The Sign of Conversion

A puzzling parable offers a sure-fire sign of full conversion.

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One of the most troubling of Jesus’ parables is his story of a landowner who goes out into the village marketplace to hire laborers to work in his vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He hires some in the early morning, then returns every three hours to hire more, including some just a hour before the work day ends. Yet all the laborers, regardless of when they began work, are paid the same wage.

The workers who began work in the early morning complain about the landowner’s unfairness. They should be paid more, they argue, because they worked through the scorching heat of the day. That deserves greater remuneration.

The landowner denies their request, saying:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

Most of us are troubled by this parable because we agree with the aggrieved laborers. By our standards of good business practices, the landowner is indeed being unjust. The workers deserve a reward commensurate with the depth of labor they put into the task.

But if we are to understand this parable, we must leave behind our ideas about fair business transactions. When Jesus begins telling his story, he says it is an analogy to what happens in the kingdom of God. All who enter into the kingdom are beneficiaries of the generous grace of God.

All receive the same gift of God’s gracious salvation. That is a gift of surpassing worth. And anyone who receives that gift should take delight that everyone else is receiving that same surpassing gift as well. That, in fact, becomes a sign of full conversion (conversion understood as a radical change of mindset as I describe in my June 2 posting Transforming Repentance).

If I have been truly converted, then I will rejoice in the fact that God is sharing so widely the same gift that I have received. For that gift is such a superlative gift that I cannot hoard it to myself. I want everyone around me to share it too.

Such an attitude shows that one is no longer dominated by an egocentric religious mindset. Such a mindset is always concerned with what I will get from my faithfulness, devotion, and obedience. If we are dominated by that mindset, we will be consumed with our demand that we get what we feel we deserve. We will resent someone getting what we feel they have not deserved as much as we have.

The Character of Conversion

Conversion involves a reorientation of our mindset from an obsession with our own survival and wellbeing to a delight in the great and glorious cosmic plan that God is at work to bring into being, That includes a joyful acceptance of our own humble place and role in that plan whether that place and role always involve our immediate wellbeing or not. The surpassing worth and beauty of the kingdom so captivates us that we cannot help but rejoice when others come to share that same gift that we have received.

Now I think this parable speaks very pointedly to our spiritual situation as Christians. Egocentric concerns may play a huge role in bringing us to a conversion experience. (And there is nothing more egocentric that being worried about whether we are going to heaven or hell when we die.) When we begin our spiritual journey, we begin where we are as egocentric persons most concerned about what affects us personally.

But as we mature into our conversion, a shift begins to take place within us. We begin to be more concerned not with our own spiritual fate and wellbeing, but with the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Jesus describes that shift when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, …strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well (Matthew 6:33).

That does not mean most of us reach that level of spiritual maturity easily or quickly. For most of us, including myself, it is a long, slow, and gradual process of reorientation lasting a whole lifetime.

The parable also speaks, I believe, to our relationship with other Christian groupings and other religions. When we see the fruits of God’s kingdom manifest in them, if we are truly converted, we rejoice to see the Spirit at work in them as well as in us, regardless of whether they conform to our particular doctrines and practices.

When we have reached that depth of conversion, we can begin to hear Jesus’ parable not as a frightful malpractice but as a vision into the glory of God’s beneficent grace.

 

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The Grammar of Grace

Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating good news? It all depends upon how we understand the dynamic of grace. 

Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of grace, as depicted by Sandro Botticelli, 15th century.

Several years ago, when I was seeking my first position as a pastor, I was asked what I thought was the top theological issue in our world today. After some thought, I answered that for me it was how we relate Christian behavior to the life of grace.

I felt then (and I still do) that most American churches get it wrong, not in the words they use, but in their actions. They preach salvation by God’s grace, but practice a life that the Protestant Reformers called salvation by works. That creates huge amounts of anxiety in people’s lives. It also drives many away from organized religion.

It’s an irony, of course, because some of the most heated debates in the Reformation were over this very question: How are we saved? Or more crudely, how do we get on the good side of God? By works of righteousness that we perform or by God’s free gift (grace) that we appropriate by faith? The Reformers answered with the latter option. That conviction is supposed to be one of the distinctions of Protestantism.

Yet for many American Christians today, the Reformation debate feels hollow. It sounds like just another of the Reformers’ interminable doctrinal food fights. That’s because we can no longer connect the theological language in which the debate is worded with our lived experience.

A Need for Relearning

To use a metaphor, we no longer understand the correct grammar for talking about grace. Grace still tends to be a warm and fuzzy word in our religious vocabulary. It resonates with good vibrations. We’re just not sure what it means. So it is easy to misuse it. And when we do, we can mess up our lives badly. We need to relearn how to use it correctly.

It helps to begin with the origin of the word. The English word grace comes from the Latin word gratia, which means literally favor, kindness, or esteem. Ultimately behind the Latin lies the root meaning of pleasing. Gratia is the favor or kindness we feel when something or someone gives us pleasure.

When we apply the word grace to God, we are talking about the favor, the kindness, or good esteem that God shows to us. We are his good creation. He declares us very good, at the end of the Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:31). And so, I believe, we give him pleasure.

Not everyone agrees. Several years ago, my sister told me a story about an incident in her church. A young couple came to church one day with their newborn baby. Church members crowded around to ooh and ah over the child. They kept saying what a beautiful baby it was.

After several minutes of that, the father suddenly burst out: “This child is a God-damned sinner, and he will go to Hell someday unless he gets saved.” My sister, to her credit, was shocked just as I am by his outburst. Yet it is a common theological belief in many religious circles.

I contend its understanding of God and God’s attitude to humanity is simply wrong. We may stray from God’s way of life and despoil his good creation. But that does not transform God’s attitude from one of love to one of hate. We remain objects of God’s love, because we are God’s good creation, no matter how badly we screw up. He continues to love us and seeks to restore us to wholeness.

Challenging a Twisted Belief

Most of us, however, develop the twisted belief that we must do something to make this hating God love us, to make God look with favor and good esteem on us. We hear this belief often expressed by people in church when they say they try to live good lives so they will make it into heaven when they die.

So we struggle hard to achieve that acceptance with God. Such a belief makes perfect sense to most of us, because it is the way a lot of the world works — the world in which most of us live and do business. Advertising, for example, would have us believe that if we don’t wash our hair in the latest and greatest shampoo, we will not be attractive and will therefore not be loved.

I see this twisted belief at work all the time in the corporate world, where I spent 30 years of my working life. There it is standard operating procedure.

People get promoted to a higher status in their companies allegedly on the basis of their achievements–or in corporate language, on the basis of their performance. If I reach executive status in the company, it is because I have performed exceptionally well in lower positions.

This is the dynamic of un-grace. It can be stated very simply: I am what I am because of what I do.

Have you ever noticed that at social occasions when we are introduced for the first time to a stranger, the first question we usually ask is: What do you do? That’s because in a lot of American life our identity is tied up with what work we do. In some other circles our identity is linked to the family or tribe we belong to.

The besetting vice that accompanies this dynamic of un-grace is pride. If my performance achieves me my status, then I can rightly feel proud of what I have achieved. Maybe that’s why we Americans are so afraid of being called a loser. We are obsessed with winning, because our status and respect in society depends upon it.

The Gospel Reversal

The Gospel turns this dynamic on its head. I do not attain my status in God’s sight because of anything I do. Instead, I am chosen by God and adopted into God’s family by his redemptive work in Christ. For the Christian, the sign and seal of that adoption is the sacrament of baptism, which unites us to Christ through trusting faith.

The fact there is nothing I do to achieve this status is particularly striking when baptism is performed in infancy. When our parents present us for baptism, God adopts us as his own. We become children of God because God acknowledges us as such, not because of anything an infant does. All the infant may do is squeal when the water is poured on its head.

Once we are members of God’s family, there are behaviors that grow out of our status.   We are called to live in a particular way–a way that is described in our ethics, our spiritual disciplines, and in our worship practices– but these ways do not achieve us our status before God. They are responses to the status conferred on us at baptism.

In the realm of grace, behavior grows out of who we are. Here the logic in its simplest is: We do what we do because of who we are.

Let me repeat this contrast.

The way of the world is expressed in the formula: I am what I am because of what I do. I achieve my status of acceptance with God by how I live my life. This way of living is what our ancestors in the Reformation meant when they denounced salvation by works.

The way of the Gospel is expressed in the formula: I do what I do because of who I am. I am a child of God by God’s initiative. All I have to do is gratefully accept that gift of status that God confers. Once I do and begin to realize the depth of this truth, my behavior is going to change, but as a response to the gift God has given.

This is how I understand what the Reformers meant when they upheld salvation by grace through faith. God adopts us into his family by his gracious, free initiative. When the prodigal son returns to his father, he is received joyfully as a son, not as a slave, because he is in fact already a son. The father throws a party. All the son can feel is humility and immense gratitude before his father’s amazing graciousness.

When we understand the correct dynamic, then what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10 explodes with new meaning for us:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

The Importance of Knowing the Correct Grammar

 Getting the grammar right in how we talk about grace is so important because it makes all the difference in how we experience the Gospel. Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating Good News? Something we dread or something we welcome with joy? A way to death or a way to overflowing life?

When the Gospel sinks deeply into our consciousness, we act the way we do not out of a sense of deadening obligation, but out of thankfulness and gratitude for what God has done for us. To be honest, however, as we start out our Christian lives, that sense of thankfulness and gratitude that lies behind our behavior may feel somewhat forced. That’s because we still carry within our psyches lingering feelings of obligation.

But as we grow more mature in our spiritual lives, the Spirit begins to dissolve those feelings of obligation and transform themselves into traits of character. We do what we do naturally and hopefully joyfully because it is what we have become. Our honest desire is to be who we are.

And that is what freedom becomes for us. We realize that God has all along been inviting us to enter into the freedom of being fully who we are. We are truly amazed by God’s grace. Our behavior becomes one part of our sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.

A Prayer that Exemplifies the Grammar of Grace

This is so beautifully caught in one of my favorite liturgical prayers, the Prayer of General Thanksgiving, a prayer written by a Church of England bishop in the 17th century.

The prayer goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thy unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us and to all. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. But above all for thy inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

 At this point the prayer makes a significant shift.

 And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful and that we show forth thy praise by giving up ourselves to thy service and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

This prayer gets the grammar right. We thank God for his many gifts, especially for the gift of redemption in Jesus. And we pray that the way we live our lives – in what the prayer calls holiness and service — may be an expression of genuine, felt-deep-in-the heart praise and thanksgiving to the God who graciously redeems us and makes us whole.

We can return to this prayer again and again when, enticed by the delusion of salvation by works, we find ourselves losing our bearings within the Christian life. It will remind us of the correct grammar.

 

Christianity as a Paradoxical Faith

Scripture text: Philippians 2:12-13

In the history of Christian theology, one of the most heated debates has concerned our salvation. Is it achieved by God’s initiative alone (grace) or do human beings have a contribution to make (good works)? The Protestant Reformation (of which I am an heir) took its stand on the position that we are saved by God’s grace alone, which we appropriate by our trust in God’s love for us.

But I have always felt Philippians 2:12-13 stands to challenge this assertion. Here is what the apostle Paul wrote:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Revised Standard Version)

The apostle counsels his friends in Philippi to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. It would seem that Paul does not believe that salvation by God’s grace means a free ride for believers. They have a role to play in their salvation. They must exert themselves through their spiritual disciplines and moral endeavor. And they must do so with utmost seriousness. This is the rationale for all the behavioral admonitions we find in his letters.

Yet Paul goes on to say that it is God who is at work in them, both to desire God’s good will and to perform it. The motivation and the power for living a holy life come entirely from God. This is the rationale for the periodic doxologies we find in his letters, like the ones that end chapter 8 in Romans and chapter 11 in that same letter.

When I read Philippians 2:12-13, I feel as if I am reading a logically contradictory statement. If we are to work with fear and trembling, are we not denying that God is the one at work in us? And if we assert that God gives us the desire and the power to do God’s will, are we not denying that we have a role in our salvation?

I want to say: Which is it? It can’t logically be both. Yet Paul assets both as true. And so we are left with a paradox.

In a paradox, we set two statements side by side. The two statements seem to contradict each other, yet we assert both are equally true. We damn logic in service to the truth. For we recognize a truth that does not fit within the constraints of logic.

If one wants a simpler way to summarize Paul’s teaching in these verses, I would do it this way: In your Christian life, work as if everything depends upon you, and pray as if everything depends upon God.

Many of the fundamental convictions of orthodox Christianity prove to be paradoxical. For example, we affirm our belief that God is one and that God is three. The two beliefs seem to cancel each other out. Yet in our doctrine of the Trinity, we assert both are true.

In our Christology, we assert that Jesus Christ is fully divine and yet also fully human. Another paradoxical statement of what we believe the truth is. And in our views on the Bible, we affirm that the Bible is fully the work of human authors and editors, and yet it is inspired by God’s Spirit so we can regard it as God’s written word. And in the Eucharist, when we consume the bread, we are eating bread made from grains of wheat, yet we also believe we are partaking of the body of Christ.

This is what makes Christianity at times such an exasperating faith. Christians seem to delight in paradoxes. In response, many believers and non-believers alike cry: Keep it simple, stupid.

Many times heresies deliver on that demand. They take paradoxical truths and try to reduce them to simplicity by affirming one side of the paradox and denying the other. But in orthodox Christianity, the gospel does not deliver on that demand, for we believe that the truth is much more dense, meaty, and substantial than we would like it to be.

I am not saying we should go around glorying in the fact that our Christian faith affirms what the rest of the world considers irrationality. Instead our attitude should be one of epistemological humility. In affirming our paradoxes, we accept that the full truth cannot be grasped by logic and reason alone. We stand in the presence of mysteries that will not become clear and transparent to us until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness.