Amazing Grace

John Owen, the seventeenth-century English Puritan, wrote of an imagined reaction in heaven by the Son of God in response to the fall of Adam and Eve, and what he purposed to do in response:

Poor creature!  how woful is thy condition!  how deformed is
thy appearance!  What is become of the beauty, of the glory
of that image of God wherein thou wast created?  how hast
thou taken on thee the monstrous shape and image of Satan?
And yet thy present misery, thy entrance into dust and darkness,
is no way to be compared with what is to ensue.  Eternal distress
lies at the door.  But yet look up once more, and behold me, that
thou mayest have some glimpse of what is in the designs of
infinite wisdom, love, and grace.  Come forth from thy vain
shelter, thy hiding place.  I will put myself into thy condition.
I will undergo and bear that burden of guilt and punishment
which should sink thee eternally into the bottom of hell.  I will
pay that which I never took; and be made temporally a curse
for thee, that thou mayest attain unto eternal blessedness.[1]

Owen has clearly captured what we do well to remember and meditate regularly upon: the absolute horror of the spiritual condition and destiny into which everyone has fallen because of sin; and the utter glory and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to do the unthinkable—to put himself in our place by suffering God's curse for us—in order that we might share in those eternal blessings in which we have no right to participate.

And yet, how often do we really meditate upon the absolute wonder of divine grace?  J. I. Packer observed many years ago that for too many Christians grace is no longer amazing, but has instead become boring because we too often fail to fully appreciate the glory of what God has done for us in Christ.  Why is this?  What has happened to cause this tragic shift in attitude toward this particular doctrine?  There are a number of reasons, but let me offer up just three.

The first reason is that theology no longer excites us anymore.  Like so much of Western culture, too many Christians have come to evaluate things through the myopic lens of the pragmatic.  The church is then seen as being enamored with any program that will all but guarantee the solution to whatever practical problem is being faced.  We become focused on the end result, driven by what is most likely to achieve the ends for which we are looking.  And what gets left behind is the serious and careful study and reflection on the Christian faith that has nourished and sustained God’s people for centuries.  This is not to suggest that books on Christian living should be avoided; but it is to suggest that when we try to address these issues with little or no regard to who God is and how he has revealed himself to us in Christ, solutions to these practical concerns are necessarily going to be flawed and incomplete.

The second reason is the loss of the biblical doctrine of sin.  How else can one describe the state of the church when it increasingly comes to allow and even adopt secular culture’s views on basic issues of morality and ethics?  Where there is a lack of serious interest in the knowledge of God and in his gracious dealings with humankind, a misunderstanding and redefining of sin cannot be far behind.  And those churches and their traditions—whether liberal or evangelical—who have castrated themselves theologically have removed their ability to provide a robust faith to the next generation. 

The third reason is related to the second.  With the abandonment of the Bible’s view of sin has come a loss of our true condition before God.  We have lost what Luther called the Anfechtungen, the crippling fears of utter helplessness and condemnation before a holy God who must act in judgment against all that is contrary to his righteous nature.  We no longer see ourselves as those who, to borrow from Jonathan Edwards, are hanging over the gaping pit of hell by the thinnest of strands, with only the sheer mercy of God that keeps us from falling to our eternal and deserved doom.  John Newton knew this, and what was true for him is true for us:

Amazing grace!—how sweet the sound—that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!


[1] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 1.341-342.  Quoted in John Owen: The Man and His Theology, ed. Robert W. Oliver (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, and Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2002), 96.

 

Michael Roberts

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