A colleague sitting next to me offered me a stick of chewing gum during a Wheaton College chapel service. Maybe she was just being kind, or maybe she was trying to tell me my breath needed some help on that particular day. Either way, the gum looked good. Still, I turned down the offer. As my colleague put the gum back in her purse, I began wondering why I had just refused something I wanted. This is both a benefit and a liability of being an introvert—I analyze the inner contours of every decision until I understand it. I think I turned down the gum for the same reason it is difficult to borrow an extension ladder from my neighbor: because I had done nothing to earn it. Somehow, it seemed easier to turn down a piece of chewing gum than to say, “Thanks, let me give you a dime for it.”
The same dynamic occurs in coffee shops. Several years ago, my wife, Lisa, and I got in the habit of reading in coffee shops. It’s a nice way to hang out together, catch up on reading, and get away from telephones and e-mail. At first, I resisted because I don’t like coffee, but then I rediscovered my childhood love of hot chocolate. But apparently, drinking hot chocolate causes me to revert to other childhood patterns too, so I regularly spill my hot chocolate in coffee shops. Once I splashed it all over the floor of the Caribou Coffee Shop, where my daughter was working. After that, she wisely suggested I try Starbucks. So, I went to Starbucks and promptly spilled hot chocolate all over their floor too. Then there was a local coffee shop in Kauai, where I christened the window, table, floor, and everyone sitting around me. Every time I spill my hot chocolate, friendly employees help me clean up the mess, and then they do the oddest thing: they offer me another drink free of charge. Every time, I turn it down. Lisa thinks it’s a shame response; I think it’s my “earning mentality.” I have done nothing to deserve a free drink; in fact, I have done just the opposite by causing chaos in their coffee shop. Why would they respond by offering me something for nothing?
I want to earn my way in life, to be responsible and hardworking. It’s what I do best. But it hinders me from knowing God, who offers love I can never earn. Many say that sin itself hinders us from union with God, and they are undoubtedly correct, but it is not just overt sin that separates us from God. Our inability to accept grace is also part of the problem. We so easily end up on a performance treadmill that exhausts us and leads us nowhere.
I began studying and writing about the Christian doctrines of sin and grace after a 2002 Nouwenesque trip to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, to see Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” The painting is stunning, just as Nouwen describes. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York: Image Books, 1992). The prodigal kneels in a state of emotional, financial, and relational destitution. He has wasted his money, lost his innocence, and spent his freedom on foolishness; he falls helpless before his father. His shoes are torn, his garment soiled, and his confidence gone. He has no earning potential left; all that remains is the hope of a father who may take him in as a servant. In the midst of a young man’s squalor, we are poised to see the magnificence of his father’s love.
01. Earning Potential
Christian history offers us two approaches to God’s love. The first—illustrated by the prodigal’s older brother (Luke 15:25–32) and my approach to free gum and hot chocolate—assumes that God’s love is something we earn through human effort. This puts us on a religious treadmill, always trying to be good enough to earn divine approval. It is exhausting work, and it never really accomplishes what we hope for. The second approach assumes that God’s love comes first, that it cannot be earned, and that our job is simply to surrender to God’s love. In the first approach, effort comes first, before God’s love. In the second view, it is the other way around—God’s love comes first, freely offered to lost sinners, and human effort is offered as a response of gratitude. David G. Benner, Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
This may seem a trivial distinction of the chicken-and-egg ilk, but it is of central importance in Christian doctrine. What exactly is our earning potential? Do we have the capacity to earn God’s favor through good living, or are we helplessly lost in our sinful condition? The answer is that we, like the prodigal, are helplessly lost, and this is very good news. It may not seem like good news at first glance, especially for those of us who like to earn our way, but our hesitancy is only because we misunderstand the Christian doctrine of sin and grace.
I often view sin improperly by filtering it through my earning mentality. So I reduce sin to a list of bad things to avoid. If I make it through the day without cursing, cheating, or glaring at an attractive woman too long, then I feel relatively successful and assume God must be relatively pleased with me because, after all, I’m acting like a fairly righteous fellow. But historical Christianity teaches a much larger view of sin: it is not only our acts, but the very state in which we live. The world is fallen, and each of us, too, so that every part of human nature is tainted with sin. It is not merely that we do sinful things; we are sinful. It’s no sin for me to spill my hot chocolate in coffee shops—it’s merely human finitude and clumsiness, but every time it happens, my first impulse is to be angry and look for someone else to blame. I usually keep this to myself rather than blurting out silly accusations, but my impulse to blame reveals that my inner life is bent, stooping under the weight of living in a sinful state. My character is marred even when I am able to restrain myself from acting sinfully. In the early fifth century, Augustine emphasized our human state of sin, using the phrase non posse non peccare, which means that it is not possible for us not to sin. We are wayward prodigals without earning potential, but in grace God extends kindness, nonetheless. Grace resides in God’s character and has nothing to do with our capacity to deserve it.
We tend to misunderstand grace as much as we misunderstand sin, confusing grace with kindness or mercy. One of my former colleagues at Wheaton College, Dr. Walter Elwell, used to make a distinction between kindness, mercy, and grace. Of course, kindness is being nice to someone. Mercy is a subset of kindness: kindness to those who do not deserve it. And grace is a subset of mercy: merciful kindness to those who cannot deserve it.
I may compliment Lisa for the cheerful, loving way she wakes each morning, and she may tell me how she appreciates the way I interact with our children. Perhaps she gives me a back rub before we fall off to sleep in the evening, and I give her a back rub in the morning. We are being kind to one another.
But what if I spill my hot chocolate all over the coffee shop where she is trying to read, staining her skirt in the process, and in response, she smiles at me and tells me not to fret? This is more than kindness, more than I deserve. This is mercy—kindness expressed to one who does not deserve it.
Now fast-forward a couple of decades into the future and imagine I have advanced Alzheimer’s disease and struggle with the most basic functions. My personality has changed so that I am suspicious, accusing, and angry. Without constant attention, I would be dangerous to myself or others, and I would surely end up lost and alone. Lisa continues to show kindness, though she receives little appreciation. Not only do I not deserve her kindness, but I can never again function in a way that makes me worthy of a kind social exchange. Now she is extending grace, merciful kindness to one who cannot deserve it.
God offers grace. We can never deserve God’s favor; it is simply beyond our earning potential. When I try to impress God, I end up distorting the doctrines of sin and grace. First, I distort the doctrine of sin by reducing it to a checklist of behaviors to avoid, and then feel good about having a virtuous day or two. Next, I distort the doctrine of grace by reducing God to a nice person who extends love because I’m a pretty easy guy to love.
02. “Yearned” Helplessness
My experience at the State Hermitage Museum, staring at Rembrandt’s masterpiece, was powerful because I caught a glimpse of a better way. Maybe the older brother’s earning mentality didn’t work so well. Maybe one of these days I should accept a free stick of gum or even a free cup of hot chocolate. Or the eternal love of God. As I studied the painting, I realized how helpless I am to earn what I need the most, but it wasn’t a tragic sort of helplessness like the learned helplessness psychologists write about. It was a hopeful moment, realizing that God’s grace has nothing to do with my performance. I stood in an art museum, surrounded by tour groups chattering various languages, experiencing a deep quiet in my soul as I saw how my deepest yearnings are met in the embrace of God. When I fall helpless as the prodigal son before his gracious father, then I am postured to see the incredible depth of God’s love.
Sometimes I have an urge to be countercultural—maybe to grow my hair out and be one of those gray-haired professors with a ponytail, or to ride an environmentally friendly scooter to work, as my wife does. Or maybe I could buy the expensive designer blue jeans that come with pre-established holes in the knees and approach life with a casual rock-star persona. But none of these is nearly so countercultural as the Christian message. In a world where hard work and responsibility are affirmed and rewarded, where empire-building is admired, where love is as easily lost as it is found, where we are reminded again and again that there are no free lunches, the gospel of Jesus Christ is radically countercultural. In Christ, love comes first. And it never stops. It just keeps flowing out of the heart of God, calling us home to the comfort of God’s embrace.
Some may fear that I am treading dangerously close to Bonhoeffer’s notion of cheap grace, which he described as the “deadly enemy of our Church.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1959) 45. But Bonhoeffer was not questioning whether God’s love and forgiveness are unconditional; he was challenging teachers who told half the story by separating a theology of grace from a theology of sin. With cheap grace, we don’t see ourselves as sinners but as basically acceptable. Where there are problems or wounds, we see them as the result of bad reinforcement patterns or depleted neurotransmitters or poor parenting or a lack of self-esteem or stifled drives for autonomy. When we fail to see that all these things reflect the sinful condition of our world—to which we contribute—we cannot experience the life-giving depth of God’s grace. True life-giving grace requires us to move beyond our denial, to experience God’s grace in the midst of our human helplessness.
If I focus on sin without considering grace, then I slip into an earning mentality and try to earn God’s favor by extraordinary effort. This is the error of a fundamentalism that erodes toward legalism. If I focus on grace without considering sin, then I still end up with a pallid view of God—as if God’s love is simply to be expected because of the intrinsic worth found in each human person. This is the error of liberalism, leading to the cheap grace that Bonhoeffer warned against.
The story of the prodigal son and the gospel message it illustrates bring together the doctrines of sin and grace. Nouwen states it beautifully: “Everything comes together here: Rembrandt’s story, humanity’s story, and God’s story. Time and eternity intersect; approaching death and everlasting life touch each other; sin and forgiveness embrace.” Nouwen, 93.
03. So Why Does Sin Matter?
I came home from Russia and began working on Why Sin Matters, a book that was published in 2004. It is a book inspired by that profound moment of grace, which was made possible only by relaxing my neurotic need to earn my own way. I don’t mean to say that human effort is unimportant, but God’s love comes first—before I can offer anything to God. And if God’s love comes first, then my best response is to surrender my frantic efforts for merit and lean into God’s embrace. Sanctification is God’s work in me, not my work for God.
The book turned out fairly well—it was even named a finalist in the theology/doctrine category of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Gold Medallion Awards—but people have not been flocking to the bookstores to find it. I have a knack for writing books that very few people buy—in this case, the publisher and I suspect the title doomed the book to obscurity. People don’t want to think and talk about sin because it seems to be such a depressing topic. But this is only because we fail to understand how interrelated sin and grace are. It was meant to be a hopeful book, not a depressing one. Without a good understanding of sin, we can’t see the depth of God’s grace. Barbara Brown Taylor, a college professor and Episcopal priest, has gone so far as to suggest that “sin is our only hope.” Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation (Boston: Cowley, 2000) 41. That is, if we fail to acknowledge sin, then we also shut off the profound experiences of forgiveness and grace.
I remember listening to David Benner speak at a conference in Cincinnati several years ago, shortly after I had completed writing Why Sin Matters. David spoke so clearly about the centrality of love in Christian spirituality, noting that many people speak as if awareness of sin is the starting point of Christian faith when, in actuality, love is the central truth of Christianity. As I sat and nodded in agreement, I remember thinking that this is exactly why sin matters, because it points us to the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. On the last page of Why Sin Matters, I put it this way:
When we set the two side by side—our heavy, weighty, monumental sin on one side of the balance, and the depth of God’s love on the other side—the side of the scale holding love pounds resolutely on the foundations of the world and resounds throughout all ages. There is no greater force in the universe that God’s unfailing love. Mark R. McMinn, Why Sin Matters: The Surprising Relationship Between Our Sin and God’s Grace (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2004) 178.
For those of us who like to earn our way, this love may seem more difficult to face than conviction for our sin. But then again, facing our sin honestly can lead us into the loving arms of our gracious God.
MARK R. MCMINN (www.markrmcminn.com) is the Rech Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he teaches in a clinical psychology doctoral program and coordinates the Center for Church-Psychology Collaboration.