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THE RAGAMUFFIN GOSPEL
By BRENNAN MANNING
MULTNOMAH PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2005 Brennan Manning
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSuper Christian
On a blustery October night in a church outside Minneapolis, several hundred believers had gathered for a three-day seminar. I began with a one-hour presentation on the gospel of grace and the reality of salvation. Using Scripture, story, symbolism, and personal experience, I focused on the total sufficiency of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on Calvary. The service ended with a song and a prayer.
Leaving the church by a side door, the pastor turned to his associate and fumed, "Humph, that airhead didn't say one thing about what we have to do to earn our salvation!"
Something is radically wrong.
The bending of the mind by the powers of this world has twisted the gospel of grace into religious bondage and distorted the image of God into an eternal, small-minded bookkeeper. The Christian community resembles a Wall Street exchange of works wherein the elite are honored and the ordinary ignored. Love is stifled, freedom shackled, and self-righteousness fastened. The institutional church has become a wounder of the healers rather than a healer of the wounded.
Put bluntly, the American church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice. We say we believe that the fundamental structure of reality isgrace, not works-but our lives refute our faith. By and large, the gospel of grace is neither proclaimed, understood, nor lived. Too many Christians are living in the house of fear and not in the house of love.
Though the Scriptures insist on God's initiative in the work of salvation-that by grace we are saved, that the Tremendous Lover has taken to the chase-our spirituality often starts with self, not God. Personal responsibility has replaced personal response. We talk about acquiring virtue as if it were a skill that can be attained, like good handwriting or a well-grooved golf swing. In the penitential seasons we focus on overcoming our weaknesses, getting rid of our hang-ups, and reaching Christian maturity. We sweat through various spiritual exercises as if they were designed to produce a Christian Charles Atlas. Though lip service is paid to the gospel of grace, many Christians live as if only personal discipline and self-denial will mold the perfect me. The emphasis is on what I do rather than on what God is doing. In this curious process God is a benign old spectator in the bleachers who cheers when I show up for morning quiet time.
WE BELIEVE THAT WE CAN PULL OURSELVES UP BY OUR BOOTSTRAPS-INDEED, WE CAN DO IT OURSELVES. SOONER OR LATER WE ARE CONFRONTED WITH THE PAINFUL TRUTH OF OUR INADEQUACY AND INSUFFICIENCY. OUR SECURITY IS SHATTERED AND OUR BOOTSTRAPS ARE CUT. ONCE THE FERVOR HAS PASSED, WEAKNESS AND INFIDELITY APPEAR. WE DISCOVER OUR INABILITY TO ADD EVEN A SINGLE INCH TO OUR SPIRITUAL STATURE. THERE BEGINS A LONG WINTER OF DISCONTENT THAT EVENTUALLY FLOWERS INTO GLOOM, PESSIMISM, AND A SUBTLE DESPAIR-SUBTLE BECAUSE IT GOES UNRECOGNIZED, UNNOTICED, AND THEREFORE UNCHALLENGED. IT TAKES THE FORM OF BOREDOM, DRUDGERY. WE ARE OVERCOME BY THE ORDINARINESS OF LIFE, BY DAILY DUTIES DONE OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
SOMETHING IS RADICALLY WRONG
Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace. Our approach to the Christian life is as absurd as the enthusiastic young man who had just received his plumber's license and was taken to see Niagara Falls. He studied it for a minute and then said,
why am I afraid to dance?
why am I afraid to love?
why am I afraid to live?
We secretly admit that the call of Jesus is too demanding, that surrender to the Spirit is beyond our reach. We start acting like everyone else. Life takes on a joyless, empty quality. We begin to resemble the leading character in Eugene O'Neill's play The Great God Brown: "Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of the earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid to love, I who love love?"
I BELIEVE the Reformation actually began the day Martin Luther was praying over the meaning of Paul's assertion that the gospel reveals the righteousness of God to us-it shows how faith leads to faith. In other words, the RIGHTEOUS SHALL FIND LIFE THROUGH FAITH (see Romans 1:17). Like many Christians today, Luther wrestled through the night with this core question: How could the gospel of Christ be truly called "GOOD NEWS" if God is a righteous judge who rewards the good and punishes the evil? Did Jesus really have to come to reveal that terrifying message? How could the revelation of God in Christ Jesus be accurately called "news" since the Old Testament carried the same theme, or for that matter, "good" with the threat of punishment hanging like a dark cloud over the valley of history? But as Jaroslav Pelikan notes: Luther suddenly broke through to the insight that the "righteousness of God" that Paul spoke of in this passage was not the righteousness by which God was righteous in himself (that would be passive righteousness) but the righteousness by which, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God made sinners righteous (that is, active righteousness) through the FORGIVENESS of sins in justification. When he discovered that, Luther said it was as though the very gates of Paradise had been opened to him.
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