On the Grace of God Interview

May 1, 2013

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As part of our BCC vision, we want to help you to get to know gifted Christian authors and their books. This week we’re highlighting Justin Holcomb as he talks about his new book On the Grace of God.

BCC: “Justin, thank you for joining us and thank you for writing on the grace of God. What is ‘grace’? How does the Bible talk about grace?”

JH: “‘Grace’ is the most important concept in the Bible, in Christianity, and in the world. The shorthand for grace is ‘mercy, not merit.’ Grace is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve. Grace is the opposite of karma. Grace is the love of God shown to the unlovely; the peace of God given to the restless; the unmerited favor of God. Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving. Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it. Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues. Grace is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against Him. Grace is one-way love.”

BCC: “Why do you say that grace is offensive?”

JH: “Unconditional love is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. Many of us think (whether we admit it or not) there must be some breaking point where God gives up on us. Even if we successfully avoid believing this fallacy, others’ overzealous cries still reach our ears: certainly there must be some sin or amount of sin that is just too much. Our natural human tendency is to establish negotiated settlements with God through religion, but grace undermines our religious attempts. As Jacques Ellul said, ‘Grace is the hardest thing for us to be reconciled to, because it implies the renouncing of our pretensions, our power, our pomp and circumstance. It is opposite of everything our ‘religious’ sentiments are looking for.’ Religious people don’t like grace because it messes up their gig: giving advice, telling people what to do and not to do, parenting, marriage, being a boss. Grace undermines condemnation and fear, which are the best tools for religion. In the Christian tradition, there are many adjectives that have accompanied the word grace: amazing, free, scandalous, surprising, special, inexhaustible, incalculable, wondrous, mysterious, overflowing, abundant, irresistible, costly, extravagant, and more. John Calvin calls it gratuitous grace. Gratuitous is the idea of something being unwarranted or uncalled for. Though we yearn desperately for grace, the beautiful extravagance of God’s love in Christ is utterly uncalled for.”

BCC: “How does the biblical understanding of grace differ from an American cultural understanding of the word grace?”

JH: “In English, the word grace has to do with charm, elegance, beauty, or attractiveness. The word grace as used in the Bible has very little to do with what is commonly understood by the English word. In fact, Scripture tells us that grace isn’t a personal virtue at all; rather, it is undeserved favor lavished on an inferior by a superior. Grace is unmerited favor or a kindly disposition that leads to acts of kindness. The best example of a bad definition of grace comes from a shampoo bottle we had in our shower. The shampoo is called ‘Amazing Grace’ and described in this way:

‘Life is a classroom. We are both student and teacher. Each day is a test. And each day we receive a passing or failing grade in one particular subject: grace. Grace is compassion, gratitude, surrender, faith, forgiveness, good manners, reverence, and the list goes on. It’s something money can't buy and credentials rarely produce. Being the smartest, the prettiest, the most talented, the richest, or even the poorest, can’t help. Being a humble person can and being a helpful person can guide you through your days with grace and gratitude.’

This turns grace into a chore and a platitude. Grace is a gift. Grace isn’t a personal virtue at all; rather, it is undeserved favor lavished on an inferior by a superior. Grace is unmerited favor.”

BCC: “What do you mean when you say that grace is the end of religion?”

JH: “The human propensity is to establish negotiated settlements with God through religion. Robert Capon explains: ‘The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands.’ Grace reveals our natural pride of self-sufficiency, as well as the pride of spiritual progression. God’s grace pushes us to recognize our sinfulness and reject all confidence in ourselves and our abilities. Grace is the end of religion because the secured promise of the gospel frees us from the supposed promises of our religious self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-justification.”

BCC: “How does grace address the age-old question of the problem of evil and suffering?”

JH: “In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with His image bearers, who were to glorify Him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and His wise rule, is called shalom. Evil is an intrusion upon shalom. The first intrusion was Satan’s intrusion into God’s garden, which led to Adam and Eve’s tragic disobedience—the second. When sin is understood as an intrusion upon God’s original plan for peace, it helps us see the biblical description of redemption as an intrusion of grace into disgrace or light into the darkness of sin or peace into disorder and violence. Just as sin and evil is an intrusion on original peace, so redemption is an intrusion of reclaiming what was originally intended for humans: peace.

Because God is faithful and compassionate, He restores His fallen creation and responds with grace and redemption. While the Fall brought a curse upon creation, God did not leave His image-bearers to rot under its effects forever without hope of rescue. From the very beginning, God made provisions through establishing sacrifices to deal with guilt from sin. God’s desire for shalom and his response to violence culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The restoration of shalom is fully expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and its scope is as ‘far as the curse is found.’

In religion you get what you deserve. It is the same with karma. Karma is all about getting what you deserve. Christianity teaches that what you deserve is death with no hope of resurrection. Grace is the opposite of karma. While everyone desperately needs it, grace is not about us. Grace is fundamentally a word about God: His un-coerced initiative and pervasive, extravagant demonstrations of care and favor. The cross is God’s attack on sin and violence; it is salvation from sin and its effects. The cross really is a coup de grace, meaning ‘stroke of grace,’ which refers to the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering.”

BCC: “How should God’s grace influence other areas of our lives, such as leadership, marriage, parenting, and friendship?”

JH: God’s grace is overflowing and abundant. It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: ‘The love of Christ compels us!’ (2 Corinthians 5:14). Similarly, ‘God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance’ (Romans 2:4). The principle that grace motivates ought to permeate our lives, work, and leadership. This means that for leaders, when you want to see better performance from your staff, don’t threaten demotions or probation; instead, provide security, offer freedom for self-direction, and help them see the larger significance of their work. Parents, if you want your children to be more obedient (not just compliant), don’t give them threats, but talk about Jesus’ obedience on their behalf and dazzle them with grace. And pastors, when you want to see more faithfulness in your congregation, don’t just hammer them with the demands of the law; rather, tell them about Jesus’ faithfulness on our behalf, even and especially when we are faithless (2 Timothy 2:13). You will be amazed at the fruit the Holy Spirit produces when you focus on grace, rather than threats and incentives. Grace motivates.”

BCC: “You write, ‘The deepest message of the ministry of Jesus and of the entire Bible is the grace of God to sinners and sufferers.’ Please develop your thinking on that.”

JH: “The entire Bible contains one big story, the story of the creation and redemption of the world by the God of grace. God’s grace is evident from the beginning and from the moment we rebelled against him at the fall, when he sacrificed an animal to provide skins to cover Adam and Eve and promised a plan to defeat our enemy. God’s gracious character shines through in redemption, which is at the core of his identity: God describes himself as ‘the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ God has compassion, He takes the initiative to rescue his people from slavery, and He gives them a special place among the nations. God describes Himself as ‘abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,’ even right after His people have betrayed him and rebelled against him by worshiping idols. God’s gracious redemptive plan unfolded through the history of the Old Testament and came to its climax in the life, ministry, and work of Jesus Christ. Throughout Jesus’ ministry His actions showed that bringing freedom to captives and relief to sinners and sufferers is at the very center of God’s mission, and His ultimate gracious act of liberation was His substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set His people free from slavery to sin and death. The rest of the New Testament depicts the message of God’s grace flooding out to the nations, and the very last verse of the Bible summarizes the message from Genesis to Revelation: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.’ In the appendix to On the Grace of God, I include a short summary by Dane Ortlund showing how each book of the Bible reveals the underlying motif of God’s grace, His favor and love to the undeserving.”

BCC: “You talk about ‘sinners’ and ‘sufferers.’ Can you talk about the grace of God specifically to victims of tragedy and perpetrators of child sexual abuse?”

JH: “Regarding victims of tragedy: we learn from the Bible and Jesus that God understands the pain you experienced, that He mourns and grieves for the sins done against you, and that He is angrier than you are for the sins done against you. In Hhis incarnation, suffering, and death, Jesus entered into your pain. God can handle your emotions. Don’t run from Him in anger but toward Him. The intent of the evil done against you is to create distance between you and God, the only one who can bring real healing to you. Please realize this and bring your emotions and thoughts to God. The psalms are filled with a wide spectrum of emotions related to God: shame, fear, sadness, reverence, anger, love, joy, and doubt. The psalms provide release, rationality, and relief for our emotions. You won’t find yourself blamed, laughed at, mocked, or punished. You’ll find yourself embraced by the love of a God who meets you in your pain.

Regarding perpetrators of sexual abuse/assault: sexual assault is a sin and a crime. You have committed a serious sin and crime. First, for your sin, you need forgiveness. Trust in Jesus because He died in your place and for your sin of sexual assault and all other sins. On the cross, He was treated like a perpetrator so you could place your trust in Him and be declared righteous and forgiven and innocent before God. There is no sin beyond the grace of Jesus. You can’t out-sin His abounding grace. Second, for your crime you deserve justice and need to make restitution. This means you will need to turn yourself in to the proper authorities. You should also repent and apologize to the person or people you sinned against. Offer to pay for the counseling they endured because of your crime.”

BCC: “You and your wife counsel victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, how does the message of God’s grace relate to that type of counseling?”

JH: “Victims of sexual assault experience many devastating physical, psychological, and emotional effects. The most prevalent responses include denial, distorted self-image, shame, guilt, anger, and despair. If this is you (or someone you love), you need to understand that the gospel of Jesus applies to each of these. In our book Rid of My Disgrace, my wife Lindsey and I go through each of these common responses to assault and abuse to show how God’s grace is the answer.

For example, sexual assault attacks your sense of identity and tells you that you are filthy, foolish, defiled, and worthless. It makes you feel that you are nothing. The gospel gives you a new identity through the redemptive work of Jesus. Through faith in Christ, you are adopted into God’s family. You are given the most amazing identity: child of God (1 John 3:1–2). God adopted you and accepted you because He loves you. You didn’t do anything to deserve His love. He loved you when you were unlovable. The gospel also tells you that through faith in Christ, His righteousness, blamelessness, and holiness is attributed to you (2 Corinthians 5:21). If you are in Christ, your identity is deeper than any of your wounds. You can be secure in this new identity because it was achieved for you by God—you are His, and He cannot disown himself.”

BCC: “You discuss God’s grace as both drawing near to the sufferer and conquering their enemy, and turning away wrath and removing the effects of sin from sinners. How can God simultaneously do both in the same situation?”

JH: “Sin is both an enemy that enslaves us and causes suffering, and something inside us that puts us at enmity with God, who is holy and righteous. In His grace, God draws near to us in the incarnation of Jesus, who entered into our pain and suffering. By experiencing the full wrath of God against sin in His death on the cross, and then rising victorious over death in His resurrection, Jesus both conquered our enemy and removed the curse of sin that separated us from God.”

BCC: “Thank you, Justin, for helping our readers to grasp more of God’s grace in Christ for their suffering and their sin.”

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