Jonathan Dodson understood the gospel, so why did he still feel so much shame about his past? He explains how Christ taught him that grace works backwards.
God’s grace sees you as fallen, broken, messy, and in need of a love that accepts you where you are.
We talk about grace a lot. We preach grace from the pulpit, say grace from the table, and strive to stay in each other’s good graces. “Grace” is one of the richest words in our Christian vernacular, and yet, that’s often all it remains—a word. But is grace more than something we confess in a statement of faith? Is it more than just a word on our worship screens or in our vernacular?
Thomas Brooks was a man who not only talked about grace; he lived it. He felt the power of God’s grace and saw the effects of it in his life. His book, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, identifies the various schemes of Satan and the ways Christians fight against them. But just as much, Brooks hopes the reader catches a glimpse of the true grace of God—a grace that does something.
For Brooks, grace was more than a theory. It was real. It was visible and visceral. He notes that one of Satan’s primary devices for keeping Christians in a state of despair and doubt about their faith is “suggesting to them that their graces are not true, but counterfeit.”
Certainly, for us to feel that we have been “duped” by grace that’s not really there would be devastating to our faith. But God desires that we live in assurance, knowing that if we belong to Christ, nothing can separate us from Him (Rom. 8:38-39).
TEN WAYS TO IDENTIFY “TRUE GRACE”
To really live in grace, we must learn to distinguish what Brooks calls “true grace” from a false imitation. So how do we tell the difference between the two? Luckily, Brooks provides ten particulars that help us better define what true grace is. Here are Brooks’ ten statements with some personal commentary:
“True grace makes all glorious within and without.” Grace is a transformative reality. It does not leave us unaffected or stagnant, but like the breath God breathed into Adam, it rouses and awakens us to a new life. True grace, Brooks argues, is not like a lion becoming caged, where his environment or circumstances change but his nature does not. It is rather like the lion becoming a lamb. Our nature is made new by grace. The old is gone, and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17).
“The objects of true grace are supernatural.” When we have been captured by true grace, our motivations and affections move to supernatural objects. Having a changed nature, we also have a changed allegiance, a changed mission, and a changed perspective on what the world can offer us. We now, by God’s transforming grace, seek a kingdom that is not of this world (John 18:36), treasures hidden in jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:17), and crowns of glory not made by human hands (1 Pet. 5:4).
“True grace enables a Christian, when he is himself, to do spiritual actions with real pleasure and delight.” Grace transforms internally, but it does not stop there. Grace changes us at the level of our actions. We do not act a new way merely because it’s our duty, but rather, because we delight to act in response to the grace we’ve been shown. Our service is not a burden but a joy to be spent for the souls of others (2 Cor. 12:15).
“True grace makes a man most careful, and most fearful of his own heart.” Grace has a way of turning our focus off of the shortcomings and defects of others. It levels the playing field. None can claim superiority to another in light of grace (Eph. 2:8-9). Grace does not jump to conclusions or make snap judgments.
“Grace will work a man’s heart to love and cleave to the strictest and holiest ways and things of God, for their purity and sanctity, in the face of all dangers and hardships.” There is a cost associated with following Jesus. We face internal pressure from our sin nature to put back on the old self and external pressure to cave to the world and all its opposition. But grace beckons us to behave in the world “with simplicity and godly sincerity” (2 Cor. 1:12).
“True grace will enable a man to step over the world’s crown, to take up Christ’s cross; to prefer the cross of Christ above the glory of this world.” Apart from grace, life is a quest to prove our worth and chase achievement. But because of grace, we have the freedom to boast in Christ alone. He makes us worthy. Our achievement is this: God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do (Rom. 8:3). We don’t need the world’s fool’s gold; we have an imperishable inheritance.
“Grace puts the soul upon spiritual duties, from spiritual and intrinsic motives…that doth constrain the soul to wait on God.” When our enemies Immediacy and Efficiency tempt us to despair, we have grace in our corner to remind us that Jesus declared from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). What’s more, the work he gives us to do, he is bringing to completion in his time (Phil. 1:6). This does not depend at all on our impressiveness. Grace frees us to wait on him.
“Grace will cause a man to follow the Lord fully in the desertion of all sin, and in the observation of all God’s precepts.” We kill sin and follow the law because we have been given the privilege to do so. The wages of sin is death, and we came into the world totally bankrupt (Rom. 6:23). But now, because of grace, not only have our debts been paid—but we also have the opportunity to live righteously, with our whole hearts.
“True grace leads the soul to rest in Christ, as his chiefest good.” Grace enables us to draw near to our Lord’s throne with confidence and comfort (Heb. 4:16). Without grace, we would have every reason to be on edge, anxious, and fearful. But His love has cast out fear (1 John 4:18). His grace is a deep breath to the weary Christian.
“True grace will enable a soul to sit down satisfied and contented with the naked enjoyments of Christ.” Grace does not leave us lacking. We are like the sheep laid beside still waters by our Shepherd; we shall not want (Ps. 23:1). He is our Daily Bread and Living Water. Grace is unmerited favor, and it not only feeds the soul but fills it. It does not need to be dressed up. Grace alone is enough.
Believer, do you find it hard to have confidence and assurance that you stand approved before God? Are you wondering what God thinks of you and whether or not you’re doing this Christian life the right way? How the grace of God has affected a person can tell you a lot about their spirituality.
If you’re finding yourself struggling to be sure of God’s grace in your life, run a diagnostics test. Ask yourself these questions:
- Has grace transformed your nature?
- Has grace changed your perspective?
- Has grace changed your actions?
- Has grace made you look inward?
- Has grace created a desire for holiness in your heart?
- Has grace freed you from having to prove your worth?
- Has grace caused you to wait on God in your life?
- Has grace made obedience to God a delight?
- Has grace allowed you to rest in Christ’s finished work?
- Has grace grown your contentment in Christ?
Your answers will help you determine what grace is really up to in your life.
GRACE IS NOT GRAY
A final note on grace that we cannot leave unnoticed as it relates to our assurance: When Jesus died for sinners, he did not do so in part. The grace found in salvation does not vary from person to person. Calvary eliminated the gray area. There is no one who has lived a good enough life or been a good enough person to make them “sort-of” righteous. And there is no one who has been justified and forgiven who will only have access to some of God’s grace. There is no scale from zero to ten that determines how much grace we’ve been shown; it is either a zero or a ten.
It’s fitting to close with one more word from Brooks:
“We have all things in Christ, and Christ is all things to a Christian. If we be sick, he is a physician; if we thirst, he is a fountain; if our sins trouble us, he is righteousness; if we stand in need of help, he is mighty to save; if we fear death, he is life; if we be in darkness, he is light; if we be weak; he is strength; if we be in poverty, he is plenty; if we desire heaven, he is the way.”
Zach Barnhart currently serves as Student Pastor of Northlake Church in Lago Vista, TX. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently studying at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, seeking a Master of Theological Studies degree. He is married to his wife, Hannah. You can follow Zach on Twitter @zachbarnhart or check out his personal blog, Cultivated.
When my wife Emily and I moved to Mexico, I self-identified as a reluctant missionary; God called us to the mission field, but I didn’t go singing like one of the astronauts in the movie Armageddon. Since then I’ve sweat more than I thought possible. And much of what I was reluctant about, I’ve navigated with forward momentum. Sure, I’ve bumped my head a few times, even caught it on fire, stalled a van full of mission trip guests roughly eight times in one outing and now have the language capacity of a 3-year-old with a speech impediment, but things are good.
The Lord has helped us make sense of a lot in eight months. We’ve learned a lot about each other, our marriage, his mission, and Mexican traffic patterns. Over and against all these, though, he’s taught me the most about my reluctance as a missionary.
I only want Grace to write a dramatic, perfect sentence in my story. I don’t want to relinquish the whole narrative.
At its core, my reluctance wasn’t about language barriers, selling my truck, or an inordinate amount of sweating. It wasn’t about disputed dreams. Sure, those things were there. But at its core, my reluctance fundamentally was about Grace.
Grace is scary.
In The Reason for God, Tim Keller writes about a woman who gets her heart around grace. She realized if she could earn Grace, she can demand of it. If she can crowbar Gods love, then God is in the hot-seat. She’s paid her tax and got skin in the game, so God needs to ante up. But, if God loves us, saves us, by grace—due to nothing on our end—then there’s nothing he can not ask from us.
If you’re like me, that’s comforting at first, but immediately terrifying.
I want Grace, but, if I’m honest, I only want a kind of Grace that steps in to rescue, but then leaves me alone. I only want Grace to write a dramatic, perfect sentence in my story. I don’t want to relinquish the whole narrative.
But Grace doesn’t co-author.
That was my predicament: I wanted a sentence about grace, but God pens entire stories with it. And when your story is penned by Grace, it means your story is not about you. Grace is so scandalous that it enters your story without permission. And, Grace is so scandalous it will send you into others’ stories without permission.
I’ve learned grace not only saves; grace sends. And grace sends wherever grace saves, which, again, makes us uncomfortable.
Grace goes “far as the curse is found.” Grace goes and sends us into every nook-and-cranny of the world that’s been warped, desecrated, and bothered by sin, selfishness, and stupidity.
The Ordinariness of Grace
Grace isn’t shaped or stopped by geography, class, race, intellectual status, plausibility structures, income level, or click-bait. Grace isn’t skeptical, which means it walks up to whoever it walks up to and says, “Follow me.”
And grace doesn’t only send cross-culturally. For most, grace won’t send you farther away than family, friends, neighbors, school, though, it very well might. But it will send you deeper into those people and places. Grace is extravagant, but grace dwells in the everyday.
Grace sends us into the extravagance of the everyday, which is the hardest place. Because it’s in the everyday that we’ve grown accustomed to “this is just the way things are.” But grace isn’t content with “the way things are.” Grace won’t be content until things are “the way they ought to be.” Grace hears through the white-noise of life. Grace hears and sees the vulnerable, the overlooked, the unjust, the crooked, the condemned, and the mistreated who’ve faded into the everydayness of our lives. And grace sends us there.
Things might be a tad more dramatic, at times, for the cross-cultural missionary, but no matter where it’s the same rhythms of relationship, trust, conversations, patience, prayer, and more patience that are part of the “sent” life anywhere.
Because we’re saved by grace, there’s nothing it cannot ask of us.
Grace scares us from the comfortable, predictable stories we want.
Even death looked at Grace and said, “You’re too much for me.”
The Stubbornness of Grace
Grace is stubborn, like a hurricane. You can board up the windows of your heart and stack sandbags around your story, but it’s a losing battle. Grace will out stubborn you, every time.
When Grace comes and we hear the shutters of our stories crack against the walls of our hearts, our knee-jerk reaction is to hide. We scramble to grab whatever vestiges of our personal narratives we can salvage and batten down the hatches. But what sounds devastating and scary and brutal isn’t the sound of destruction. It’s the sound of a new story.
Grace isn’t a bully. It’s as stubborn as a hurricane, but it’s as careful, intimate, and personal as a good storyteller.
At first, it seems like an arrogant actor, shoving your carefully crafted script back in your face. But Grace isn’t an actor in your little narrative; it’s the director. And your script isn’t being shoved back at you.
Rather, you’re being offered a part and invitation into a story not less than yours, but so much bigger.
It’s a story you may know nothing about, but you’ve always wanted. It’s a story more ancient than the cosmo and more new than morning dew.
It’s a story that knows the depths of human suffering and the astronomical heights of joy. It’s a story as everyday as grocery shopping and as outrageous as climbing Everest.
It’s a story that knows the pangs of division, racism, and human brutality, but glories in reconciliation and resurrection. It knows the powerful may appear to have all the cards, but the meek shall inherit the earth. It’s a scary, foolish, subversive story, and is full of surprises.
I’ve seen Grace take a young boy isolated in hardened, confused fear and change him into a team player on the soccer field. I’ve seen grace use bunk-beds to remind a mom her kids have a Father who cares for and sees them.
I’ve seen Grace take a sewing class and make it ground zero of empowerment and dreaming in an impoverished community. I’ve seen Grace take a five-year old’s ashamed, rotten smile and give him the biggest set of chompers you’ll ever see.
I’ve seen Grace give a young girl new life in Christ the same week she welcomed a new baby brother. I’ve seen a young boy with special needs have the best day of his life carting around a stalk of plantains.
I’ve seen Grace transform a young girl from someone who thought she’d never get through high school to someone who was signing up for her first university class.
The Surprise of Grace
But Grace was here long before we were and Grace will be here long after we’re gone. Truth is that Grace surprises people everywhere everyday. And these surprising narrative twists happen in-between the hard and dark plot points.
But that is the point. Grace isn’t writing a clean, tidy, white-washed, quarantined story that’ll drop out of the sky one day. It’s an inside job.
The story of Grace is mysterious and transcendent, but it knows the dust of the earth. Grace knows of a world where life, justice, and beauty flourish all the live long day and Grace put on flesh to bring it here.
Grace came from the extravagance of Heaven into the everydayness of Earth. And Grace knows the depth of a tomb so we can know the heights of the Kingdom. I’ve learned that Grace scares us from the stories we want, and surprises us with stories we could never ask for, nor imagine.
So, wherever Grace sends you today—a college classroom, an office, a newborn’s crib, a bus stop, a funeral, a doctor’s office, a community center, a hard conversation, an urban elementary school, a church building, a grocery store, a nursing home know this: Grace will not send you where it will not surprise you.
And that’s good news.
Ben and Emily Riggs serve in Cancun, Mexico, on staff with Back2Back Ministries, where they seek to protect and restore vulnerable children and strengthen at-risk families. Prior to that he served as Director of Storytelling for Apex Community Church. Ben blogs at Logline and writes for Back2Back.
Common Grace and Scoliosis
My mouth dropped and my eyes filled with tears as the surgeon lifted my daughter’s spine x-ray up to the light box. As a former chiropractic assistant, I had seen my share of spine films twisting and coiling from scoliosis; I had no idea one day the film I saw would be my own eleven year old daughter’s. Four months earlier, a checkup as part of a school transfer had revealed that Sarah’s thoracic spine was beginning to curve into her right shoulder blade. Now, the x-ray showed that instead of stabilizing, the curve had nearly doubled in size. At her age, with the trajectory of progress her condition seemed to be on, it was no longer a question of if my daughter needed surgery, but what kind she should have, and how quickly she should have it.
Scoliosis is rarely fatal in and of itself, but left uncontrolled, an excessively curving spine can make everyday activities painful, give women difficulty during pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause, and restrict heart and lung function—not to mention the psychological trauma of disfigurement so distinctive that in earlier centuries it was associated with demon possession (and still is today in some countries). The surgical “gold standard” for progressing scoliosis in adolescents is spinal fusion, a complex surgery which sandwiches the spine between rods, and screws threaded through them, into the vertebrae. Fusion is usually corrective, but it renders parts of the spine permanently immobile, inhibits growth, and can stress the non-fused portion of the spine, causing pain, arthritis and the need for more surgeries later in life. Sarah would need to spend the formative years of junior high and high school in a shoulder to hip brace, which would hopefully squeeze her spine into submission until she was nearly done growing. Then she would have the fusion surgery and spend months recovering. It was a daunting, discouraging prospect. There had to be a different approach.
Through the common grace of the Internet, we discovered a brand new type of spine surgery that leverages rapid adolescent growth to correct scoliosis curves. Similar in approach to orthodontic braces with teeth, vertebral body tethering involves inserting screws on the outside of a spinal curve, and a heavy polyethylene cable threaded through the heads of the screws, which are then tightened to straighten the spine part way. As an adolescent child continues to grow, the tension on the cord causes the spine to continue to straighten, often completely. With no fusion to restrict movement or inhibit growth unnecessarily, kids who receive this type of surgery are able to enjoy sports and all kinds of physical activity with no restrictions, With freedom of motion and growth maintained, and little to no risk of complications associated with fusion, kids are able to grow, play any sport, and generally return to just being growing kids.
One month of insurance drama, round the clock emailing and phone calling, and an eventual plane flight across the country later, I again looked at an x-ray of my daughter’s spine with eyes filled with tears, this time from inexpressible thankfulness as she slept nearby in a hospital bed. In less than five hours, the chief of surgery at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia had done the tethering procedure, and taken a post-operative film to make sure everything was just right, and it was, beautifully so. Sarah’s curve was less than half of what it had been mere hours before.
Today, six months after her surgery, Sarah has dived, literally, back into all the water sports she loves, with several small scars her only visible reminder of the procedure, as the invisible tether helps her grow stronger and straighter every day. The experience itself was sanctifying for our entire family. But through it, I have given a profound, and profoundly helpful, picture of how the “tether” of the gospel, rather than the crushing of the law, empowers our life as believers in Jesus.
homo incurvatus in se
Martin Luther summarized our battle with sin with the Latin phrase homo incurvatus in se—humanity curved in toward self. My natural “bent” is away from God. Left to myself, I see only myself—my needs, my desires, my idols—and I am powerless to change. I need spiritual surgery.
The gospel, Paul reminds us in Romans 1, is that power. United with Christ through repentance and faith and made alive through the Holy Spirit, it is the power of the gospel that “tethers” our hearts and minds, reducing the curving inwardness of our sin and lifting our hearts towards our heavenly Father. In our times of struggle with temptation and discouragement, it is the tether of the gospel that keeps us from coiling back in on ourselves.
When my children seem determined to make Titus 3:3 their collective life verse, it is the tether of the gospel that helps me respond to them with the same goodness and kindness God showed in saving me (Ti 3:4).
When the administrivia of junior high homework and house projects “get in the way” of my plans for writing and study, the tether of the gospel reminds me of the One who emptied Himself of his glory to become a servant for me (Phil 2:7).
When my husband does not utter the precise arrangements of words and phrases that would make me feel loved at the precise moment I want him to, the tether of the gospel reminds me that God exults over me with singing (Zeph. 3:17).
And when the weight of my sin and weaknesses and failures begin to curve my heart inward toward my wretched self, it is the tether of the gospel that reminds me that before the very foundation of the world, God had chosen me in Christ before the very foundation of the world and that redemption and forgiveness are mine in him, forever (Eph 1).
The law can only crush me into rigid, outer conformity. But the tether of the gospel empowers me to move freely, as a beloved child of God and a growing disciples of Jesus Christ by curving my affections towards the Triune God.
Rachael Starke (@RachaelStarke) lives with her husband and three daughters in San Jose, California. A graduate of The Master's College, she is now pursuing a master's degree in Nutritional Science, and writes about the intersection of spiritual and physical nutrition at What Food Is For. She also writes for and co-edits Gospel-Centered Woman, a newly repository of resources for for pastoral staff and lay leaders to support women’s discipleship through the local church. She and her family are members of West Hills Community Church in Morgan Hill.