Horton on Grace (1)
July 11, 2007
Michael Horton has written an excellent article in the July/August edition of “Modern Reformation” magazine (http://www.modernreformation.org/). The title of the article is “Grace: How Strange the Sound.” As I read it I was reminded once again how easy it is for Christians to have shallow or otherwise misguided notions of just how radical grace truly is. We sing “Amazing Grace” but we adopt ideas that reduce grace to God’s passive response to our initiative. In a sense we come to see grace as a power that is made effective only inasmuch as we allow it to be effective. While we may say that grace is “amazing” what we are truly amazed by is the power of our own sovereign will that, in the end, even overcomes the very purposes of God. This unfortunate, but common way of thinking is why one prominent theologian speaks of the “pelagian captivity of the church.”
“We work very hard to make God user-friendly. That’s why the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, terrified by God’s voice, decided to make a golden calf that they could manage more safely. Instead of trembling in God’s presence, they ‘sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play’ (Ex. 32:6). We hear people talk today about their personal relationship with God as if he were a locker room pal or even a romantic interest. However, when people were actually confronted with God’s presence, they always came apart at the seams. Even Moses trembled with fear (Ex. 19-20; Heb. 12:18-29). Isaiah was all set to go on his mission to announce the woes (curses) on everybody else until he received a vision of God in his sanctuary, with seraphim and cherubim calling to each other, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth.’ Isaiah could only respond, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined, because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.’ Nevertheless, one of the seraphim brought a glowing coal to the prophet and, touching it to his lips, said, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, and your sin is atoned for’ (Isa. 6:3-7). Peter, hardly known for a reverent temperament, responded to the amazing catch of fish at Jesus’ command, fell on his knees and said, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man’ (Luke 5:8).
“To confess that God is holy is to say that he is not only quantitatively but qualitatively different from us. In other words, he isn’t simply better than we are, nicer, friendlier, more knowledgeable, more powerful, more loving. He is incomprehensible, unfathomable, unsearchable. We can only have access to him because he has willed to be our God, revealing himself by speaking ‘baby talk’ – accommodating to our frail capacities. Grace is God’s willingness not only to condescend to our creaturely finitude even to the point of assuming our flesh, but to give his life for us ‘while we were still enemies’ (Rom. 5:10).
“God is intolerant of sin, but just as infinite in his love and long-suffering. God is just and righteous, unable to let bygones be bygones, and yet he is free to have mercy on whom he will have mercy. To have mercy on the wicked, however, God cannot suspend his justice. God’s justice did not require the salvation of anyone, so his grace is totally free. When God is gracious toward sinners, it is not because his justice is sacrificed to his love, but because he has freely found a way to be ‘just and the justifier of the ungodly’ (Rom 3:26). At the cross, not only God’s love but his strangeness – his utter difference from us – is most clearly displayed…”
“[G]race is not an impersonal substance; it’s the personal attitude and action of God in Jesus Christ toward those who deserve the very opposite. Without the phrase ‘who deserve the very opposite,’ grace is nothing more than God’s warm wishes that make us feel better as we suppress the truth about ourselves…Only when we actually encounter God as he truly is do we finally know ourselves as we truly are – and only then can grace be truly grace. Grace is not self-esteem, moral uplift, or therapeutic recovery. It is nothing less than God’s favor on account of Christ: a new Word (justification) that generates a new creation (sanctification and glorification).”