“We urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” (2 Cor. 6.1)
As I sat in yesterday’s Ash Wednesday service, listening to the great and profound readings associated with that day—Joel’s prophetic thunder; Jesus’ call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; David’s remorseful song—it was this simple message that struck me. Do not receive the grace of the Lord in vain.
How blithe we are about receiving grace. It pours over us in a measureless flow, and we happily lap it up. As we should. God’s grace is rich, abundant, and generous. We occasionally check our divine accounts … yes, it’s all there, a treasury of grace … and we go about our days, our endless days of satisfied, or unsatisfied, pursuits.
When I read the greats from Church history who deal with this flow of grace and our appropriation of it, I am often moved down one of two paths. There are the thunderers like Joel. They warn us of the impending doom that our cavalier attitudes are courting. They use calamitous language that is designed to explode all our complacency. John the Baptist and his vipers. Prisca and her oracles. Catherine and her austerities. Dante and his ice. The Jansenists and their abyss. Jonathan Edwards and his spiders. We naturally quail before such images. They reveal so painfully that we are not becoming the righteousness of God … which is the whole point of grace.Then there are the exhorters like Paul. They implore us to be reconciled to Christ. Brigid and her ale. Bernard and his kisses. Julian and her hazelnut. George Herbert and his banquet. Thérèse and her little flowers. They remind us of the extraordinary actions of a God who is not in the least repelled by our sinfulness or cowed by our brokenness. On the contrary, he wants only one thing: reconciliation. For that, he is willing to give everything: his Son. He practically begs us to come. They see so clearly that we fail to turn to him in reconciliation … which is the whole work of grace.
Jesus does a little of both—some hard words and some tender encouragement.
And yet, it seems that the Church wants neither. Clearly the Church in America today has no stomach for prophetic warnings. They are oh-so-insensitive. And while we say we want encouragement and invitation, we want it on our terms. We want reconciliation, but we do not want to become the righteousness of God. We receive God’s grace in vain.
Here is the work of Lent: Be reconciled to God; become the righteousness of God.