Is Grace Always Nice?

For over 20 years I have been proclaiming the love of God to anybody and everybody who will listen. In 1990, my life was transformed by the biblical truth of the implications of Jesus’s death on the cross. For the first time, I understood that not only did He die for me but that I also died with Him. I began to know by first-hand experience what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. The life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” In the years that followed I grew in my understanding of what missionary Hudson Taylor called, “the exchanged life.” In 1995 I wrote a best-selling book on the subject that still remains in print in fourteen languages 22 years later.

One fundamental facet of grace is that we never reach the limits when it comes to understanding it. Paul the Apostle described his ministry: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ.” The word “fathomless” means without limits. We can never go too deep in the grace of God. We will explore its depths throughout eternity.

In 2005, I was introduced to Baxter Kruger’s book, The Great Dance. For the first time my eyes were opened to the realization that what I had thought was good news for believers was actually the gospel for everybody. Soon I found myself studying the Bible deeper than ever and reading other authors who led me deeper in plumbing the depths of grace. TF Torrance, Karl Barth, Jurgen Moltmann and others led me to an exhilarating grasp of Scripture that had previously eluded my Evangelical mind. All this new information led to spiritual revelation and revelation led to personal transformation. Day after day, month after month and year after year, I continued to study the Bible and prayed for divine guidance as I sought the truth and watch old sacred cows die.

In 2011, after six years of private study, I began to speak publicly of the gospel of inclusion. In the ensuing years, my passion has only grown stronger. During the six years I secluded myself in study and prayer, I became increasingly aware of the fact that not all would value the truths I was learning. I fully expected criticism and came forward with eyes wide open.

I will confess that what I didn’t expect was the vehemently ungracious response I received from many who called themselves a part of “the grace community.” I would soon come to learn that, just as I had experienced when I moved from the legalistic community into a grace orientation, many of those in the so-called “grace community” would react with rancorous passion, devoid of love. Articles were written against my teaching, sometimes calling me out by name. Communities were warned to steer clear of me.  My books were pulled from the shelves of para-church organizations and churches who had long lauded those very books. I was told that the church of Jesus Christ needed to be protected from me.  I was called a false teacher, a heretic, a Universalist, a denier of the necessity of faith, the reality of hell and even the integrity of the Bible. What was my offense? Proclaiming the efficacy of the cross for every person, both believers and unbelievers. My view of inclusion was met with a vitriolic vengeance.

A time came when I determined to simply proclaim the message of Love and let others do what they thought was appropriate in their journey. I decided to stop responding to the false statements others were making. I longed for a live-and-let-live approach from those with opposing views. Let’s all proclaim what we believe the Bible teaches and allow the One whom Jesus said would guide us into all truth do the rest. That was my aim and my hope. Consequently, my public response to opponents of what I believe to be the Trinitarian faith once delivered to the saints fell silent. I haven’t responded to critics of the message for quite some time —  until now.

I currently find myself at a place where it seems like compromise to remain silent any longer. A growing number of voices that oppose the inclusive aspect of the gospel are increasing in volume. The gospel of inclusion is growing and some are scared. Some are becoming more vocal against the orthodox gospel of grace held by the early church. Their boldness has engendered a need for boldness within me. To remain publicly silent is no longer an option for me. There is a time to be quite and this isn’t that time. Now is the time for those who believe the gospel to be bold, very bold. Too much is at stake to be quiet. What is at stake? It’s the potential that many, many people will have a false concept of God our Father. They will see Him through a distorted lens that filters out the purity and passion of His love for all humanity. There is a time to speak and now is the time for those who love the faith of the early church to do so. There are times when silence is not a virtue but a vice.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 explains:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Some don’t like a tone that sounds harsh but this biblical text shows there is a time for harshness. If you live in a dualistic world of either/or where one must be nice or be harsh and not in the both/and world where both are appropriate, you aren’t living in the kingdom of God. You’re confusing that with Disney World. There is a time for plain-spokenness.

To be confrontational isn’t necessarily to behave unlovingly. Contrasts don’t always stand in contradiction to each other. Sometimes they are necessary. Light means nothing if we have no concept of darkness. Health is valued because we understand sickness. You can’t love growing flowers and not oppose weeds. Nor can we love truth and not detest lies. It’s that simple.

There is a time to not remain quiet, says the Bible. A time to uproot, to tear down, to refrain from embracing and to speak. There is a time to go to battle. Edmund Burke wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Lately, I have become more outspoken in my opposition to the danger of the teaching of exclusion. Some have said that I’m not speaking in a loving way. My demeanor, words and even motives have been challenged. A few have even attacked my integrity by suggesting that I’m intentionally trying to mislead people and that I actually know the truth. The irony is that those who have attacked my integrity don’t even know me – at all.

I have used and intend to use inflammatory language at times. I know that. Let me be clear: This is not an unintentional decision. It is not an impulsive reaction on my part. It is a decision. I’ve lived in and around the Evangelical world long enough to know what happens when you draw outside the lines and I know full well, it’s not pretty. As C.S. Lewis said, “Of all bad men religious bad men are the worst.” I was a pastor for over 20 years. I get that better than most.

My choice to speak boldly is intentional. I’m doing this on purpose. Some things are just wrong and people are being hurt by them. I have remained publicly silent about the message of the exclusionists for several years but I can remain silent no longer because they are turning up their own volume, and too much is at stake. I have read and heard them cite Bible verses out of context until it has become like fingernails scratching a chalkboard to me. I’ve witnessed them build straw men that supposedly represented the pure gospel of inclusion, then tear them down and smirk like they’ve outwitted Socrates. I’ve witnessed some parrot others as if it’s just now coming to them under spontaneous, divine inspiration and they’re speaking with papal authority. The whole matter has come to the place where it has moved past an eye-roll and a head-shake and has provoked a gag-reflex within me. It’s sickening. To watch people (who identify with grace) belch up a message that excludes people is sickening. To watch God’s love be impugned –  it’s sickening. To see Adam’s fall be given greater authority than Jesus Christ’s work is sickening. To be told that because I believe in the universality of Christ’s finished work makes me a Universalist is sickening. To be told that unless we believe in an Augustinian understanding of hell, we don’t believe in hell at all is sickening. To be told that our belief in objective justification indicates that we don’t believe in the need for personal faith in Christ is sickening. The list could go on and on.

Not everybody has the temperament of a prophet. There are those whose personality types are gentle and mild by default. That can be a good thing when it is properly expressed. In the same way, there are those whose personalities are framed by direct, contrarian, and bold engagement. That can be a good thing too when it is properly expressed. Don’t think that confrontation is always wrong.

Consider Jesus Himself, who engaged in actions like overturning the tables in the temple courts. Imagine an inclusionist doing that in an exclusionist’s church! Look at the words of our Lord when confronting religious people who hurt God’s children.

“You hypocrite!” (Matt 7:4) You are fools and blind men! (Matt 23:17) You are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. (Matt 23:27-28) You snakes, you brood of vipers! (Matt 23:33) You are like concealed tombs, and the people who walk over them are unaware of it. (Luke 11:43) You are of your father, the devil. (John 8:44) If I (were to agree with you), I shall be a liar like you! (John 8:55)

Yes, that’s our Jesus. Not exactly, the gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild version we’ve heard about though! Jesus knew there is a time for talk like that and, when the time was appropriate, He didn’t hesitate.

Consider the Apostle Paul, who wrote almost two-thirds of the New Testament. By the modern evaluation scale some people use, they would conclude he wasn’t very nice at times.

Oh stupid Galatians! (Galatians 3:5 Aramaic Bible in Plain English) or “You stupid people of Galatia! (God’s Word Translation)

Concerning those who insisted on the believers in Galatia being circumcised, “I wish that those who are upsetting you would castrate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12 International Standard Version)

“Paul! You aren’t being very gracious! You aren’t going to win people over talking that way!” some might say. His answer? “I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness?” (2 Corinthians 11:11-14)

Then in Titus 1:12-13 Paul gave his thoughts on the Cretans: “‘Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith.”

My intention here isn’t to suggest that a sincere, albeit misguided, exclusionist fits the categories Paul delineates in the words I’ve quoted here. I simply point to them as evidence that there is a time for plain speech.

Here’s another apostle’s manner of speaking: Peter wrote, “These false teachers insult what they don’t understand. They are like animals, which are creatures of instinct that are born to be caught and killed. So they will be destroyed like animals and lose what their wrongdoing earned them. These false teachers are stains and blemishes.” (2 Peter 2 :12-13, God’s Word Translation) Okay, Peter. I admit I can be strong at times, but even I want to encourage you to chill out a little there.

Jude insisted that there is a time when we must vigorously fight to preserve the pure gospel. He wrote,  “While I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (verse 3). He described those who distorted the gospel saying, “These people slander whatever they do not understand” (verse 10).

Moving beyond Scripture there is a plethora of historical examples of those who took a strong stance in speaking out against the distortion of the gospel. Perhaps there isn’t a greater example than Martin Luther. The mention of his name elicits an approving nod from most Protestants. Though there were others who had great influence in the Reformation, Luther’s name is the one most associated with it. Who can forget his nailing the 95 Thesis on the door of the Wittenburg Church? Luther is an example of the fact that reformations aren’t ushered in by mild-mannered men speaking mild-mannered messages.

In his defense of the the gospel when he confronted the failures of the Roman Catholic church of his day, Martin Luther said things like this:

“In lying fashion you ignore what even children know.” – Against Latomus, pg. 145 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 32

“You people are more stupid than a block of wood.” – Against Latomus, pg. 242 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 32

“For you are an excellent person, as skillful, clever, and versed in Holy Scripture as a cow in a walnut tree or a sow on a harp.” – Against Hanswurst, pg. 219 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41

“Dear God, what an utterly shameless, blasphemous lying-mouth you are!” – Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 300 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41

“A natural donkey, which carries sacks to the mill and eats thistles, can judge you – indeed, all creatures can! For a donkey knows it is a donkey and not a cow. A stone knows it is a stone; water is water, and so on through all the creatures. But you mad asses do not know you are asses.” “You are a crude ass, and an ass you will remain!” – Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 281 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41

“You say, “What comes out of our mouth must be kept!” I hear it – which mouth do you mean? The one from which the farts come? (You can keep that yourself!)” – Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 281 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41

“I can with good conscience consider you a fart-ass and an enemy of God.” – Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, pg. 344 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41

Remember that Luther was not speaking to God-haters in his day. He was speaking to the church leaders who misrepresented the gospel of grace.

To everything there is a season. Love is a melody that sometimes needs to be played in the minor keys. So if you find yourself being tempted to think that plain spokenness or even harshness is always wrong, think again.  Jesus, Paul, Peter, Jude and Luther are just a few who demonstrated that there’s a time for boldness expressed through an inflammatory tone and vocabulary. When you encounter a person who speaks harshly most of the time, you can fairly assume that they simply may not be a nice person. When you encounter somebody who you know to normally be a loving, kind and nice person and that person speaks in a way that is abrupt, harsh and even seems angry, don’t dismiss their action as behaving ungraciously. To the contrary, they may be acting in the most loving way possible in the moment. Their expression of “tough love” that appears to stand in contrast to how you normally know them to behave might be seen as italics on the words they speak. Verbal italics necessary for emphasis. So, ask yourself if the person normally seems mean or normally behaves in a nice way. Your answer will tell you how seriously to take their word. If they are normally nice but sound harsh, take special notice. Love isn’t one specific shade but embraces the whole palette of colors ranging from bright to dark. Together, they paint the picture of what Agape looks like.

copyright, Steve McVey, 2017 www.stevemcvey.com

 

 

 

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