by Roger E. Olson
I rarely post other people’s writings, but this sermon by Bill Smelvoe (preached in chapel at Regent College, Vancouver) especially expresses my belief about God’s grace. I couldn’t have said it better or as well!
I grew up on a mission base in the Philippines. It was a beautiful spot, fruit trees everywhere, a lovely spring fed swimming hole, and lots of other kids to play with. But my relationship with God was not always so idyllic. I grew up conflicted about God and Christianity, a bit like the southern humorist from Lubbock, Texas, who said the following about his youth: “I learned two things growing up in Texas. 1: God loves you, and you’re going to burn in hell forever. 2. Sex is the dirtiest and most dangerous thing you can possibly do, so save it for someone you love.” To which I could add any number of important lessons, like, long prayer before meals is vain repetition, unless you’re eating out at a restaurant, in which case prayer must continue until the waitress and surrounding patrons have taken notice. Then extended prayer is not vain repetition, but witnessing.
Or, another lesson, the word “rapture” actually refers to your most disturbing nightmare. A friend of mine attended Moody Bible Institute. One morning he decided to play a trick on one of his prophecy-obsessed roommates. Several of them got up early, went into the bathroom, turned on all the showers, scattered their clothes all about, left a razor running in the sink, and then hid to watch the poor fellow’s reaction. I’ll let you imagine it. Suffice to say that in my youth, the word “rapture” was most often an invitation to sheer terror, not exactly what Paul had in mind, I don’t believe.
My father, who, with my mother, spent 30 years in the jungle translating the Bible into the language of the Mansaka people, was, in many respects, a wonderful Christian man. To read his letters today is to witness the interior life of a man who desperately hungered for a deep relationship with God. But that same intensity that burned so hot for God, also could erupt at any moment into, what was for us as children, a terrifying anger.
There were three boys in our family. I still remember the day my older brother, Eric, finally outgrew his fear of my father. We had all been sent to my parents’ bedroom, the usual place where punishment was meted out, which, it occurs to me now, may have been just the sort of association a fundamentalist parent hoped to establish in his child’s mind. At any rate, my younger brother and I watched in horror as my older brother refused to join us in the bedroom. Eric shoved my father, my father stomped on Eric’s foot, and then Eric turned and fled out the door. He disappeared into the light, and as my father turned his gaze on Paul and me, I thought that Eric had been raptured, and I had been left behind to face the full fury of God’s righteous anger. For it was of course God’s anger that we were dealing with.
Children raised in religious homes are notorious for transferring their relationship with their human father to their heavenly father, and I was no exception. When the minister preached that Christians should fear God, I knew exactly what he meant. It was the one sermon I most easily obeyed. God terrified me, and the thought of his omniscient eye following my every move left me certain that I would one day hear “Depart from me, you evil servant, into everlasting darkness.” I invited Jesus into my heart virtually every night of my young life. I offered my life to him to take over and consecrate for his purposes, but, for reasons of his own, he never seemed to accept my offer, and the next day I returned to my incorrigible ways.
This decidedly ambivalent relationship with God continued into young adulthood, when, after returning to the United States for college, I drifted for a time from the approved path. I can remember walking back to my apartment after a night out with my friends. I would walk on the inside of the sidewalk, and, when I heard a car approaching, I often stepped out of the sidewalk back into the shadows, because I was certain God, in his desire to call me back to himself, might send a stray car careening onto the sidewalk to render me paralyzed, so that I would then have plenty of time to ponder the depths of his love and might return to the fold.
It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that my discovery as an adult that the gospel is actually good news was the most revolutionary moment in my life. The grace of God, the marvelous grace and love of God … I heard it, I mouthed it, but I never believed it, felt it, tasted it, reveled in it, rested in it.
A preacher came one day to my Bible school. He spent an entire weekend talking about the grace of God. He had grown up as I had. He knew what I, and many of my fellow students, really felt when we spoke of God and Jesus. He began with an illustration. Imagine, he said, that the door opens at the front of the room and Jesus walks in. You know it’s Jesus because of the hair and beard. He scans the room and says, “I need a ride to Whistler [where the Olympics was just held], going to check out some of my Father’s best work, and I’d like for you to give me a ride. Just me and you in the car, alone, together, for two hours.” I imagined Jesus’ gaze and finger falling on me. The preacher asked, What is your immediate gut reaction to Jesus’ request? He knew, of course, what my reaction was. A request by Jesus to spend time alone with me could only mean one thing. The jig was up. He was angry — really angry. It was time to have my sins and faults enumerated. Only if I was very, very lucky would I make it all the way to the end of our journey without judgment being pronounced.
I could not imagine a God who might actually have one good thought about me. But by the end of that transformational weekend, I was beginning to imagine what that might be like.
Since that time I have made a practice of reading the Gospels. I often try to read them as if for the first time, as if I had no prior theological lens through which to view them. When I manage to do so, I am always stunned by Jesus, especially by how casually, how easily, he dispenses grace. Jesus moves among the sinners and riff raff of his day, and genuinely seems to like them, even love them. He calls them to follow a better way, but he never demands change before giving himself unreservedly to them. Where the practice of the church is often repentance first, then grace, Jesus’ method is almost always grace first, then we’ll see where we need to go from there.
I was reading in some missionary archives a few years ago a discussion between board members about whether or not to give away tracts and Gospels or to charge for them. One board member wrote that while he didn’t want the Gospels to be too expensive, he was also opposed to “wasteful scatteration.”
What I have learned from the Gospels is that Jesus is not opposed to the wasteful scatteration of gospel grace. He dispenses grace as if he had plenty of it to give away — as if he actually enjoyed loving and forgiving people. He is profligate with grace. When I read the Gospels without the coloring of my upbringing, I can’t help but feel that Jesus is the kind of person I would actually like to spend time with, and who just might enjoy spending time with me.
I’ve been struck recently by the story of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic man. Luke tells us in chapter five of his Gospel that Jesus was teaching in a house, and the crowd made it impossible for anyone else to get in. Verse 18: Then some men came carrying a paralytic on a couch and tried to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but as they found no way to carry him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles, couch and all, right in front of Jesus. Seeing their faith, Jesus said, Man, your sins are forgiven you.
As you know, the story continues that the religious leaders begin to complain about this, and so Jesus asks which is harder to do, to forgive sins or to heal. And then to demonstrate his authority, he heals the man, who gets up and walks home. But notice that Jesus forgives the man his sins before the man ever asks for such a gift. As far as we know, he had no interest in or desire for such forgiveness. He had more pressing concerns. He wanted to walk.
Oh, but Jesus knew the man’s faith incorporated the spiritual. Oh, but Jesus forgave the man’s sins to set up the subsequent argument with the Pharisees. Baloney! He forgave the man’s sins because he knew the man needed it, and he liked doing it. There are stories like this all through the Gospels. I have yet to find a story where Jesus demands life change before he makes his grace available. Grace always comes first. It has always been hard for me to believe, but I am finally, utterly convinced that we serve a God who can’t wait to dispense grace — who is much more eager to forgive than he is to judge. Catherine of Sienna had a vision of God, in which he said to her, “I have more grace for you than you have sins to commit.”
I grew up in a church that was afraid of such talk, nervous about grace in ways that Jesus never was. My father feared God’s profligate grace. To speak too much of grace led to license which led to sin. I can’t understand today how a vision of such goodness must inevitably lead to evil. But even if someone once touched by such grace does turn away, the gospel indicates that God continues to pursue such a one in order to extend still more grace. “Seven times?” asked the disciples. “How about 70 times seven?” replied Jesus. I have more grace for you than you have sins to commit.
I understand of course that this is not the last word to be said about such things — that great minds have worked for centuries to unpack the intricacies of the meaning of Christ’s death — what is the interplay between grace and law and holiness, even the meaning of final judgment, of death, and of hell. But I am convinced that whatever theological systems we construct, that wherever we wind up after pursuing these questions, that we must begin here. We must begin with a God who embraces the wasteful scatteration of his grace. We must remember that his first, middle, and last impulse toward us is grace, that, as the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, God’s every thought toward us is a thought of good, and not of evil, designed to give us a future filled with hope.
He has more grace for us than we have sins to commit. That’s good news. That’s the gospel.