What's Tony Thinking

Coda: On Grace


Yesterday under the heading “O.D.’ed on Politics, Desperate for Grace,” I wrote of my discouragement with the state of American politics and quoted, and echoed Nadia Bolz-Weber on her own need for grace.

I got several appreciative responses and some that pushed me a little bit, in a good way. As in saying, “Is grace enough?”

So I want to respond and go a little deeper. Grace is sometimes understood in a broad and non-theological way as in “be kind, cut others some slack, others have been gracious to you, so be gracious to others.” That’s all fine, but I agree it does not go deep enough. It may get translated into only another dose of moralism. As in, the world is a shitty place these days, the best we can do is be kind and gracious.

Again, fine as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. For one thing I, at least, am imperfect in kindness and graciousness, sometimes quite the opposite!

“Grace,” as my friend Jason Michelli remarked in our webinar session last night on the book Epiphany: The Season of Glory, “is shorthand for ‘God is the active agent of the salvation story.'”

The ethical expression of grace may be our own graciousness. As another observed, “the final work of grace is to make us gracious.” Without theological grounding, however, this risks turning into moralizing. Which is pretty much the failure of theological liberalism (and really theological conservatism too, as both tend to reduce being Christian to “being a better sort of American,” just with very different notions of what that means). It boils down to moralism and drives toward works righteousness. It is all about us and what we should do, and not about God and what God has done and is doing.

The theological meaning of grace is, as Jason observed, a focus on God, the odd God of the Bible, the active agent of the salvation story.” A theology of grace means a primary emphasis on what this God has done, is doing and has promised. It does not mean only us striving to be more gracious. It means trusting in the living God whose grace breaks into our world, intrudes upon our fixed categories and preoccupations, shatters our pretensions of having it all together or being the virtuous/ righteous ones. The salvation story shows us a a larger narrative of hope and purpose, revealed clearly, and yet paradoxically, in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. We put our trust in this God and in God’s story of salvation.

The implication of this for politics is to radically relativize the importance of politics and of all political leaders. Which means, among other things, that Donald Trump is not the messiah sent to save America as his people claim. Nor is he “God’s anointed one,” as he himself has claimed. Our only Messiah is Jesus; he alone is God’s anointed One. The same applies to, I would add, to Obama, about whom I think many on the other side of the spectrum had, at least in 2008, the feeling that he was some sort of messiah who would save America, if not the world. Don’t get me wrong. I was thrilled with Obama’s election, but I never thought he was a new messiah.

Politics will not save us. Nor is the political narrative, which is important, ultimate. As the Psalmist wrote, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (Ps. 146: 3 – 4)

Politics is important. I am engaged. But politics is not ultimate, not the be all and end all. It is not the only narrative or story in which I live or am invested. For believers there is another story, another narrative, one that enfolds our lives and our deaths, that begins in creation and concludes in consummation.

Our task is not to get the right person in the White House, but to trust in God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Mary and Paul, the God of Jesus, and to follow him as best we are able in our daily lives, even as we remain forever dependent on his grace and forgiveness as our attempts to follow him will be faulty and imperfect — especially when we think we’re “getting it right” or are “the forces of Good.”

Grace is the good news that there is an Other in whom we trust, who has acted to break the dominion of Sin and Death, and in whom we trust ultimately. NBZ pointed toward this, writing that she wants her on-line fellowship to be a place, “Where needing grace and a power greater than myself is not seen as a failing, but perhaps as wisdom.”

By saying I am desperate for grace I am not only saying I am desperate for a more gracious and less mean-spirited human realm (although that would be nice). I am saying I am desperate for, wholly dependent on and trusting in “a power greater than myself,” in the living God, and in the person and work of Christ in whom there is grace for the ungodly, forgiveness for sinners, and life for the dead. In this God is my ultimate trust and hope.

If it’s Biden v. Trump again, I will support and work for Biden because I think he is the better choice. I will call out Trump who is a demagogue even as I seek to understand his voters. But I don’t stake everything on American politics. I stake everything on the living God, who is the active agent of the great salvation story which is a different story than the story of the American nation.

I hope that is helpful.

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