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As the luck (or the providence) of the calendar would have it, I get to blog here on The Twelve on the precise 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and all it entailed and still entails. I dimly suspect that by now in most Reformed communities, we will be just fine with Refo 500 observances, hymn sings, lectures, and conferences to be over. A few of us in West Michigan have been finding attendance at a few such things to have been less than stellar. It is possible we have saturated the landscape with a few too many events.
Then again, it is a landmark event. And by now I can add little to everything else we have heard, sung, and pondered in recent weeks as this date approached. So I will simply share a few things I said at a panel discussion I was a part of last week as sponsored by Calvin College’s Meeter Center for Calvin Studies. There were five of us on the panel: four professional scholars with various specialties in theology and history and then me as the one pastor on the panel. It made sense, then, that my contribution to the event would focus on my role as a preacher first and foremost.
I mentioned that for me, of all the things that spun out of the Reformation era, it was the emphasis on salvation by grace alone that resonates most. Grace became the animating center of my preaching and was the focus of my first book, The Riddle of Grace. Indeed, I emphasized grace so much in my first two congregations that one year—about 5 or so years into my pastorate at Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids—there were two raffles for a door prize at the Church Picnic. One was a big glass jar full of M&Ms and you had to guess how many were in there. The other was to write down on a slip of paper how many times people thought I had used the word “grace” in my sermons thus far that year. I don’t remember the exact number anymore. But it was a lot.
And why not? Not only is the proclamation that our salvation is 100% a gift of God’s goodness and love a source of never-ending delight and wonder, it is also just central enough a part of our theology that it comes under routine assault from various quarters. In my book I suggested that we sometimes let the full robustness of grace get eclipsed because in the United States at least the cultural air we breathe is a can-do spirit of individual achievement, of capitalist rags-to-riches and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps celebrations. When you go at most of life with that mentality in the air, it becomes a bit harder even in spiritual matters really to believe salvation has nothing to do with our accomplishments. I also suggested that too often when church discipline gets exercised, we don’t let the overarching message of God’s grace inform that process but sometimes make it too much about a tit for tat reckoning after all.
Of course, there are other ways grace gets undercut. There is overweening Calvinist guilt, for instance. Most of us pastors have heard it more than once, particularly as people approach the end of their days: “How do I know I was good enough for God? How can I be sure God won’t punish me for those bad things I did, said, or even thought?” Guilt is the gift that keeps on taking, and not a few of us have been pretty good at generating a lot of it in our hearts, forgetting all the while that the message of grace says that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
On the other hand, in even the dozen years that have passed since I left a regular pulpit ministry, I hear more and more from ministerial colleagues that what Christian Smith calls “moral therapeutic deism” has taken pretty firm hold for millennials and others. Here grace gets undercut from the other side as the enormity of God’s gift fails to yield a transformed life. But grace is such a huge force in the cosmos that it not only forgives us in one loving fell swoop, it also changes us. Yes, it’s all a free gift of God but it ought to make us serious about walking as disciples, tending the Fruit of the Spirit, and seeking to turn the very shape of our lives into a kind of giant Thank-You card to God.
If grace is as important as we have been saying it is for the last five centuries, then it should come as no surprise that it comes under spiritual assault from various quarters. So on this day of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s (and then Calvin’s) joyful rapture over the New Testament’s proclamation of grace, let all of us who preach and who teach and who talk in spiritual terms at any time and in any venue re-double our determination to keep talking about grace. Let’s never tire of celebrating grace’s power to liberate from fear, doubt, uncertainty, and guilt. Let’s never tire of probing all the ways grace changes us—and changes our entire world—as more and more of God’s good intentions for life in his creation keep on making a comeback in us and in our neighbors.
I always liked Frederick Buechner’s imaginative picturing of the Apostle Paul scribbling out his letters with a #2 pencil. “It is by GRACE you have been saved” Paul would furiously write even as he broke off yet another pencil tip from the force of his writing. SNAP would go Paul’s pencil lead again and again as he littered the floor with sharp little shards of his pencil tips. Paul could not write it often enough or forcefully enough no matter how many pencils he went through. He could not celebrate it enough. Nor can we!