A story that has always stuck with me:
A friend of mine told me that he had shared with a family member the central message of Christianity–something called “the Gospel.” He told this family member: “The gospel is about God not treating us as we deserve.” And the family thought about it for a bit, then shook his head and dismissed this with a sarcastic “How convenient.”
There are many different ways of communicating “the Gospel.” And what my friend said was absolutely right: a–if not the–scandalous aspect of this message is the undeserved favor that God can and does show to wrongdoers because of Jesus. This “undeserved favor” has a name: grace.
But there is more grace in the gospel than this rescuing, liberating reconciling grace. There is also what we might call an engaging, involving, enlisting grace.
The first “grace” is about God saving us from something: a busy mother saves a chocolate cake from burning in the oven; or a president pardons a criminal.
The second “grace” is about God saving us for something: that same mother saves a piece of chocolate cake for her discouraged husband; or a president appoints a person to a cabinet position.
Both kinds of grace are absolutely fundamental to understanding and embracing the gospel. And both can be found in Revelation 1.5-6, which contains a word of praise (or “doxology”) to Jesus:
“To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father–to him be glory for ever and ever! Amen.”
Jesus saves (“frees”) us from our sins, but he also saves us for the purpose of “making us to be a kingdom and priests.”
When the gospel message loses this second aspect of “grace,” two tragic things happen: (i) the Christian message becomes a message of convenience (“How convenient!”); and (ii) the Christian life becomes a private life.
Karl Marx famously said that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” In a sense, this is what the gospel becomes when this second “grace” is not preached along with the first. Enter Miroslav Volf.
In his book A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Volf relates this famous quote from Marx to what he calls a “malfunctioning faith”:
“…when Christian faith functions only as a soothing or performance-enhancing drug, faith is in fact malfunctioning. This mistake is not unique to Marx or to Christianity’s critics more generally. Many of those who have embraced faith have missed that all-important point too, from at least the time of the Old Testament prophets to today. Such people have themselves used faith more or less as a drug. Faith thus construed is, in a crucial sense, idling and can effect no transformation of personal or social lives.”
“Faith does its most proper work when it (1) sets us on a journey, (2) guides us along the way, and (3) gives meaning to each step we take. When we embrace faith—when God embraces us—we become new creatures constituted and called to be part of the people of God. That is the beginning of a journey: our insertion into the story of God’s engagement with humanity.”
He then offers this sobering challenge:
“Is what we do in concord with that story? Then it is meaningful and will remain, glistening as corrosion-resistant gold. Does it clash with the story? Then it is ultimately meaningless and will burn like straw, even if we find it the most thrilling and fulfilling activity in which we’ve ever engaged.”
Here is a fuller gospel that calls for a fuller faith, a faith that understands that we are both saved from and saved for, a faith that welcomes not only Jesus as the decisive actor in “the story of God’s engagement with humanity” but our “insertion” into that wondrous and breath-taking Story.