I don’t think that word means what you think it means…

i-do-not-think-it-means-what-you-think-it-means

Yes, I’m quoting Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride.

This line has been going through my mind all weekend as I was reading through David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character.  This book was assigned for a reading group that I am a part of, and it was challenging, and lead to great discussion.  In case you’re interested, here is my summary:

The gift of David’s Brooks, The Road to Character, is that the reader can get a glimpse into the struggle of a worldly man to improve himself using entirely worldly means.  Brooks gives the reader a gospel, albeit stripped entirely of the holiness of God, the destructive capacity of sin, the redeeming and saving work of Christ, and the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit. His is a secular, humanist, nihilist, and moralist gospel that, while using religious terms like holiness, sin, and grace, strip them entirely of their meaning and power. His biographies, while interestingly written, betray his own personality: a skepticism of faith, a fixation on sex, coupled with an unfounded optimism in human potential. The Readers Digest version would simply say: “We’re all messed up. Try harder.”

I think what bothered me most about the book was how close Brooks comes to the truth, but how far he lands from it in the end.  Like that one voice in a choir that is just off the note, slightly out of tune, that it makes the spine tingle.

Brooks talks of sin, but in very unbiblical terms.  We are not sinners, we are simply victims of sin.  “Sin is communal, while error is individual. You make a mistake, but we are all plagued by sins like selfishness and thoughtlessness… To say that you are a sinner is not to say that you have some black depraved stain on your heart”* (Page 54).  Brooks does his best to show that sin is something that needs to be addressed, but refuses to identify clearly what sin is. For Brooks, sin is a part of our soul that must be battled in moral decisions.

Our confession clearly teaches us that sin is “any want of conformity unto or transgression of God’s law,” and the Scriptures show us that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).  We know futility of trying to wage the moral battle in our own strength, because we are “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1).  Our only hope is putting our faith in the sinless one, Jesus Christ, through whom we are counted as righteous in the eyes of God (Rom 4:23-25).

Throughout the book, Brooks also uses the term grace, but it is really hard to get an idea of what he means by that word.  In his conclusion, Brooks writes,*

We are all ultimately saved by grace,” but it’s what follows that makes me wonder if what he means by “grace” is what the Bible says about “grace.”  Brooks continues, “You are living your life and then you get knocked off course – either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate… In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown… You are accepted. You don’t have to struggle for a place, because you are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted (Page 265).

So close… and yet so far way.

Grace is that free gift of love, acceptance, and forgiveness that is the foundation of our hope for deliverance from sin, of security in this life and the next. I applaud Brooks in his insistence on grace as that which saves.  But any notion of grace that does not demonstrate the costliness of that acceptance, that is, grace without the cross of Jesus Christ, is a cheap, ineffective, and unsaving grace.

I read this and immediately thought of Bonhoeffer:**

Cheap grace is the preaching for 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 merchants will sell all his goods. It is 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.

It 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. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son… and it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God (Page 45).

Ultimately, Brooks’ book makes me grateful. I am grateful for the blessing of having a Biblical Worldview, a God-centered perspective of the world and of myself.  I am grateful to stand in the Reformed Tradition, with the Westminster Creed and Confession that help me to define and articulate my faith. I am grateful for the saints of God who have gone before me, and who walk with me still, who help me to know the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and to rest in that grace as I continue to battle against sin in my own life, all the while relying on Christ who has conquered the power of sin and death for me.

Let us know what we mean when we say things like sin, holiness, grace, and salvation, so that we can be clear in our witness, and so that we can rest secure in the grace of God for us in Jesus Christ!

SDG

* Brooks, David.  The Road to Character. (Random House; New York, 2016)
** Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship (Touchtone; New York, 1959)

From the Pastor’s Desk

Here are some articles from the past week that have caught my eye:

Preaching the Gospel and the Law: As I continue to preach through the Letter of James, I try to maintain the balance between the Law and Gospel, between grace and obedience, faith and works.  These aren’t contradictory themes, but doctrines that, rightfully understood, go hand in hand.  This article came as a good reminder in the midst of the study.

10 Things to Know About Church Discipline: After a great time of fellowship and prayer with a group of fellow pastors, I was reminded of the importance of the ongoing, faithful, and prayerful practice of Church Discipline.  As this article points out, there are two main types of discipline, Formative and Corrective, and both need to be maintained for a healthy congregation, but also for healthy individuals within the congregation.

SmarterEveryDay: I try not to spend a lot of time on YouTube, otherwise I get sucked into a time-consuming vortex of videos.  Still, every now and then, you come across some videos that are terrific.  I love watching Destin with Smarter Every Day. His curiosity is contagious, and we all should have such a desire to learn and understand the world around us. I love that he involves his families in a lot of the videos too. Enjoy!

Return to Me…

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12–13)

Last week I shared from the prophet Hosea what is often considered the Gospel of the Old Testament – Hosea chapter three.  It is the story of Hosea redeeming his wife, Gomer, from a life of infidelity and adultery, as an illustration of the way in which God has redeemed His people from their sins and idolatry through His love in Jesus Christ.

Turning this week to the prophet Joel, we hear again the heart of God calling us to repentance for our sins.  The word of the Lord comes to Joel as a message of judgment and destruction in the Day of the Lord. The punishment is extreme, as locusts destroying the harvest, or deep famine reaching across the land.  The Day of he Lord is a day of wrath for the sins of the nations.

Yet in the midst of the destruction there is a call from the Lord, “Return to me with all your heart…”  This is a call to repentance, given to the elders down to the nursing infants.  All are called to repent, that they may escape the coming judgment.

In the two verses given above (2:12-13), I see three keys to genuine repentance:

  1. Repentance is always a response to the call of the Lord.  Notice in Joel that it is the Lord who calls the people to repentance, to return to the Lord.  This isn’t Joel’s pleading with the people, but the Lord Himself calling His people back home.
    This is essential. No one may come to Christ unless the Father calls them (John 6:44), no one seeks the Lord unless He first draws them unto Him. Apart from God’s gracious call, no one would return to Him.  Our repentance always follows the gracious call of the Lord, the effectual call of His Holy Spirit.
  2. Repentance must be genuine.  In the Scriptures tearing your clothes was a universal sign of anguish and repentance, mourning over calamity and distress.  But it was simply that, a sign.  It signified something happening within, a sign of the heartfelt sorrow and grief over sin or trouble. The sign of torn cloths meant little, what was essential was the contrition of the heart.
    How many times is our “repenting” merely a sign, never really reaching to our hearts?  We confess sins, generally, but never bring ourselves to utter those sins that have their hooks in our hearts.  We’re comfortable keeping our repentance on the surface, “God I am a sinner,” but rarely will we get real in rending our hearts, “God, I am an idolator, I am a fraud, I murder with my thoughts and words.
    God calls His people to repent, and that repentance must be genuine and sincere.
  3. Repentance turns us to the grace and mercy of God. We must never forget that our repentance is a turning from sin and a turning to God. A repentance that dwells in the valley of the shadow of death, mourning sin but never getting past it, is only a partial repentance.  God calls His people to return to Him, for “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Too often we miss out on the joy of salvation repentance brings because we don’t really believe that God will be gracious.  We allow our repentance to make us dour, sour Christians, which is no Christian at all.
    The promise of Joel 3:1 is for all who are in Christ, all who, having heard His call to repent, having turned from their sins, look to the grace and mercy of our heavenly Father.  The promise is that God will restore their fortunes, He will establish them.  As Psalm 126 says, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

SDG