Obvious Places Where Grace Should Abound

Obvious Places Where Grace Should Abound

(See the first post in this series: Secret Places Where Grace Lurks)

In church, according to the purpose and promise of God, we look for grace in the context of its revealed means, coming from “leaders who spoke to you the word of God” (Hebrews 13:7-9). We want as much of it as God designs to give and must earnestly seek to put ourselves in situations that draw from his own proclaimed reservoirs of grace—electing grace, regenerating grace, and gifting grace (Ephesians 1:2; 2:8; 3:7, 8; 4:4-7). At Brandon, the normal teenage population gave many causes for worry, fretting, and alarm; but a restraining stream of gracious means also was constantly in operation. “Love the Lord” and “Love not the world,” established a definite conflict with the more ostensible worldly preoccupations. Unfelt by many of us, however, such texts give warning far beyond what we can imagine, for the world entwines itself into every pore of our intellects, emotions, and relations comforting us to death with its promised securities and posing a threat to our well-being if we begin to confront its subtle stranglehold on our lives. There was nothing about my world, however, that did not seem good—school, cousins, friends, ball teams, band, etc.—and especially church. What about my world was I not to love?

Sunday School teachers were faithful and earnest, Training Union leaders always showed up and made sure we recited or read our parts with some degree of interest. There was always a snack after junior choir and youth choir, and after-church youth fellowships were friendly, funny, safe places that highlighted how spiritual devotion would help keep things that way always. RA’s kept the Great Commission before our minds, sponsored camping trips, and gave us role models of solid, admirable, Christian laymen who made us feel that it was important to be devoted to Jesus. In Vacation Bible School we memorized Bible verses, heard character stories from the pastor’s wife, saw the pastor always around encouraging, and smiling, and filled with joie de vivre. That kind of earnestly joyful interaction with us kids added fire to his relentlessly Bible-centered messages. I knew that the Bible was true, Jesus was the Son of God, and that a saving relation with him was the single most gripping issue of time and eternity. The dynamic of God’s planting such a conviction in my soul during those years under Carey Cox’s ministry still is an incomprehensible mystery to me, but truly nothing could change my mind about that. To seal all of these good things to one’s life, so the narrative went, you must decide publicly to follow Jesus; if one so confesses him, then Jesus also will graciously reciprocate and grant a life filled with purpose here and eternal life hereafter. I could not conceive of anything about this that I did not want, and so, at 11 years of age, I took the stand in my part of the transaction and, in conformity with every checkpoint of security in my life, received assurance that I was a Christian. I had no frame of reference yet to begin to sort out how, even in the context of such gracious benefits, my perception of this was actually in opposition to the command, “Love not the world.”

Those defining elements of this world we are not to love—the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the pride of life—frequently hide in some form of benignity, are as deceitful as they are corrosive (Ephesians 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11), lulling us to mortal sleep with a peace that the world gives. The judgment of corruption placed on the physical world as well as the entirety of the present age has established all people as condemned and as morally unfit for and derelict of life before God. All things fallen stand short of the absolute good required and hover somewhere above an absolute consignment to irredeemable evil—the seat occupied by Satan the Tempter and Murderer and all those bristling, evil, envenomed demons hovering around him. Our indwelling worldly lusts make us akin to him and them (Ephesians 2:1-3). We live personal lives and establish social structures consistent with his schemes and only purely radical and omnipotent intrusions of grace can save us and fit us for life before God. I saw this neither in my own soul nor in the carefully constructed protective devices put in place in the society to secure our safe way of life.

Pursuant to an advanced stage of Christian discipleship, I entered and won the state young people’s speakers tournament sponsored by the Training Union Department. The assembly ground at Glorieta, New Mexico, in the summer of 1963 provided the fascinating venue for state winners to give their eight minute address before all the assembled conferencees. Wayne Ward led a morning Bible study in 1 Corinthians in which I felt the charm of consecutive biblical exposition. From the front row of the large auditorium, he chuckled audibly at a literary image in my speech at an evening worship service. Very exhilarating stuff for a seventeen-year old! I could not have known how deeply ambivalent his personal theological structures were nor how our paths would intersect in some degree of friendly tension. W. O. Vaught, esteemed pastor of Emmanuel Baptist church in Little Rock, preached the evening messages on prayer. He had recently returned from Russia and told riveting stories about conversations and observations there. His argument that identified saving faith with mental assent (classic easy-believism) as he opposed Dale Moody’s views of apostasy would emerge later, but that summer he was another confirmation of Southern Baptist life as the safe and comfortable way to heaven.

Glorieta did make me confront one problem, however, that began to grow for the next six years. I roomed with a young man from Arkansas that was a real Christian who loved to pray, loved the Bible, and had strong and particular convictions about being a disciple of Christ. As far as I could discern, I had never met a young person with such deeply-seated affection for real spirituality arising from a fountain within, not merely from an impression of security from without. I wondered if I had that—and kept wondering for years.

Back in the senior year, a mystifying insecurity fed by unexamined worldliness settled in my soul. This personal distress subtly intensified as another crack in our safe world soon came. On a Friday afternoon Beta club induction chapel on November 22, 1963 near the end of the first semester, we received the news that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Even yet, sorting out the variety of responses that the news evoked has been elusive. Brandonians—classmates as well as their parents—felt especially oppressed by the Kennedy brothers in light of their support of James Meredith in his 1962 enrolment at the University of Mississippi, bravely confronted by our Southern Baptist governor, Ross Barnett. Right there in Brandon [the bus stopped on highway 80 in the middle of town in front of my Daddy’s drug store] we had seen Freedom Riders come through. It was like the Civil War all over again. These were, after all, outsiders intruding on the sovereignty of our state being motivated by a liberal religious agenda framed by ministers that did not really believe the Bible. They had lost their zeal for evangelism, and looked more for social equality than redemption from sin. It was an easy point to make and, therefore, completely satisfying, allowing our own love of the world to remain unchallenged. The observable ambivalence to the assassination of a United States President, however, seemed to uncover a moral flaw in our corporate souls hitherto unprobed. There was true sadness and a kind of deeply expressed perplexity about how crassly evil some people could be. Even in the face of that, however, some satisfaction surfaced that God had intervened to stabilize our lives. The Lost Cause still had a heart-beat.

It was not as easy to sidestep the next blockbuster event—the murder of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County—in June 1964. The systemic, and perverse, union of local law enforcement officials, the Klan, church leaders, and the instigative influence of Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen uncovered a cesspool of hatred that idolized all the lusts of the world. The surface of kindness and stable satisfaction was being ripped to shreds. We followed the tracks, looked around and found Pogo’s discovery gradually dawning on us: “We have found the enemy and he is us.”

In my own soul—embroiled in a question as to whether my supposed faith arose from heartfelt sorrow for sin and cordial love to God—I had not sufficiently encountered “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” In the social structure at large, it was increasingly difficult to ignore the verdict, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. . . . Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer [that seemed to have been manifested literally], and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 2:9; 3:15). My concept of sin was miserably inadequate. I had no acquaintance with the regularly-stated confessional proposition of an earlier Baptist generation and had not yet felt its reality: “Our first parents by this Sin, fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and we in them, whereby death came upon all; all becoming dead in Sin, and wholly defiled, in all the faculties, and parts of soul, and body. They being the root and by God’s appointment, standing in the room, and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the Sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation, being now conceived in Sin, and by nature children of wrath, the servants of Sin, the subjects of death and all other miseries, spiritual, temporal and eternal, unless the Lord Jesus set them free. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.”

That knowledge, seriously embraced and thoughtfully considered, would have explained a lot. Both my struggle internally and the dawning of how racially charged my culture was could be found in the words, “from this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.” The generation of Baptists in the South that embraced that confession judged themselves and healthily examined the spiritual experiences of grace of others in conformity with this understanding; Ironically, however, they failed to judge their culture effectively, and their affectionate capitulation to it, in this confessional light. They did not feel the full force of the unity of all people in connection with “our first parents” and the spiritual equality implied in “all mankind,” and “all their posterity.” While they felt, contrary to the cynical views of many of their contemporaries, a conscientious commitment to work for the salvation of the slave population, they did not see themselves as the equal of the slave and failed to reject the right of one man to own another and to commandeer his life for purely personal advantage. They were willing to live on unpaid toil and close their ears to the cries of the laborers. This reality demonstrated the power of cultural and sociological orthodoxy to overwhelm the radical and absolute claims of theological truth. Like me, they loved the world and found its rewards satisfying. Sin is always deeper than we think and grips the mind and shapes our perceptions with a force more oppressive than we will ever understand in this life. Neither individual hearts nor corporate culture is free from the corrupting power of indwelling sin and the corresponding need for repentance at both levels. Coming to grips with this transparent and distressing view of the fallen human soul has caused me seriously to ponder if I would have done as well as they were I to have been in their place. I was not doing well even in my own.

As it was, I kept striving for answers incommensurate with the severity of the problem. I was only one example that could have been multiplied by thousands of those that had been reared in a religious atmosphere now characterized, not by greater clarity, but by a diminishing view of sin and a new form of developing cultural orthodoxy. Instead of the robust understanding of the pervasive nature of human sin, both personally and corporately, in which “the guilt of the Sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity,” our doctrinal ambience reflected in differing degrees the denial that Adam’s sin was either imputed or rendered the will void of capacity for spiritual good. It was easier to become a member of a church and harder to recognize the outworkings of sin in ourselves. How did this happen?

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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