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 grace is not just a New Testament thing.

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. If we haven’t been offended by grace, we haven’t truly understood it.

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.”   We must not try to sanitize the scandal of God’s love for His enemies.

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.

I have to chalk up hell and the afterlife to a tension or mystery. 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.

42 Comments

  1. Kathleen O'Keefe

    I like the use of the word “tension” and the notion of “mystery” at the end of this article. I, too, am comfortable with the mystery of certain biblical concepts I am not able to grasp fully in this life. Christianity has brought me many more questions than answers, and I have learned to be comfortable with not knowing, though I ardently seek to know (a “tension”, to be sure.)

  2. This sounds like so many articles I’ve come across in the media in which a popularizer spouts off about things scholars have known for years. Prof. Sprinkle’s views may come as astounding news to evangelicals, but they’ve been taught in “mainstream” seminaries for a long time. Perhaps by the end of the century Prof. Sprinkle’s grandchildren may discover Julius Wellhausen.

  3. I’m sorry… What is radical or scandalous about this? It’s the same ole same ole isn’t it? this could be preached in most any Evangelical church and there would be many hardy Amens. I kept reviewing it thinking I missed something. Nothing about this is newsworthy name broad Christian circles. It will help him promotE a few books though.

    • Haven’t you ever heard people accuse Christians of performing good works out of fear of punishment or expectation of reward? Haven’t you heard people rail against the “injustice” of a God who would send a “good” atheist to eternal death while granting a born-again thief or murderer eternal life? Haven’t you ever heard people claim that they or others deserve to go to heaven because of what good people they are? I have, all the time.

      That’s what is scandalous about grace. It is offensive to human pride.

      • Shawnie5…I didn’t ask what was scandalous about grace. I agree with you completely that grace is scandalous. But nothing is scandalous about the grace that he is talking about. He is talking about the grace that is heard in the majority of evangelical churches in this country.

        what is truly absurd about grace is that it is given to all people… The first and the last… The oppressed and the oppressed… Christians and non-christians… THAT grace is scandalous…but that’s not the grace he is talking about.

      • @Shawnie5,

        So BY YOUR DEFINITION, Grace is just deciding to keep to oneself and minding one’s own business instead of scolding someone with Religious blather in a prideful way.

        Excellent …. Then how did Jesus get away with almost never being graceful? Look at all his GRACELESS fury:

        He violently whipped people – attack on the temple (John 2:5)
        He didn’t forgive his enemies – he sent them to Hell! (Mark 16:16)
        He cursed his enemies – “Thou Fools!”(Matt. 23:17)
        He stole things – “untie them” ..”bring them to me” (Matt. 21:2-3)
        He destroyed his enemies – “execute them in front of me”(Luke 19:27)
        He didn’t love most of his neighbors, – They are ‘Dogs’!(Matthew 15:26)
        He told people to judge others – “Remove your blessings”!(Matt 10:14)
        He was bigoted – “They are swine” (Matthew 7:6)
        He didn’t want peace – “I do not bring peace.”(Matt 10:34)
        He lied to people – “He went in secret” (John 7:8-13)
        He prepared for war – “if you have money, buy a sword” (Luke 22:36-37)

        Don’t believe the hype.

        If Jesus could teach these things and still be a Christian
        then you have to realize religion this is a total mess!

        ASK yourself.
        If Jesus had no grace, then what is this ‘grace’, exactly?
        If Jesus can’t follow the rules of Christianity, who can?

  4. Having not read the book, I wouldn’t know exactly his take on grace, but I think there is a tendency to yawn at this because familiarity can breed contempt. Does the church know this issue so well that we just give this a slight nod and keep going? Perhaps. We are too mental with these issues and I long to see people blown away by the idea of God’s grace. Just this week in our home church we talked about other cultures and the joy they often experience at hearing God’s truth and how that seems missing in our culture.

    I liked the article, specifically the points about not reading the OT as only moral examples to follow. Somewhere we have lost the passionate story behind it all and we can miss the heart of God. Moving beyond moral tidbits and theological analysis can be hard in a traditional setting, but it is what is necessary to recapture a sense of awe and mystery at God.

  5. I totally agree that it is scandalous the way grace is perceived by most professed Christians. I pray that Springle’s book becomes a a true revelation to the many that are completely oblivious to the depth and height that is revealed from Genesis to Revelation. Of course we see the epitome of His grace on Calvary….Amazing Grace… John Newton got it right. The one thing I would hope that Christians also would come to realize that God’s grace not only pardons; but also empowers the believer to obey all of His commandments. http://bit.ly/10ojOOD

  6. Jonathan, your introduction promises “a somewhat scandalous understanding of hell” stemming from Preston’s view of grace. What I read in this interview, though, is that judgment comes to those without faith.

    Still waiting to read the scandalous part of his understanding of hell.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  7. Decent article. I agree that grace is scandalous.

    In terms of hell and judgement, not a problem for me, as long as we attempt to understand the concept of hell as Jesus understood it and as long as we understand Jesus’ concept of judgement, not through our 21st century lens, but through the lens of a merciful, compassionate God revealed in Christ.

    Grace is not something that can be rejected, grace is an action of God; grace is bestowed. If grace can be rejected, then perhaps it isn’t grace.

    With that said, I know there is a big “grace” movement in parts of the church. It seems to be a reaction against the legalism found in the church. Folks are trying to have their shame healed, only grace can heal our shame.

    • God has already judged sin. It happened on a cross.

      Words like heaven, hell, sin, salvation, judgement, etc are tossed around in the church and we apply meaning to those terms, but perhaps the meaning is deeper, more complex and rich than our primitive or immature understanding.

      • Every action of every person will be judged regardless whether he is approved to inherit eternal life or whether he is not approved to inherit eternal life. Even his every idle word will be judged. At the time of his physical death, a person is judged. Matthew 12:36, 2 Timothy 4:1, Hebrews 9:27

    • Grace is a made up word for… who knows what!?

      You religious people can’t make sense of this stuff
      no matter how hard you try to force it.

      The argument for ‘grace’ is dead on arrival.
      It is yet another nonsense word for a nonsense realm
      of heaven, demons, angels and magic buttercups.

      If only you could keep it out my laws I’d be happy and leave you alone.

  8. “Because Jesus is not just the beginning of the New Testament but also the fitting climax of the Old.”

    The Jewish version of what Christians call the “Old Testament” ends with Chronicles II, not Malichai. I bring this up because Jews don’t see Jesus as a “fitting climax” of the “Old Testament, nor of anything else. The Hebrew Bible continued on in Midrash, the Mishnah and eventually the Talmud and then centuries of Torah commentaries. Christinity, in general, ignores whatever the Jews have accomplished after the “Old Testament.” Maybe because they see Jesus as the fulfillment of the “Old Testament”. Christians seem to think that Jews have not created anything worth studying since the “Old Testament”.

    • @Susan,

      Christianity is just a dumb offshoot of Judaism. Islam is yet another dumb offshoot.

      Judaism is was the beginning of this monotheistic mess.
      If there had been no lies about Yahweh in the first place there would be no lies about Jesus or Allah later on.

      Sanity and decency emerge when religions fade.
      Let’s hope they all fade away. The sooner the better.

      • For your own contemplation:
        When your own physical body dies, what do you think happens to your own mind/intelligence?

        Perhaps you think your mind/intelligence ceases to exist at the time of your body’s physical death, but what if it continues to exist because God exists? What if God has determined that your time on earth is your testing ground (John 5:28-29) to see if your own actions/choices will either approve you to inherit eternal life with Him (2 Timothy 2:15) or if your own actions/choices will condemn you to suffer the consequences of an eternity of hellfire? (Matthew 12:37, Titus 3:10-12, Revelation 21:8)

        Are you prepared right now to partake of the eternal consequences of your present beliefs? As you know, your physical death can come instantly without warning or preparation. I personally do hope that you will choose carefully and wisely for your own sake!

        • I regret having to call Christianity a ‘dumb offshoot’ of Judaism.
          But that is the best I can do.

          Meanwhile, have you considered what will happen to you if you are wrong?

          You have rejected Allah.
          And according to Muslims you will be thrown into Hell if you continue to reject Allah. And if you know anything at all about Islam you would understand that your skin gets ripped off every day and it never get a chance to grow back in Muslim Hell. It is a far, far worse Hell than anything described in Christianity. Jesus only wants you executed and condemned to eternal fire:
          “eat of my body” and “Be baptized and believe” or “Be condemned to Hell” (John 6:53-54)(Mark 16:16).

          You have no idea how bad Hell is until you look at ISLAM.

          So if you think Muslim Hell hasn’t scared me to believe in a god, certainly Christian Hell won’t do it either.

          I feel sorry for you that Hell is a factor in your decision-making.
          It has been shown that even grown ups fall for this terrible, life-long mind control of fear.

          Every member of the clergy is guilty of a crime against humanity for preaching Hell to people. Hell is a thing for which there is absolutely no evidence.

        • @Dan,

          To be compelled to love that which you enjoined to fear is actually a sickness.

          To Love that which you are ENJOINED TO FEAR is Stockholm Syndrome, or more precisely Sadomasochism.

          Please consider that LOVE is not a proper word for what you are experiencing through religion if it is coupled with even the slightest fear of Hell.

          Shame on every Pastor or Priest who has told children about Hell.

        • @Frank,

          Tell me about your love for this person:

          “I have wiped out the nations, devastating their fortress walls and towers. Their cities are now deserted; their streets are in silent ruin. There are no survivors to even tell what happened. I thought, ‘they will have reverence for me now! Surely they will listen to my warnings, so I won’t need to strike again.’ But no!”
          “Even if they stood before me pleading for these people, I wouldn’t help them. Away with them! Get them out of my sight!”
          “that slave will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it…Much is required from those to whom much is given.”

          Please.
          I want to hear about what you love of this person.
          I want to read your moving tribute.
          Share it.

          Why you love this person and defend him all day long?
          Never mind Stalin and Mao….

          I’m asking you about your God.

    • Many knowledgeable Christians find a lot of wisdom in the various commentaries on the Old Testament, but we see them as that: commentaries by men who were reverent and wise, but not inspired by the Holy Spirit, as were the writers of the books of the Bible. It is hard for devout Christians to imagine how Jews can read Isaiah 53 and not see Jesus: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not … But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all … for the transgression of my people was he stricken … when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin … my righteous servant (shall) justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities … he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

  9. Absolutely true, and reflective of the world’s accusation of Christians as hypocrites: you sin just as much as I do! True – Christians are not perfect; they are forgiven by grace despite being as imperfect as everyone else. Sadly, many who claim to be Christians continue to struggle with this concept throughout their lives. Even though they say they have been saved by the blood of Jesus, they persist in thinking that retaining their salvation depends upon their works: “Ooh, I’ve sinned; if I die before I confess and am forgiven, I’ll go to hell.” Works can’t save you before the blood of Jesus washes away your sins, and neither can they save you afterward. We are dependent upon absolute grace from beginning to end, received and maintained by nothing more than our faith in God’s love and forgiveness because we have trusted the blood of His Only Begotten Son.

    • How can there be any “coherence” in “ideas” as incoherent in substance as theology? The platform of postulates is so vapid, it seems there is nowhere to go.

      • Trytoseeitmyway

        Um, you don’t know what you’re talking about. In this context, theology refers to the synthesis of meaning from a complex text. It is absolutely possible to distinguish between a coherent, internally consistent interpretation and one that lacks those qualities. Try not to be so jejune.

        • @TTSMW,

          “It is absolutely possible to distinguish between a coherent, internally consistent interpretation and one that lacks those qualities.”

          Try to tell that to the Lutherans
          Or the Jehovah Witnesses
          Or the Unitarians
          Or the Catholics
          Or the Presbyterians
          Or the Mormons
          Or the Menonites
          Or the Maronites
          Or the Baptists
          or the Protestants
          Or the Gnostic Christians
          Or the Congregationalists
          Or the Charismatics
          Or the Evangelicals
          Or the Adventists
          Or the Quakers
          Or the Christian Scientists
          Or the Atheists

          “God is not the author of confusion” – (1 Corinthians 14:33)

          LIKE HELL!

  10. Wouldn’t it be good to first attempt to establish the reality of any grace beyond that displayed by humans, among humans? I think it is quite meaningless to consider discussing anything without first agreeing to the reality of the subject proposed for discussion.

    God. Grace. Divine grace. These are some rather airy topics. Postulates. unless mutually accepted, will cause any discussion to be as meaningless as the postulates. Even then, the discussion would only be meaningful to those who agree with the postulates.

  11. It is possible to be an atheist antisemite and Atheist Max, you are one.

    Dan, if you read the all of Isaiah and put those verses in the proper context, they are not about Jesus. The Messiah’s coming was supposed to bring about universal peace and that still isn’t close to happening. Jews don’t believe that the Messiah is God or God’s son .

    • @Susan,

      I’m an anti-semite? What?
      That is nonsense.

      I have no hatred anything Jewish.
      What could possibly have given you any idea that I would be an ‘anti-semite’ ?

      I hate religion.
      Religion is not ‘the jews’ or ‘the Christians’ or ‘the muslims’ !

      I hate Christianity – NOT Christians.
      I hate Islam – NOT muslims.
      I hate Judaism – NOT Jews.

      We are talking about opinions not races.
      I want the Republican party to disappear – not the PEOPLE WHO ARE Republicans! I want to change their MINDS!

      I was a Christian for 44 years – now I am atheist.
      that does not make me a bigot against Christians!
      Good grief.
      People, please get educated!

      Hatred of religion is NOT RACISM.

      IF IT IS NOT RACIST TO APPROACH A NON-BELIEVER TO PREACH
      IT CANNOT BE RACIST TO APPROACH A BELIEVER TO PREACH AGAINST!

  12. “Judaism is was the beginning of this monotheistic mess. If there had been no lies about Yahweh in the first place there would be no lies about Jesus or Allah later on. ”

    Max, there is a difference between not believing in God and your belief that religion is evil and that Judaism is the parent of this evil.

    I actually think it is a form of antisemitism to preach to Jews. There is a difference between discussion and preaching.

    Also, you take the “Old Testament” literally which Jews never do.

    • @Susan,

      “there is a difference between not believing in God and your belief that religion is evil and that Judaism is the parent of this evil”

      ALL Religion is evil nonsense. Monotheism – the belief in the God of Abraham – is just one kind of religion. Monotheism DID start with Judaism. Christianity and Islam are equally evil and plagiarized from that SAME god of Abraham. Yet each claims a different and equally foolish incarnation: Yahweh, Jesus and Allah.
      Aztec religions created their own regional evil Polytheistic religions. But the Monotheistic mess of the Middle East began with the Moses nonsense.
      All religions need to be abandoned voluntarily, not outlawed – otherwise humanity will blow itself up over this pathetic nonsense.

      “you take the Old Testament literally which Jews never do”

      Ridiculous. An entire country of Israel exists because of literal claims in The Bible. “The land must not be sold without reclaim because the land belongs to me, for you are foreigners and residents with me.” (Leviticus 25:23)
      Jesus, the man (if he existed) certainly appears to have taken literally.
      “I and the Lord are one” – Jesus (John)
      “Execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)
      About 300,000 dead witches will be puzzled to hear this wasn’t taken literally!

      “I actually think it is a form of antisemitism to preach to Jews.”

      What? Your ‘final’ religious revelation of Yahweh is so perfect and obvious that you need no additional revelations from Muhammed? Or Jesus? or Vishnu? or Buddha? or Ganesha? or Osiris?….or EINSTEIN?
      Who is being racist here? And why do you give Jews no credit for the use of their minds?

  13. Modern Zionism was a secular movement. Its founder Herzl was a non-religious Jew who covered the Dreyfus trial as a reporter. When the verdict of guilty was announced the crowd shouted, “Death to the Jews”. Herzl, the assimilated Jew, was shattered by this event. He eventually wrote the Jews should found their own state.

    My own Zionism is not religious. It comes from the fact that the Jews need a state of their own. American Jews have been lucky so far, but I am glad that

    Israel exists, because American Jews may need it one day. I can live in America because Israel exists.

    The Gospels were written hundreds of years after Jesus’s death by people who did not speak Jesus’s language. I wouldn’t take the gospel’s quotes from Jesus literally. We don’t know if Jesus really said those things or not.

    There is a difference between discussion and preaching. Preaching is one-way communication. If they tell me I must accept Jesus then yes I tune them out.

    • @Susan,

      “I am glad that Israel exists, because American Jews may need it one day.”

      Yes, we can both agree on this 100%.
      I have been a believer in Israel for that very purpose to protect Jews for decades.
      I am not Jewish. I am a Lebanese-American who grew up in a Catholic home. I was in the minority in my family believing as I did that Jews must have a state to protect them.

      BUT… if you want Israel to survive, it needs to wake up.
      Israel has gone too far taking Palestinian land and it continues to be completely ignorant of its growing apartheid problem. In light of the demographics, Israel must figure out a way to remain a ‘protectorate’ and a defender of Jewish people (not the religion, necessarily) while following international laws. It has broken international laws repeatedly.
      If Jews decide to continue to be ‘a people’ they need Israel to succeed and it is not succeeding in these challenges.

      Meanwhile Judaism (the religion) claims the land is deeded to them by God. This is not me making it up! And Evangelicals are counting on it because they are funding the settlements to the tune of $100 million last year alone. They believe the second coming won’t happen until the second temple is rebuilt.

      I think the problems with Israel are too many to count. I don’t see how it survives in the long run. Non-Jews will be in the majority soon yet they will be a second class not entitled to the same “protectorate” citizenship enjoyed by Jews.

      It doesn’t work. Only the abandonment of all religions and religious claims by all sides would work – but that won’t happen.

      I repeat what I said before. Claims about Yahweh are the only thing that defines the Jewish nation. Claims about Allah and Jesus are the only thing that objects to the Jewish Nation and defines the other nations near Israel.

      If everyone could agree that God is nonsense
      everyone could just live in peace and solve these problems.
      Religion is in the way at every turn – for Jews as well as Muslims and Christians. God is garbage.

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