Sunday, April 27, 2014

Extravagant Grace - a review (part 3)

Maybe these are just quibbles, preferences in how I wished she would have worded things so that they would have been more clear or would have agreed with my sensibilities. Maybe the CCEF root-fruit model has been overdone and we need a fresh way of understanding, one that says something like, “If the sovereign God’s primary goal in sanctifying believers is simply to make us more holy, it is hard to explain why most of us make only ‘small beginnings’ on the road to personal holiness in this life” (p 29). (Note, again, the “either-or,” or a “more/less;” God cares passionately about our holiness, just as a doctor cares about getting us symptom-free; it’s just that on the road to genuine holiness, God will take the time to do heart chemotherapy and let our outward “symptoms” perhaps even become worse in order to truly heal our whole selves.)
Quibbles? Wording preferences? I was told to read through to the last chapters in order to get to the heart of the book’s theology. Here I found more Scripture (much of the rest of the book is interpreting John Newton’s writings). However, to my dismay, I found the same pendulum-swings and interpretations of Scripture that didn’t ring true with my understanding of those passages. I checked with a few trusted counselors. And they agreed with me. Here are three passages of Scripture that Duguid uses in the very last, summing-it-all-up chapter, in order to send us off into living life with this new understanding of God’s Extravagant Grace.

Philippians 2:13  "If the Christian life is made up of times when God is at work to will and to do (Phil 2:13), times when he is at work to will but not to do, and times when it seems that he is doing neither, what are we called to today?" ... her point is that "We are to strive for growth with all our strength and to work to put sin to death within us " (p 220). YES! But I struggle with the fact that she said that there are times where God has a will for us but he is not working in us according to that will (maybe all that’s needed here is an explanation of the difference between the prescriptive and the decretive will of God?), and there are other times when it seems like he has neither a "will" or a "work" for/in us? (Operative word, of course, of that last bit is “seems.”) But really, saying that there are “times when it seems that he is doing neither [willing nor working] isn’t at all the point of Philippians 2:13, is it? Verse 13 follows verse 12, which says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The point of this passage is that God is always at work and he always has a will, even if we can't see or understand it, or if it seems contrary to what we think he should be doing (like chemotherapy is killing cancer, even when we can't see it working and we don't understand how it all works).Oh, and by the way, the previous 11 verses (remember that verse 12 has a “therefore”) are about how Christ himself both motivates us and empowers us to this persistent, steady obedience because he himself obeyed unto death and is now victoriously reigning over our lives and everything else.

Romans 12:3 "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned."

Duguid’s explanation of this passage begins by recognizing that “Paul [issues] a strong command to radical obedience… This command makes it clear that we are not at all passive in our sanctification. There are things we need to try hard to do, acts of obedience that we need to pursue ” (223). I agree with this statement wholeheartedly; Romans 12 is the famous turning point in the entire book, the hinge point of the “indicative” and “imperative” shift, and so it is fitting that Paul issues a strong command to radical obedience. What I find puzzling in Duguid’s dealings with Romans 12 is a particular fascination that she seems to have, perhaps gleaned from her time spent in Newton’s works (with which I am admittedly unfamiliar), with the “measure of faith” terminology that Paul uses. She takes the phrase "measure of faith" to mean that God metes out degrees of faith to different people just as he distributes different gifts to each, all for the building up of the entire body. She expanded on this idea earlier in the book (chapter 9), and hints of it are present in chapters 2, 3 and 4, where she reflects on Newton’s descriptions of different stages in the Christian’s maturation process.

While I don’t dispute the fact that God has measured out faith according to his divine plan, it seems like a pretty unhelpful focus with regard to the passage, since she then tells us that we need to live in a community because "deciding how much faith you have isn't something you should do by yourself."  I guess I’m failing to understand why it would be useful or helpful to sit around trying to figure out (even with the help of others) "how much faith you have." As I said, I’m sure these comments hearken back to her earlier chapters in which she describes baby believers, maturing believers and mature believers, but even many of the descriptions under those headings can all apply to all of us at varying times, so the descriptions as “phases” might themselves be a bit unhelpful. But on top of that, I haven’t understood the purpose in spending the time and the effort in determining "how much faith you have," except perhaps to explain why a person is not bearing fruit, or to offer a point of comparison between oneself and other believers. Wouldn't it be more helpful to simply recognize that God has us all at varying points on the journey; he's given us all unique gifts, strengths and weaknesses; and he calls us to walk faithfully before him with what we have been given, without comparing or quantifying? Isn't it for all of us to say, every day, "I believe, Lord, help my unbelief?"

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