The definitive energy of grace.
Over the years, I have had to do my fair share of “explaining” what I mean when I talk about grace. This is to be expected, of course, when the title for your blog is “Grace Upon Grace,” especially when you’re operating in an evangelical landscape in which the term “grace” is employed in all manner of different theological discussions across a vast spectrum of theological tendencies. It’s sort of like saying you or the church you attend is “gospel-centered.” The repetition of terms often has the effect of perplexing their meaning. Their redolent beauty is scrubbed away by their incessant over-use.
This isn’t to say that a bone fide desire to be “gospel-centered” is somehow disingenuous. I don’t mean to come across that cynical. All I mean to say is that because of the Protestant evangelical environment in which we find ourselves in 2020, it is becoming increasingly unhelpful to write without defining the terms. Grace, I would say, is chief among those misinterpreted terms. Such is why I am thankful whenever I come across passages like the one I want to share with you today.
In a collection of his sermons entitled Apostolic Optimism, John Henry Jowett speaks to this very subject of misconstruing grace by examining what he refers to as “the energy of grace.” He writes:
Grace is too commonly regarded as a pleasing sentiment, a sofa disposition, a welcome feeling of cosy favour entertained toward us by our God. The interpretation is ineffective, and inevitably cripples the life in which it prevails. Grace is more than a smile of good-nature. It is not the shimmering face of an illumined lake; it is the sun-lit majesty of an advancing sea. It is a transcendent and ineffable force, the outgoing energies of the redeeming personality of God washing against the polluted shores of human need.
Grace does not flow from a half-reluctant and partially reconciled God, like the scanty and uncertain movements of a brook in time of drought. It comes in oceanic fulness.
Grace is the nourisher of optimism . . . Grace is the spring of a grateful contentment . . . Grace is the secret energy of a fortified will. And so in countless other places I find the grace of God working away in human life as an energy whose operations are as manifold as the ministries of the light.1
Jowett’s illustration of grace as the “sofa disposition” of the Heavenly Father is well taken. We are inclined to believe such things, oftentimes — as if grace is the mellowing-out of a vengeful God. We read Isaiah 53 and of how the Father found it pleasing to see his Son crushed under the weight of the world’s sin (Is 53:10) and we are disposed to believe something erroneous about God and his grace; that Jesus possesses an unique alien element known as “grace” which serves as the antidote for his Father’s righteous indignation. And when applied, this cosmic grace works as the balm which allows us to relax in the Heavenly Father’s “cosy favour” — as if the Father needed to be persuaded into going along with the scheme of redemption. “The Father did not need more persuading than the Son,” writes Dane Ortlund in a quite affecting chapter in Gentle and Lowly. “On the contrary, his ordaining of the way of redemption reflects the same heart of love that the Son’s accomplishing of redemption does.”2
To be sure, this isn’t meant to deny any of the tenets of penal substitutionary atonement. Rather, these sentiments are meant to situate one’s understanding of just what such theories of the atonement actually mean — namely, that the Trinity isn’t divided in its intent to save mankind from his sins. In fact, as Ortlund maintains, Jesus is the very Incarnation of God’s redemptive heart. (Heb 1:3; 2 Cor 4:4, 6) He writes:
Jesus is the embodiment of who God is. He is the tangible epitomization of God. Jesus Christ is the visible manifestation of the invisible God. In him we see heaven’s eternal heart walking around on two legs in time and space. When we see the heart of Christ, then, throughout the four Gospels, we are seeing the very compassion and tenderness of who God himself most deeply is.3
Grace as merely a divine assuaging opiate bankrupts the system of salvation. As Jowett expresses, such an “interpretation is ineffective, and inevitably cripples” the entire construct of the gospel. Jesus’s death and resurrection aren’t the sedatives by which the Father’s holy rage is quelled. Grace isn’t the mellowing-out of a malevolent Father. Grace is the “advancing sea” of the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:27) It is the fulfillment of all that’s been in the heart of God from before the foundation of the world. (Eph 1:3–10) It is the revelation of his heart from all eternity. It isn’t merely the smile of favor, it is the answer to the world’s desperation. It is the fullness of his glory to be gracious. More of God is revealed in his gracious relationship with sinners than in any other means. Such is why the angels are curious to look into the grace which comes unto us. (1 Pt 1:10–12)
The reason I spend so much time talking about grace is because I know how much I need it, in all its “oceanic fulness.” I’m desperate for every last drop. I don’t need merely the smile of favor. I need the energy which springs from God’s heart.
J. H. Jowett, Apostolic Optimism: And Other Sermons (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901), 113, 115–16.
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 128–29.