Thursday, November 10, 2011

Christian Believer: Week Ten {Grace}

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
 [Amazing Grace by John Newton]

This week's topic was "Grace" (The Amazing Story of Grace).  It was truly one of my favorites, if not my very favorite so far! Again, it was another week where the practical applications were so tangible and it wasn't just a theoretical doctrine. It was neat to think on grace as more than having to do solely with our salvation, but to realize that everything from the food that we eat to the air that we breath is an unmerited gift.  For example, I shared with the group, with tears in my eyes, one huge example of grace.  Over the past week, with the election coming up, my heart and mind have wondered so often to Ann Peyton.  I have thought so much about those early days of my first pregnancy and how not only unappreciated, but also undesired it was.  And I realize how undeserving I am to have her in my life.  But for the grace of God!

We started with the video, as usual.  I liked the video but a lot of it seemed repetitive of what we had studied in our readings.  It did say that the purpose of grace was to overcome estrangement between us and God and also to transform us into people equipped to serve Him.

The workbook started off by saying that often we don't see our need for grace until life becomes hard and chaotic.  This is obviously a position we DON'T want to find ourselves in and so we often miss out on seeing grace at work.  I thought that was a neat perspective and I think it will help me embrace hardships in the future, realizing that, if I allow them to, they can help me discover more and more my need for God's grace.

It then defined grace as unmerited favor.  It said that "those who have sung the most moving praise of grace are those who have been most aware of their sinfulness."  It talked about Paul, who refereed to himself as"chief among sinners"; Augustine who previous to his conversion engaged in blatant immorality; and John Newman, the captain of a slave ship, who penned the beautiful anthem, Amazing Grace. But then it also described, John Bunyan, who wrote Grace Abounding to the Chief of All Sinners and who really only had only brief expressions of overt sin. The point was that the extent and the type of sins a person commits are not what give "passion to their testimony of grace"; it is the degree of their awareness of their sinfulness that makes the ultimate difference.  I thought that was so interesting!

The book then talked about how we like to feel like we deserve things, thus we need prevenient grace to help us realize our need for saving grace and gave Biblical examples.  It talked about the word most associated with grace in the Old Testament, hesed, which we translate "lovingkindness".  The book said that the New Testament writers faced more of a problem with finding a term for the phenomenon we call grace.  Whereas for the Old Testament writers their language and their faith came from the same "matrix", the New Testament authors were using Greek, which was "already shaped and established by philosophical and religious forbears of quite a different sort". They ended up choosing the word charis, which means "thanks".  It meant a generous gift, with no hidden motives and it's where we get our word charity. As a symbol of this "love that would show itself not only in a divine visit but in the divine sacrifice", early Christians chose the cross, a repulsive tool for execution. They could now actually see grace; it had become something, SOMEONE, who came "to a manger, then to the roads and villages, and at last to a cross".

The book described several types of grace.  Common grace is "grace that occurs constantly and indiscriminately, but usually without being acknowledged".  It includes things like life itself, physical sustenance, pleasure, creativity and learning. "The preoccupied sensualist who never seems to give a thought to God is seeking to satisfy capacities given to him by common grace.  The logician who argues against the existence of God does so with equipment given to her, unearned, by the God she hopes to disprove."  Christians sometimes think that God should choose better who to give this sort of grace to (e.g. "Why is this unbeliever more naturally talented that I?") but this misses the point. It's unmerited.

John Wesley spoke of free grace, which means that grace is given to all people everywhere, regardless of human goodness. [To me the term seems redundant.] The book did make the point that it's not the same an universal salvation because it doesn't say all will be saved, just that salvation is available to all.   It should also not be confused with cheap grace, a term coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which is a "perversion of in which the recipient intends to assume the blessings of graces without the responsibility of discipleship, or to expect forgiveness without repentance". And even though grace is always free, at certain times we are more likely to accept it.

The term prevenient grace means God's grace that precedes any human response to God.  Not only does grace save us; it makes us open the idea of salvation and gives us the strength to accept it. In Reformed theology, this grace is considered irresistible, meaning prevenient graces is only effective in those chosen for salvation and cannot be resisted.  The Wesleyan view is that prevenient grace is available to all people, but they may resist it if they choose.

Finally, saving grace is what we usually envision when we speak of grace.  It is this grace that brings salvation through Christ.

The book went on to discuss a historical problem when the Catholic church encouraged salvation through works.  This was in part a contributor to the Reformation and led to the doctrine of Sola Gratia, "by grace alone".  The book did say that this belief is now held in contemporary Catholicism (which I would agree with but only to an extent).  It also shared the three "Solas" of the Reformation:
  • Sola Fide (by faith alone)- we are "justified by faith alone" and not by any works related righteousness
  • Sola Gratia (by grace alone)- God reaches out to human beings in their sinfulness, offering forgiveness and salvation, which come only by God's grace
  • Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone)- as a protest against the subordination of the authority of Scripture to the authority of the church, Luther declared Scripture to be the first and only source of authority for the church and for individual Christians
The book also talked about people who have never heard of Jesus.  In 1 Peter 4:6 it says that Christ went and "proclaimed to the dead" and this is where the creedal words "He ascended into Hell" come from.  According to early church doctrine, Christ entered Hell to preach to those who died before his atoning death.  This brings up and idea that Peyton and I have talked about- is it possible for people who have literally never heard of Christ to have a chance to hear of Him after they die? C.S. Lewis argued it was and is called a Universalist by some (I don't think he was, but that's me). It's an interesting concept.  The book went on to talk about sanctification (the process of being made holy) and how different Christian traditions view it in different ways.  Peyton and I had recently discussed an idea he had read about- the idea that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory could be accurate insomuch as it is a place we all go when we die where we are fully sanctified. We don't believe we are or can be fully sanctified in this life, but it's always been my interpretation that we are sanctified at the moment of death.

Lastly, the book discussed various means of grace, which are the avenues by which grace comes to us.  Most identify these mainly with the sacraments (baptism and Holy Communion, for example), but there are so many other means of grace.  The video pointed out that God can use even a line from a book or a movie as a means of grace. It is important to realize that these means of grace are not virtuous in themselves and there is danger in viewing them mechanically or magically.

We discussed much of this in our conversation and we also got off on some interesting tangents.  We discussed if grace was resistible or not, the unpardonable sin, Universalism, and what it meant to be "lukewarm".  So heavy!

Here are my favorite Scripture and readings.  [The last one is really long but of the 118 we've read so far, I think it's my very favorite, so I quoted it in its entirety!]

"Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  The will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.  The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.  In the haunts where jackals once lay, grace and reeds and papyrus will grow...They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads.  Gladness an joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. " Isaiah 33: 5-7, 10

"No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called 'natural conscience'.  But this is not natural; it is more properly termed 'preventing grace'...Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world." -John Wesley

"I was afraid I had not done enough.  I saw that what I hitherto so constantly insisted on, the ration for believing, the bitter sorrow for sin, and that deep contrition of hart which is found in some, were by no means essential to justification. Yea, that whenever the free grace of God is rightly preached, a sinner in the full career of his sins will probably receive it, and be justified by it, before one who insist on such previous
 preparation." -John Wesley

 "It does not depend on his endeavors.  It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes, and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God; they are the streams only, not the fountain.  They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root." -John Wesley

"Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill the law's demands;
could my zeal nor respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
though must save, and thou alone"
-Rock fo Ages, Augustus M. Toplad

"Grace is a healing power that reinvigorates the human will, deadened and contorted by sin; it rehabilitate the iustitia originalis (original righteousness) with which we were created.  Grace is the fruit of the Spirit's influence in the believer's heart, maturing it toward its original design: inward holiness' (the love of God above all else) and 'outward holiness' (love on neighbor in need)." -Albert C. Outler

"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.  Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.  It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his good.  I ti s the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.  Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life." -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I've really liked all the practical application in the last couple of lessons.  It's stretching me in a totally different way than the first ones did.  I think next week will be really good, too!

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