Last week, the Christian community lost one of its more impactful members when Brennan Manning pasted away. With his passing, blog posts and news articles are looking back at Manning’s contributions and either praising or condemning his message on grace and the Christian life.
I am more saddened than surprised by the reactions towards Manning and his message.
The message of grace is still a difficult message for the church to hear, but I think that is true of most of the messages that can bring about true change in a person’s life. When you hear about sin and repentance, there will undoubtedly be some who rush forward with the need for grace and mercy as they attempt to justify the acceptance of the person despite the sins that are present. When someone wants to talk about the overwhelming grace the God provides despite sin, the other side will leap forward with the need for repentance and condemning the message of being part of a false gospel.
Reading through some of the book reviews for Abba’s Child and The Ragamuffin Gospel, you can get a glimpse of the conflict between the two sides. Unfortunately, this is not limited to the works of Manning as Clark Whitten got a similar treatment with his book Pure Grace as well as Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his book The Cost of Discipleship.
While I understand the motivation of both positions, the conflict goes to show how tightly people take an either or approach to the Christian faith. It is easier to gravitate to the extremes with Christianity. When you are in the extreme position, a person does not have to look at both sides honestly to see what is being said. In the extreme, a person can unknowingly move away from the relationship with God as they embrace the legalism of their position. Yes, there is as much legalism in those who proclaim grace is all that is needed as those who proclaim the message of repentance and forgiveness.
Grace is one of the more difficult concepts to understand as a Christian.
I have struggled with my own understanding of grace. In the beginning, I understood that I was saved not based on what I had done but based solely on the actions of Christ. Once you realize that there is a standard that God has setup and that there is no chance of being worthy of it, one is left with either accepting the gift of salvation that is offered or rejecting it as it often seems too easy for us. I mean there is no other god in any religion that accepts a person just as they are and many people cannot get past that.
The message of grace seems to get cloudy as we move past the idea of God loving us just as we are and try to embrace the message of who we are supposed to be come. When you finally understand that grace was not free to God, as there was a cost, the desire to perform begins to manifest. I think most Christians will agree that there is a standard that God has set. How can we not try to uphold that standard once we are saved? And if we fail to change and just rely on grace to keep us saved, aren’t we making grace into something it isn’t? Is grace really just a blanket that we can through over our behavior and disregard any change or growth?
Yes, God loves me just as I am, but does He really want to leave me this way?
My life is a witness to vulgar grace — a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wage as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — “Please, remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!”…This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough…
Sin and forgiveness and falling and getting back up and losing the pearl of great price in the couch cushions but then finding it again, and again, and again? Those are the stumbling steps to becoming Real, the only script that’s really worth following in this world or the one that’s coming. Some may be offended by this ragamuffin memoir, a tale told by quite possibly the repeat of all repeat prodigals. Some might even go so far as to call it ugly. But you see that doesn’t matter, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand…that yes, all is grace. It is enough. And it’s beautiful.
What we miss in the message of Manning and others who preach grace, is that there is a balance. Through grace, we enter into a relationship with God. That grace is always there and will always allow us to approach our Father and not fear rejection. That is the message of grace that the Church has been missing. Yes, once we are in the relationship with God, we will change. We will not remain the same person as we were as we begin moving into the person God knows us to be, but the message of grace doesn’t change. Yes, we will struggle as we walk out our relationship and yes we will sin, but grace still abounds and allows us to approach our Father despite our failures. That is the message of grace that gets lost.
The Church has seemed to stop sharing that message of grace as it has unknowingly beaten down the children of God as they stumble. We have focused so much on not sinning and holding the standard that we forget what allowed us to approach God in the beginning. We get lost and struggle to be good again so God will accept us, while all the time we could always just approach our Father. We become legalistic in trying to uphold a standard that we move away from the relationship that sustains us. We are beaten and broken down and many slowly fail to believe anymore.
While Manning’s message has its share of controversy, we should praise God for the impact He made in Manning’s life and the lives of His children through Manning.