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How Christians have misunderstood grace

"New York Times" bestselling author Preston Sprinkle says bad things are not God's judgment on people and grace is "not just a New Testament thing."

Image: Michelangelo's depiction of God's face
Image: Michelangelo's depiction of God's face

Image: Michelangelo’s depiction of God’s face

“Grace” appears exactly 170 times in The King James Version of the Bible. You’ll stumble across the word more often than “forgive,” “believe,” or “hell.” But, according to Preston Sprinkle, Christians have misunderstood grace.

Sprinkle is author of numerous books, including the New York Times bestselling Erasing Hell (co-authored with Francis Chan), and professor at Eternity Bible College. His new book, Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us, explores how we’ve misunderstood this critical Christian concept. Here, we discuss how grace is “not just a New Testament thing” and how his study of grace has led him to a somewhat scandalous understanding of hell.

RNS: Why does the world need another book about grace?

Preston Sprinkle is author of several books, including "The New York Times" bestselling "Erasing Hell" (co-authored with Francis Chan).

Preston Sprinkle is author of several books, including “The New York Times” bestselling “Erasing Hell” (co-authored with Francis Chan).

PS: There many books on grace, but I focus primarily on the Old Testament to show that [tweetable]grace is not just a New Testament thing.[/tweetable]

The Old Testament is all about grace. It forms the rich soil from which Jesus’s gospel of grace blossoms. To understand Jesus, we must soak ourselves in Israel’s story of grace. That’s why I end the book by looking at the birth, life, and death of Jesus. Because Jesus is not just the beginning of the New Testament but also the fitting climax of the Old.

Plus, many Christians still remain stuck in a transactional relationship with Jesus. I’m saying that the message of grace is scandalous. It’s counterintuitive. [tweetable]If we haven’t been offended by grace, we haven’t truly understood it.[/tweetable]

RNS: You say that many of the faith’s Old Testament patriarchs aren’t the saints many have made them out to be. What does that have to do with grace?

PS: I think people generally read the Old Testament morally, combing its pages for moral examples to follow. We need to be like Abraham, live like Jacob, and be a leader like Moses, Joshua, or David. We should fight like Samson, flee like Joseph, and stand up for God like Esther.

But most of the characters of the Old Testament are not good examples to follow. Abraham was a liar, Jacob was a cheater, Moses was a tongue-tied murderer, Esther broke more commandments than she kept and never even mentioned God, and Samson was a self-centered, vengeful porn star enslaved to lust and bloodshed. So if we follow our Old Testament “heroes” as Scripture presents them, we could end up in prison.

The Old Testament is not a moral handbook on how to be a good person. It’s all about grace: God delighting in undelightful people and using them to change the world.

RNS: You note that 68 percent of born-again Christians in America believe that the saying “God helps those who help themselves” is a verse in the Bible. Why does this matter?

PS: Not only is this phrase nowhere in the Bible, but the very idea is offensive to the biblical gospel. The good news isn’t “God helps those who help themselves”; the good news is “You’re wicked, your life’s a mess, and only God can fix it.” God helps those who realize that they can’t help themselves. 

Book cover courtesy of David C. Cook

Book cover courtesy of David C. Cook

RNS: A lot of people I know believe bad things happen to them because god is punishing them. What say you?

PS: I have also spoken to many who assume this. An illness, failure to find a mate, even the death of a child—it must be God’s judgment. But the gospel cannot be understood in terms of such tit-for-tat retribution—do this and get blessed; don’t do this and get cursed.

We’re hardwired to believe that good people get the good stuff and bad people get the bad stuff, as Tullian Tchividjian says. But the gospel demands that bad people get the good stuff, and we’re all bad. Any attempt to sustain God’s love for you through self-effort—making God love you—will end in failure and ultimately offend the One who joyfully declared, “It is finished.”  [tweetable]We must not try to sanitize the scandal of God’s love for His enemies.[/tweetable]

RNS: You’ve made statements indicating that some Christians may misunderstand hell, too. How does your view of grace inform your view of hell and the afterlife?

PS: Some people say the biblical view of radical grace means that there will be no judgment for sin. Or, that everyone will be saved in the end. I’ve got to admit, there seems to be some logical sense here, and part of me would love to see everyone saved in the end. But the more I study the Bible the more confident I am that there will be final judgment for all who don’t receive God’s grace in this life. The Bible affirms both God’s radical, relentless pursuit of humanity, yet also His very real judgment on everyone who rejects this grace.

[tweetable]I have to chalk up hell and the afterlife to a tension or mystery.[/tweetable] God’s heart overflows with grace; God will judge sinners who don’t repent. It’s not a contradiction, just a tension. I’m fine with tensions in Scripture.

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