitant to question you, given your seminary training and significant greater understanding of theology, However I will ask, Why do you say that Black Liberation Theology “begins with the absolutely orthodox confession that we are all sinners and we deserve to be punished?” From what I remember of my reading of Cone, that is not the picture I got at all. At least not if that “we” includes the oppressed as well as the oppressors.”

  2. April 21, 2008 11:24 am

    Liberation theology, by and large, is an utterly neo-orthodox structure from a Systematic Theology POV. Cone himself is a Barth scholar, and Barthian theology is utterly Calvinist in its focus – Barth structured his Church Dogmatics exactly like Calvin’s Institutes. All theology in the Calvinist (Reformed) stream has a thread of universal depravity.

    The difference between liberation theology and white neo-orthodoxy is largely a matter of emphasis and perspective.

    While a cursory reading may not suggest it, my understanding of liberation theology is that it involves liberation for both the oppressed and the oppressor, and attempts to lay all sin bare.

  3. April 21, 2008 11:28 am

    Oh, and a side note – Wesley was an Arminian, and Arminius was a Calvin scholar as well – though Arminius arrived at a significantly different reading of Calvin than the Synod of Dort. So Methodists and other Wesleyans are actually Calvinists, just from a different stream from the Reformed tradition like Presbyterians (and Wesley’s understanding of Depravity was only a wee bit if any softer than Calvin’s).

  4. Layman Erik permalink
    April 21, 2008 7:33 pm

    Liberation theology, by and large, is an utterly neo-orthodox structure from a Systematic Theology POV. Cone himself is a Barth scholar…

    Ah ha. That explains why I find Cone’s Black Liberation Theology so… what is the word here….. uh …… I’ll just say “wrong…”

    So far as it comes to Barth, you can put me in the camp with Van Til (though really I’m not down with any of those – what we in philosophy might call “continental thinkers”)

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