Archives For Grace

Grace Has No Leash

Preston Sprinkle —  June 11, 2014 — 1 Comment

Here’s an excerpt from my new book on grace titled, Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace Toward Us (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2014)Charis front cover_w:tullian, pp. 25-28. The book will be released July 1, 2014.


Grace has no leash. It’s untamed, unbound, and runs wild and free. Some Christians believe that we’ve got to have some sort of balance—we need to keep grace under control. When it snaps our leash and runs loose around our gated community, we get nervous.

In many ways, the word grace has lost its stunning beauty, and perhaps through overuse, it’s become just another Christianese buzzword. We use the word grace in flat ways. My students ask for “grace” when they turn in assignments late. “Come on, Professor. Give me grace.” But divine grace is more than leniency, more than allowing exceptions to a rule.

Others say that grace means “unconditional acceptance.” God accepts people even though they have not met his standard. This is true. Sort of. But it’s still a decaffeinated definition. It fails to capture the divine aggression that invigorates grace and causes it to lurch upon the unworthy.

Grace is more than just leniency and unconditional acceptance. Divine grace is God’s relentless and loving pursuit of His enemies, who are unthankful, unworthy, and unlovable. Grace is not just God’s ability to save sinners, but God’s stubborn delight in His enemies—yes, even the creepy ones. Grace means that despite our filth, despite the sewage running through our veins, despite our odd addiction to food, drink, sex, porn, pride, self, money, comfort, and success, God
desires to transform us into real ingredients of divine happiness.

We demean grace by reducing it to another Christianese buzzword. The original Greek word for grace is charis (with a hard “ch,” like karis). Charis was not invented by Christians. Charis didn’t originate with Jesus, Peter, or Paul. The word charis, in fact, was used widely in the ancient world where Jesus grew up. When Jesus walked through Palestine talking about God’s charis, His hearers knew what the word meant. When Paul traversed the Mediterranean world heralding a message of charis, he would have been readily understood by anyone who spoke Greek. If Paul talked about charis in the marketplace, the vendors would have understood him. If he got into a debate with Greek philosophers, they, too, would have grasped the meaning of charis.

That’s because charis simply means “gift.” When we say “gift,” the ancients would have said “charis.” It means the same thing. Rich people in the ancient world often gave charises, or gifts, to other people. They would donate charises to their hometown: a fountain in the city square, a statue of Zeus next to the courthouse. They would give a charis to someone in need of food or shelter. The wealthy were eager to give gifts to people. Why? Because the ability to give a charis showed (or showed off) that they had the means to give.

When rich people gave a charis to this person and a charis to that person—“here’s a shekel to buy some food”—they didn’t give it indiscriminately. The ancients gave charises only to those who were worthy to receive it. Charis was given to people CharisSocMed_01who were worthy of charis: those who had a high status or who were morally upright, intellectually astute, or physically impressive. After all, we wouldn’t want to squander our charis on some bum in the gutter who’s unworthy of our gift. A rich person wouldn’t waste charises on outcasts, the unappreciative, or thugs who had nothing to offer in return.

But Jesus did.

Jesus and His followers gutted the word charis and infused it with fresh meaning, with life-giving power. Jesus did more than give charis to the unworthy dregs of society. He made it His mission to seek them out. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He didn’t just give charis to the beggars who crossed His path. Jesus hunted them down and showered them with gifts. The same Jesus who overturned tables in the temple overturned the social norms for dispensing charis. Naturally, Jesus would be especially drawn to cannibalistic fornicators with a sick attraction to dead people, like Jeffrey Dahmer—the man who killed, had sex with, and then ate (in that order) 17 young men before Jesus rescued his soul from hell in 1994.

That’s the stuff I’m talking about. That’s grace. That’s charis.


PhilemonLet’s be honest. Philemon is an odd little book. I know it’s not okay to call sections of the Bible “odd” or “random,” but I remember reading Philemon for the first time and thinking, Why is this in here?

If you haven’t yet read it, go ahead! It will take you less than five minutes (it’s shorter than this blog post). Though much of the New Testament is composed of letters, this one feels far more personal and occasion-specific than the others. It’s literally reading someone else’s mail. But random though it may be, this little book carries some powerful truth.

Paul was under house arrest in Rome when a runaway slaved named Onesimus somehow crossed his path. Paul led him to the Lord, and saw him turn from “useless” to “useful” (Paul uses these terms, playing on the fact that “Onesimus” means “useful”). Paul is able to refer to this converted slave as “my child” and even “my heart.”

As Paul worked with Onesimus, they came to the conclusion that Onesimus should return to his master. As it turns out, this master was a wealthy landowner who hosted a church in his house and who faithfully used his means to further the gospel and strengthen the church. His name was Philemon.

So Paul wrote the letter of Philemon to facilitate Onesimus’ return to his master, who was likely to be angry.

Paul subtly crafts this little gem of a letter to persuade Philemon to react to Onesimus in light of the truth of the gospel. For one thing, he addresses the letter to Philemon, but also to Apphia, Archippus, and the church that meets in Philemon’s home. So while the business only directly relates to Philemon, the church is brought into the loop, thereby reminding Philemon that he is accountable to the whole body of Christ.

He then praises Philemon for his love and generosity, and for the way “the hearts of the saints” have been “refreshed” though him. Paul isn’t exactly buttering him up here—these are legitimate praises. But we can see Paul praising Philemon for the same displays of Christian grace that he will ask Philemon to extend to Onesimus.

Then comes the appeal. Paul says that he could lean on his authority as an apostle, but instead has decided to make an appeal “for love’s sake.” Onesimus, he explains, was once useless and had wronged Philemon. He may even owe money. But Paul explains that Onesimus is now useful, and that if he owes anything, Paul will gladly be held responsible for the damages.

Don’t miss how remarkable this is. Paul is putting his own neck on the line—making himself personally liable—for a runaway slave! This isn’t the kind of thing that happens in the real world. But it happens in the church. Paul says that Onesimus is not the same slave who ran away. He is now a “brother.” Everything has changed.

Put yourself in Philemon’s shoes. Here comes your thieving runway slave walking back to your house. Feel the emotion. Then you learn that he has been transformed by the gospel. Jesus paid for his sins. The Holy Spirit now dwells inside of him. Is he a thief? A slave? Useless? Or is he a brother? A useful fellow laborer for the sake of the gospel?

The odd little book of Philemon pushes us to wrestle with these important questions, to view the institutions in our society and the situations in our lives in light of the gospel. The gospel changes everything, and we see this clearly in the random letter we intercepted from Paul to Philemon.

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins

The world is a vampire sent to drain; secret destroyers hold you up to the flames. So says Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, and it’s not easy to prove him wrong.

Every human being simply shows up on earth. No orientation, no training. We just find ourselves here and have to make sense of it all. At some point, we develop an opinion on the type of place this is. Is it dark and dangerous, or bright and exciting? Do we live in a cesspool or a playground?

I hear the cesspool view voiced from most pulpits—religious or secular. Christians understandably look at the evil and temptations that press and pull from every direction and rightly see these evil influences for what they are. Beware: there is much in our modern culture that would lead us astray. But secular prophets see the darkness of our world as well. Billy Corgan is one voice among many. “Welcome to the cruel world…don’t know how we’ve lasted here so long,” mourns Ben Harper. Rage Against the Machine adds a more aggressively sinister note: “There’ll be no shelter here, the front line is everywhere.”

Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine

We could pile on near-infinite examples from the cultural worlds of music, film, literature, visual art, dance, etc. The point is universally understood: this world is a dark and dangerous place. The only people who seem to deny the darkness of this world are kitschy filmmakers and storytellers who delight in showing the fluffy side of life to the exclusion of, well, reality. Sadly, many of the worst offenders in this regard are Christians trying to maintain a positive outlook. Even the darkest people on the planet (think Marilyn Manson or even Charles Manson) aren’t denying that the world is full of darkness, they’re simply embracing it.

So that settles it, right? We live in a cesspool. Tread lightly and keep your eyes on the sky. We’ll be rescued from this mess in due time.

This conclusion would be entirely justified were it not for one key player in the affairs of this world: God. If the world is a cesspool, it’s His cesspool. It’s His earth that the forces of darkness have desecrated, and the Bible assures us that He is not ready to throw it away in disgust.

Nor has God gone missing from the world He made. We see God’s presence in this world just moments after sin entered the picture and wrenched the world from its God-ordained intention. No sooner had Adam and Eve fashioned makeshift garments to hide the effects of their sin than “they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden” (Gen. 3:8). And He has never truly left.

The Bible records humanity’s struggle with sin and the seemingly inevitable spread of darkness into every area of cultural production. But never forget that the Bible tells a joyful story. It’s a story infused with hope at every turn. A story in which the True Creator is always working, sometimes when and where we least expect Him.

He is the God who takes the distorted culture that shaped a crown out of thorns and a cross out of once-living trees and turns those malevolent cultural productions into symbols of hope and triumph. He is the God who turns the chief of sinners into an exemplary grace-proclaiming missionary (1 Tim. 1:15). The God who makes the broken into a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The God who is ultimately making all things new (Rev. 21:5).

PlaygroundBecause of God’s continued involvement in His world, the world is more than a cesspool. Because of God’s ongoing delight in the works of His hands, this world remains a playground. We would do well to play with an appropriate soberness and a continuing dependence on God, but the human culture that fills our world still reflects the God whose grace permeates all of life, try as we might to distance Him from the things we make.

God did not redeem our world by staying as far as possible from the stains that now adorn the fabric of the universe. He entered into the world as-is, showing us that the stain is distinct from the fabric, and in doing so He subtly invites us onto this potentially dangerous playground to find the light and joy and affirm it wherever it may still be found.

I’ve been wrestling with the ethical issues surrounding Joshua’s conquest for the last couple posts. In the last one, I set some groundwork regarding the people (Canaanites) and the land (Canaan). This doesn’t solve all the moral problems, but it does put us in a better place to tackle the question: How could the God of love command a wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites?

In this post, I’d like to talk about one important feature in the Canaanite conquest: God’s preemptive strike of grace.

God commanded Joshua to eliminate the Canaanites, though not without warning. This point is often missed—or ignored—by skeptics who highlight the shear brutality of the conquest. Way back in Genesis 15, God told Abram that he would have to wait 430 years before his people would take full ownership of the land. The reason is that “the iniquity of the Amorites [one of the Canaanite nations] is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). In other words, though the Canaanites were sinful (aren’t we all?), they hadn’t exhausted God’s patience yet. They had 430 years to turn from their wickedness to the God of Israel.

But would such a “turn to God” have been realistic? After all, how would they know about this God of Israel?

Good question. One that the Bible clearly answers. After God wrecked havoc on Egypt and brought his people through the Red Sea, His divine power was broadcasted across the world. All the nations knew about this God of Israel, even those living in Canaan. The Canaanites living in the city of Gibeon are a case in point. After Israel entered the land, the citizens of Gibeon came to Joshua and said: “we have heard a report of Him, and all that He did in Egypt” (Josh. 9:9). Therefore, “We are your servants. Come now, make a covenant with us” (Josh. 9:11). God trumpeted his reputation across the ancient world, and these particular Canaanites not only heard it but turned to Him (albeit through espionage).

The most well-known example of someone accepting God’s preemptive strike of grace was Rahab, the prostitute living in Jericho. Like the Gibeonites, Rahab says that all the people of Jericho “have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea…and as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you” (Josh. 2:10-11). Even though they all came face to face with God’s grace and could have accepted it, only Rahab would go on to confess that “the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). Instantly, God removed her sins as far as the east is from the west. But the rest of the people of Jericho and many other Canaanite cities chose to remain in their wickedness and oppose the God of Israel.

But even if they didn’t believe the report they heard about the God of Israel, Joshua intentionally had his soldiers march around the city for seven days. Think about it. Jericho probably only contained a few hundred people (a few thousand at best), and Israel numbered around 600,000! The soldiers in Jericho had 7 days to give into what was clearly an inevitable victory for the Israelites. And yet they chose to reject the God of Israel and defend their city. The point being: the 7 day march around the city was yet another offer of grace by the God of Israel, an offer taken up by Rahab yet rejected by the rest of Jericho’s inhabitants. Grace: God’s preemptive strike.

Again, there still remains moral problems with the conquest that we will get to. (What about the slaughter of women and children?) But before we do, we need to have a more thorough perspective on what we are dealing with. In sum, the conquest was the Creator’s punishment for extreme and relentless wickedness among people living in God’s special residence, who rejected clear and undeserved offers of grace. Whatever you think about the conquest as a whole, you have to distinguish between arbitrary killing—genocide—and retributive punishment. Old Testament scholar Christopher Wright articulates it well:

“There is a huge moral difference between arbitrary violence and violence inflicted within the moral framework of punishment” (Wright, Old Testament Ethics, 476).

The conquest, like the flood, was divine capital punishment after hundreds of years of rejected grace.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:4-7)

Sometimes we’re so familiar with the story, that we don’t see its scandal. Mary was found pregnant out of wedlock in a culture where such shameful deeds were intolerable, and her “Holy Ghost” story would only intensify the ridicule. Instead of stoning his fiancée, Joseph decided to divorce her, but God stopped him in his tracks and convinced him that Mary’s ghost story was true. So the two would have to endure the shame once Mary’s belly could no longer be hidden.

Luckily, Rome called for a census, which required the couple to head out of town to their village of origin: Bethlehem. The tiresome journey provided a soothing respite from public shame. But once they entered Bethlehem, judgmental eyebrows were quickly raised, and the scandal continued. Popular renditions of the Christmas story reflect little historical truth. Jesus was probably not born outside of a commercial “inn”—despite our English translations. The word kataluma can refer to an ancient motel, but its usual translation is “spare room,” not “inn.” It’s also unlikely that there were any commercial inns in a small village like Bethlehem, so the translation “spare room” is probably what Luke intended. So, when Mary and Joseph sought shelter in their hometown of Bethlehem, they probably went to the house of a relative and asked to stay in their “spare room.”

“Sorry,” the relative said, no doubt eying Mary’s expanded waistline. “There’s no space in our kataluma. You’ll have to sleep out with the animals.”

“But Sir,” Joseph pleaded, “my wife is about to have a baby, and…”

“Fiancee! Joseph. She’s your fiancée, not your wife,” his relative interjected with obvious disapproval. “You can sleep out with the animals, if you want. But you cannot come under my roof.”

Extending hospitality to the unwed couple would also extend approval to their actions, and the whole village would soon find out. Joseph’s relative could not risk the shame. So Mary and Joseph remained outside in the courtyard where the animals were kept at night. And then came the pain. Contractions began to knife their way through Mary’s abdomen, while nervous excitement shivered up Joseph’s spine. The piercing pain pacified the stench of the excrement wafting through the air. And the shame of scandal, ridicule, and rejection was drowned out by the jubilant hope of a newborn child.

No doctor, no instruments, no sanitation, and certainly no painkillers. Childbirth in the first century was a risky event. But God endured the shame, the scandal, the risk in order to bring us back to Eden. As Mary grunted and pushed, heaven came crashing down to earth, and Joseph was there to receive him. First some hair and then the head. Shoulders and arms, legs and feet. The One who made the stars would pass from the uterus, down through the vaginal canal, and into Joseph’s nervous hands. His umbilical cord was cut, the blood wiped from his eyes, and remaining amniotic fluid extracted from his lungs. Up and down, the breath of life expanded his lungs, and an urgent wail filled the courtyard and spooked the sheep. After nursing the child to sooth his fear, Mary wrapped her son in cloth and with no crib nearby, she laid him in a feeding trough.

A feeding trough. The One who spoke the universe into existence, who reigns over the nations, who commands history, who created you and me in His own image—chose to be laid in a stone box where animals eat grain. In doing so, God’s relationship with humanity was brought to an uncanny level. The One who made the stars would suckle the breast of a 13-year-old unwed Jewish girl in a small village of a backwater province of the Roman empire. No pomp or prestige, parades or accolades, God stormed creation through a whisper—the illegitimate womb of a young Jewish girl. Shame, scandal, rejection, pain, fear, and humility clothed the birth of Christ, and this is exactly the way He planned it.


Because you cannot care for those who are suffering without entering into their pain. God cares for you. And he knows your pain. Turn to Him. He’s been there.