The Idea That Changed the World

by Steve Bezner May 4, 2016

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name
—U2, “Grace”

Christians are not unifying people.

Clarification: people who are not Christians do not perceive Christians to be unifying people.

Granted, Christians would like to be seen as such. But, empirically speaking, the behaviors and cultural stances of most committed Christians (particularly those in the evangelical circle) tend to be more divisive than unifying.

Such divisive stances are not always enacted in order to set the culture at large against Christians. But, as with any strongly religious group, their idiosyncrasies place them at odds with society, and, consequently, many positions Christians hold become points of antagonism rather than cohesion. This is not to say that Christians are not sincere in their desire to demonstrate unity. As a professing Christian (within the evangelical circle), I can state with some authority that those who care enough to speak out on cultural issues carry a great deal of conviction in their words. The positions they hold on whatever the issue du jour might be are filled with a desire to stand for the truth, to honor what is right, and to be a person in line with what the Bible declares to be holy.

In the desire to be holy, Christians often comfort themselves with the words of Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Left unchecked, we will tend to believe that it is good for us to create division with our faithfulness. In fact, when we are drifting away from our theological mooring, we can default to a position of cultural antagonism without a redemptive goal. (Orthodox Christians would argue cultural antagonism with a redemptive goal is ultimately a unifying good.)

But have Christians oversold the position of “taking a stand”?

Is there room for a message of unity in the midst of the culture wars?

Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark wrote in The Rise of Christianity about the meteoric shot the earliest churches rode on their path to popularity. Where Christians numbered in the thousands around 35 A.D., they were a majority population in the Roman empire by the time of Constantine—in less than three hundred years. Now that’s rapid growth.

Something, it seems, in the earliest days of the church, was able to overcome the offensive and divisive actions of taking cultural and moral stands. Rather than running from the church, the people of the first three centuries were flocking to the church. Why?

Stark has a number of hypotheses, but they all center on one notion: Christians loved people no one else would love. They cared for those other thought too contagious to nurse. They rescued the children abandoned in attempted infanticide. They gave women a place of respect and importance within the community. They welcomed people of all educational, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

They practiced a concept so radical for its time that I believe it to genuinely be divine. I also believe it to be the single most important theological concept within Christianity.

Many believe Christianity is a religion of love. And, to a certain extent, that is correct. But Christianity, fully understood, is far more than love—at least love as it’s popularly understood. Christianity is different, for it is a religion of unconditional love. This unconditional love is a love that is given, Christians believe, by God through Jesus. The cross of Christ—often understood as a symbol—is actually a vehicle. It is the vehicle by which God gives this unconditional love to humans.

Christians believe that the world and each individual within the world is sinful—that each person bears the spiritual mark of sin. (The world is not left out of this mire of sinfulness, either. Christians believe that the Fall into sin was universal, affecting even nature. Therefore the world itself is also in need of redemption. In the Christian imagination, there will one day be a world without destructive natural disasters or diseased lifeforms, for natural processes will be redeemed and perfected through the cross.) Such rebellion and sinfulness on the part of humanity would merit some sort of disciplinary or retributive response. But this is where the uniqueness of Christianity comes into play. Rather than doling out the justice due to each person—individually—and to the fallen creation—on the whole—God intercedes at the cross. The cross is where God places Himself—in the person of His Son—in the place of a sinful creation, so that He might extend this unconditional love to the world.

The cross is where God became the scapegoat in order to redeem.

The scandalous part of this decision, of course, is that God is the one who is in the place to hand out the punishment in the first place.

God offers to save the very ones who have affronted and offended Him, and He does so at an exceptional price.

God saves humanity from judgment without any demonstration of worth, merit, or ability. He simply does so freely and based in His love for the ones He has created.

And this is what Christians call grace.

And grace, I believe, is the idea that changed the world.

Grace is the killer app of Christianity. It is, at root, the most central doctrine to the faith. Every other religion features a spin on the karmic notion: You eventually get what you deserve.

Christianity’s genius is precisely the opposite: You don’t get what you deserve (thank God).

Western civilization is saturated with grace-based thinking, although we do not often realize it. From the classic to the ridiculous, the American psyche is a collective psychological process of the grace-giving process. In the realm of the classic: Countless writers have employed the Christ-figure motif of an individual giving herself in order to save a group of individuals. In the milieu of the ridiculous: We hate celebrities who publicly offend our sensibilities, yet we quickly extend forgiveness to those who publicly apologize and seek forgiveness. America itself is forged on at least one notion of gracious thinking: No matter who you are, you can succeed in the world. Forget the times of meritocracy or oligarchy. If you are willing to work and intelligent enough to make your way, then you are given the ability to do so. Like grace, the American system (in theory, mind you—reality is altogether different) doesn’t play favorites.

Grace is revolutionary. Grace screams that you are loved. Grace declares that God is NOT angry. Grace states that you are under no obligation to please God with religious activity. Grace says that you are received precisely how you are. You need not change to impress God or others; He receives you.

You are graced.

Such marvelous thinking should be the stuff of utopian Coca-Cola commercials, leading women and men to lock arms in delight. You are loved! You are accepted! You are forgiven! God is not angry with you! You can participate in the love of God on this side of death. Heaven begins by living in the now-but-not-yet-complete Kingdom of God right here.

Grace ought to be so intoxicating, so baffling, so marvelously frustrating, so mind-boggling that it pushes people to reconsider their notion of precisely what they believe about God.

Westerners generally, and Americans specifically, believe they know who the God of the Bible is because they have seen the way particular outspoken sects of evangelical Christians behave. I want to suggest that those believers, if they finally grasped the surprising concept of grace they would instantly be turned on their heads.

Jesus is so beautiful, yet so frustrating in so many ways because he is the literal embodiment of the grace of God. His words cannot make sense apart from grace. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Why are the poor in spirit blessed? They are the only ones who understand their massive need for spiritual blessing. Therefore, Jesus says, they will be the only ones who will seek it. Why are prostitutes and tax collectors entering the Kingdom of Heaven before religious leaders and scribes? Because the prostitutes are poor in spirit. They acknowledge their need to be loved and received by God.

You must remove your ability from the equation. You must allow God to rescue you completely. His grace—entirely.

As the late Robert Farrar Capon put it: “Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale.”

In West Texas the wide-open spaces of the prairie allow thunderstorms to organize in frightful lines, where individual storm cells collect to form super cells. These storms are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, blowing water and spitting lightning across the wide open nights on the range. As the super cells approach, they create gusts of wind that are surprisingly powerful, known to blow over vehicles, remove roofs, and topple less-secure buildings. Occasionally unlocked doors and windows will blow open, startling the unsuspecting inhabitants with a blast of warm, wet air. Those indoors will run to close the shutters or patio entrance, but rarely before papers and tablecloths are removed by the shot of air rushing into the vacuous space. These sorts of storms are fast-moving, and their energy transforms everything they encounter.

The God revealed in Jesus is a super cell of grace, and his energy leaves no encounter static. Grace is most often misunderstood because it is perceived to be passive when it is secretly more powerful than any other religious concept ever imagined. Anyone could imagine karma. Of course we get what we deserve. It’s what we naturally imagine. But grace? Who would ever imagine that?

Grace blows open the doors of our imagination and displaces the mantle-top gods we have imagined. Gone are the Greek and Roman conceptions of violence and capriciousness. The Eastern mysticism recently embraced as en vogue suddenly is revealed to be impersonal and calculated. Any religion refusing to embrace the starburst power of grace is left behind, for it discusses and worships an incomplete concept of God.

The Greeks used a word for power—dunamis. It is the root word for dynamite. John the apostle regularly used the term dunamis to describe who Jesus was. In light of the shocking power of grace, his word choice could not have been more apt. It is why John Newton described grace as “amazing” in his hymn. It is why grace was the centerpiece of the Protestant Reformation. And it is why Christianity, in the midst of the wealthiest and most affluent nation our species has ever seen, remains influential.

Grace cannot be shaken, for it hearkens to a God we desperately desire to be real—the God revealed in Jesus.

If we give this grace a chance, it may even unite us.
Grace, it’s the name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
—U2, “Grace”

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