My past four posts (Grace Notes 1-4) have talked about some of the dangers I see in grace teaching today. But as I said early on, I love grace. Today I want to post an interview with the awesome Bill Giovannetti, author of several wonderful books, including his latest, Grace Intervention. Bill is also pastor of Neighborhood Church in Redding, California. Bill’s website is here: www.pastorbillg.com
Here we go!
Nick: Bill, as I remember your story, you were brought up in a Christian home….but was it also a home where you first understood grace as you now see it?
Bill: I don’t remember being brought to church as part of a family; I was sent there. My dad drove me to a small Chicago church and dropped me off. He went out for a cup of coffee, donut, and newspaper, and then sat in the parking lot enjoying a smoke and reading the paper. I, however, was trapped in church. Over time, that church became a second family for me. I learned the Bible there. I formed lasting relationships there. I met Christ there.
I also met a lot of legalism there. The typical stuff of the era: dancing, movies, card playing, long-haired males, Mr. Booze… all were nasty taboos. I was being groomed into a self-righteous Pharisee without even knowing it. I look back on those days and consider them, “The best of times and the worst of times.” My church loved me, but I still had a lot of unlearning to do.
I struggled with guilt and shame all the time. I questioned my salvation. I got saved over and over again, because I was sure it didn’t “take.” I dreaded that coming day of judgment when God would make me squirm under his icy gaze before — perhaps, hopefully, maybe, keeping-my-fingers-crossed – he might grudgingly let me into heaven.
Yes, Jesus died for me, but I’d better surrender all to him. He paid his share of the price, and now it was my turn to pay mine. And what a price it was! “If he wasn’t Lord of all, he wasn’t Lord at all.” Lord of all? Yikes! I was doomed. I became the busiest-for-Jesus young man I knew. And Jesus wore me out.
I’ve told the full story elsewhere, but God graciously intervened to interrupt my growing religious mania. He used a book to explain how my guilt wasn’t to be a normal state of being. It was actually the devil’s weapon to slam me around. The book explained the Cross of Christ to me in terms I’d heard before, but had never really clicked.
Suddenly the Holy Spirit turned the spotlight to my Crucified Savior. I saw that he really meant his words, “It is finished.” I felt all my guilt and shame roll away. I felt as if I were floating on clouds of grace. I felt forgiven, redeemed, and accepted by God. I look back and realize that wasn’t the date of my salvation; it was the date of my assurance. I have never seriously doubted my salvation since then. And I have never looked back from the amazing grace I discovered on that wonderful day.
Nick: You’ve written widely on grace, how did it become such a major part of your life message?
Bill: The seeds of my grace-mission were sown in the soil of my dysfunction and guilt. As authors, we’re told to write what we know. I have advanced degrees in guilt and shame, so grace — God’s mind-bending solution — is what I write. God also used mentors in my life, like Lance B. Latham (Doc), the founder of Awana, and Art Rorheim, Awana’s president emeritus, to teach me the gospel of grace.
I can’t look at a page of Scripture now without seeing something about grace there. Is grace explained? Offered? Rejected? Spurned? Contradicted? Grounded? Exemplified? Look hard enough, and you’ll it there, sometimes shouting, other times peeking out quietly. But it’s always there. I like to say that Christ is the heart of Scripture and grace is the heart of Christ.
Nick: Sometimes we reduce grace to just an acronym (God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense), but it’s much more than that isn’t it? How do you see grace?
Bill: Crucial question. A word is a place-holder for an idea. What idea comes into your mind when you hear the word grace? The same word will conjure different ideas for different people. In the seminary classes I teach, I compare words to cars on a freight train. We link them together to form sentences. Each car carries its freight. So I have to ask what freight have you loaded into the word grace? We have to let the Bible load that freight, or we’re all in trouble.
As I see it, the Bible uses grace in a huge variety of ways, but always with a common core. The core is simply this: God doing for you what you cannot do for yourself. It is God’s work, God’s effort, God’s self-sacrifice, God’s power, God’s sweat, all without one bit of help from you at all. Human effort — religiosity, works, performance, obedience, striving, law, taboos, rules, whatever — evaporate under the heat of divine grace.
Grace is simply the free, unmerited work and favor of God flowing to you because of Jesus Christ. God serves up that grace in a staggering array of flavors — so grace is a situational shape-shifter. If you need it, grace supplies it. If you regret it, grace forgives it. If you break it, grace fixes it. If you lose it, grace finds it. Where you are broken, grace restores. Where you are sick, grace heals. Grace adapts to meet the vast panorama of human need, always without one bit of payment or merit from us. It is undeserved kindness, always with an eye to Calvary’s Cross and the blessings Christ procured for us there. It truly is God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.
Grace means God is infinitely more committed to us than we will ever be to him. I’m afraid the church is reversing this reality, with disastrous results. We’re morphing grace from God’s works for us into ours for him. That’s legalism, a malady I call Grace Deficit Disorder (G.D.D.). It’s running at epidemic levels in the church today. And it’s chasing away our unsaved friends as fast as their morally fallen legs can carry them.
Nick: What does it take for a Christian to experience the fullness of grace? A divine revelation or ?
Bill: The Cross, the Cross, and the Cross, in that order. I think the main reason Jesus left us with one enduring ordinance, the Lord’s Supper, is so we could continually recalibrate our hearts to the Ground Zero of God’s grace. “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you show the Lord’s death, till he comes.”
What it takes for a Christian to experience the fullness of grace is a spiritual whack upside the head or a kick in the seat of the pants. In Scripture, nobody really “got” grace without an intervention. God had to knock Paul off his horse, and show him his spiritual blindness, before he would become the apostle of grace. Grace is counter-intuitive. We’re allergic to it. So God has to break through a thick legalistic crust before it can touch our hearts.
What does that take? Anything required to rewire our reverse-polarized circuitry. For some, that will be instruction in God’s Word. For others, it will take a friend’s gentle instruction. God helped me through books that spotlighted Calvary. Others will need their pride broken. God knows how to bring us face to face with our moral bankruptcy, because only empty hands can lay hold of grace.
Anybody who reads Scripture with an open heart and even an atom of humility will be lifted to the highlands of God’s amazing grace. It’s awesome to see eyes light up as grace takes hold of a person’s heart.
Nick: Is there a correlation between an understanding of our sinfulness and an appreciation for God’s grace?
Bill: Yes, and I would push this deeper. The word sinfulness conjures certain ideas for us all, especially for Christians. Sinfulness probably brings to mind our disobedience or lawbreaking, or really nasty habits.
But grace goes deeper. Grace lassos all of sin’s gnarly tentacles too. Grace goes to work on our dysfunctions, bringing us to a place of wholeness and love. It confronts our self-righteousness. It purifies our character. It convicts our lukewarmness. Most of all, it holds of the mirror of Christlikeness, and makes us turn to Christ not only for salvation, but for sanctification too. It makes us leave Martha sweating the kitchen that we might rest with Mary and hang out with Jesus.
I am a such charity case, it takes the supernatural machinery of heaven to make me anything other than the jerk I would be were I left to my own devices.
If grace doesn’t fry our circuits once in a while we can’t call it amazing.
Nick: One of my favorite portions of Scripture regarding grace is Titus 2:11-14. I like it because it tells us what grace teaches us.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Have you seen abuses of grace where rather than “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passion,” grace is used as an enablement to embrace ungodliness and worldly passion?
Bill: I’m going to say yes and no to this question. Grace itself, as a force that originates in the heart of God, is mighty. It cannot be twisted, distorted, or misused. It is God’s truth, and nobody can break God’s truth; we can only break ourselves against God’s truth. In that sense, true grace can never be used as an enablement to embrace ungodliness. Grace can, however, be redefined. Other concepts can be attached to the word “grace”, such as leniency, license, and lawlessness. But that’s not really grace.
So technically speaking — and theology needs to be technical — there is no such thing as an abuse of grace. There can only be a parody, a masquerade of something else under the false label of grace. Grace is not and never will be license to sin; it is power not to sin. It is the indwelling Christ reproducing something beautiful in us — his own radiant life — by exchanging our weakness for his strength, and our rags for his righteousness.
God invites us to take a full, uninhibited plunge into the ocean of his grace, without reservation, and without “yes-butting” the snot out of it.
Without grace, what makes us different from any other religion? Without “grace alone,” the cross has no scandal, the gospel has no power, and the cross has no meaning. If our salvation and our Christian life is not by grace alone, then Christianity becomes just one of many equivalent world religions, varying only in the number and type of works they require.
Jesus did not come from heaven to earth to the Cross to the grave just to add another religion to a world already crushed by the weight of religious duty.
He came to set us free. He came to set our feet to dancing and our hearts to joy. He came to invite all earth’s prodigals to the celestial feast — without money and without price. Calvary paid for you in full.
As long as God gives me a platform to preach and teach and write, and any semblance of wits in my brain, I will shout from the rooftops the mind-blowing wonder of Jesus and his blood-bought grace.