Glory: how grace fits in

Over the next four Tuesdays, I’ll post pieces from a chapter of Wanting Glory (tentative title), the book I’m currently revising in preparation for publication. The book has sections on Sin, Grace, and Glory, and this 4-part series comes from the second section, on grace. In the book, I’m trying to make the case that people were made for glory–here and now, as well as there and later–but that sin interrupts what God intended. I’m arguing that sin is both a matter of moral failure and a force the dominates a realm into which people are born, and from which they must be rescued. That rescue is what Jesus brings about as He leads people out of sin (Walter Brueggeman says that Exodus is the Bible’s ‘normative narrative’, and I’m following that idea here). In the new realm to which Jesus brings those once bound by sin, grace is operative. Grace saves, and grace also shapes.

So much for a brief introduction–now, here we go (and fair warning: this post, like the next 3 that will follow it, is rather long)….

***

You were dead, Paul says, using arresting language to describe the consequence of following “the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph 2:1-2; cf. Col 2:13). It’s a desperate situation, relieved by Paul’s subsequent assertion that death need not be final. Life is an option, Paul will say, but he wants his readers to be clear that it is not something they can generate through their own will or action. Life is God’s doing, His gift.

Paul’s way of saying this is that we are saved by grace, a phrase that captures both God’s generous gift and its marvelous benefit. Paul emphasizes the significance of divine intervention by repeating himself (see Ephesians 2:6 and 2:8), and we carve these words into stone as a dictum of our faith. Then, fleshed out by some other texts, the phrase also serves as shorthand for what happens when the guilty are pardoned and heaven opens to those who previously had no hope.[1] Because of grace, we’re safe: a past act—the expression of faith in what God did—insures a sure future.

But there is more to this story, for grace has a present effect, too. Reflect on what the bank of metaphors—birth, new creation, fresh raiment, grafts, adoption, found—associated with the transition from sin to the realm where Jesus is Lord conveys: these rich, vivid pictures describe a change from old to new, slave to free, dark to light, death to life that is wrought by a curious, marvelous alchemy which animates the inert, gives value to dross. There is wonder here, beyond our marking out no matter how often we hear it told, a deep magic[2] unfolding at the cross as grace stretches out past Calvary, active and vibrant in those whom Jesus saves.

“God has revealed His grace for the salvation of all,”[3] Paul writes to a trusted pastor, adding that grace “teaches us” (Titus 2:11-12). Using another metaphor, this time borrowed from education, the apostle emphasizes the present, on-going activity of grace as it accompanies those who enter God’s kingdom in order to restore health. Find ‘salve’ in ‘salvation’ and you’ll see what I mean, because when Jesus finds us, we bear not the light bruises common in supermarket fruit, but rather deep, open sores brought about by long exposure in a toxic environment. By grace He recovers what has been so badly battered, and by grace, the Spirit of Jesus then gets to repairing all that’s gone wrong. That repairing takes time; it’s a process that, among other things, involves our need for instruction.

But we doubt this, concluding instead that we’re old dogs incapable of learning new tricks, that sin’s power even here in this new realm lingers. Look at how often we fall back into its grip, we say: isn’t this the common experience? We give the condition a name (we call it ‘backsliding’) and root it in a text—from Paul, no less—that vividly describes how “what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). We might have flashes of victory, but generally these are not sustained; far more typical is how fear overtakes us at inopportune moments, or anxiety, or anger. Deep in our hearts, we know that eventually—in heaven—all will be right, but right now, and for the foreseeable future, we struggle, for sin is still strong.

Does this describe how you view matters, if you are a follower of Jesus? Are you coming from a background where sin lurks behind most corners and flattens you frequently? Does the theology behind how you’ve been taught, the interpretations underpinning your understanding of what life in Christ means on a practical, daily living level, lead to the conclusion that you will fall often (and so you must often confess your sins), that the world’s decay is inevitable (and therefore efforts at its rehabilitation are futile or suspect), and that heaven is where you really want to be (away from the decay and finally free of sin’s drag)?

It does mine.

(to be continued…)


[1] This arrangement is frequently described in legal terms as a transaction that recognizes transgression by, payment for and ‘justification’ of the sinner.

[2] I consciously borrow this phrase from C. S. Lewis.

[3] This is Gordon Fee’s translation in 1& 2 Timothy, Titus: A Good News Commentary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), p. 146

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