Over the last year or so, I’ve become very thankful for, and greatly blessed by, the ministry of Jeff McSwain. McSwain grew up in a youth ministry context as the son of a Young Life leader, and studied at a variety of eminent institutions with a who’s who of evangelical theologians (at Regent with Gordon Fee, with Gary Deddo through Fuller, at Reformed with Charles MacKenzie, and at St. Andrews in Aberdeen with Alan Torrance, Trevor Hart and Jeremie Begbie). Continuing to put his theology into practice, McSwain founded a youth ministry called Reality Ministries based in Durham, NC.
McSwain’s theological training and experience in youth ministry combine to make him a compelling witness to the gospel of grace in Christ. This is beautifully evident in his engrossing little book, Movements of Grace: The Dynamic Christo-realism of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances (Wipf and Stock, 2010). The experience of reading this book is aptly characterized by McSwain’s description of his theological education: “an exhilarating adventure across the landscape of God’s grace” (p. 2).
All Christian traditions believe we are saved by grace, but not all understand grace in the same way. Grace is hard to define – think about it: what does “grace” mean to you?
To some, grace is being granted an exception to a rule, a free pass, a “get out of jail free” card, or God’s VISA to pay for whatever damage I cause. To some, grace is a gift we possess, like a bonus toy in a Happy Meal we acquire by attending the right church or trying harder to please God. To some, grace is what kicks in after we do our best to fulfill the law (where law and gospel are mutually exclusive, one starts with nature and ends with grace). To some, grace is a character trait we develop, a property infused into the soul under certain conditions, or a state of being “full of grace” attained by making use of various “means of grace” that put us in God’s “good graces.” Or to some, grace is an inscrutable, impersonal force about which we have no say, and which we can be sure is ours only through much anguish of spirit and hard work.
In Movements of Grace, Jeff McSwain shows us a better way. Rather, grace is, simply and fundamentally, the person of Christ in his saving relation to us. Grace is the free gift of God to be present with us in Christ, recreating all things in the power of his love. The gift and the Giver are the same. We cannot understand grace by considering it in abstraction apart from the person of Christ. Jesus Christ is the Gospel. In the incarnation, Christ took our brokenness upon himself in order to meet us within our broken lives. Grace is the way Christ encountered Zaccheus, the woman at the well, the leper, the woman caught in adultery. Even now, grace is Christ’s active presence with us, meeting us with unconditional love in the very place of our brokenness, showing us that we belong to him, claiming us for himself in personal relationship and recreating us by his life.
In a foreward, Jeremie Begbie captures the thrust of McSwain’s vision of grace:
“This book responds to a sad distortion of the Christian faith, one that is all too common: we turn the Gospel into something we are convinced needs to be activated and kept in motion by us, something that in the last resort (despite all our talk of ‘grace’) we have to make happen. Jeff McSwain points us unerringly to the joyful alternative, that the momentum behind the Gospel has been running before any human decision, underway long before any of us were born, eternally in motion even before the creation of the world. The utterly dependable love of God, the ceaseless giving and giving back of the Father and Son in the Spirit – this precedes all our willing and acting. And into this extraordinary dynamic we are invited. We are not summoned to make it happen, but because it is already happening.”
In other words, McSwain calls us back to a Christ-centered understanding of grace, in which the reality is that Christ is at work establishing us in a dynamic, loving relationship with him to “reconstitute the personhood of all men and women, equipping us to share in the life of the Triune Persons” (this is the “dynamic Christo-realism” of his subtitle). Grace is not a thing, nor is it static: as a relationship with the person of Christ and a participation in the loving communion of the Trinity, grace is vital, dynamic, and full of movement. Instead of being passive, we actively participate in Christ, yet it is not up to us. Thus, McSwain explains his title, Movements of Grace, as a two-fold reality accomplished by Christ:
- A God-humanward relationship in which Christ brings the fullness of God’s love, the Triune communion, to us; and
- A human-Godward relationship in which Christ offers the perfect response of obedience and worship to the Father on our behalf.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, we participate in the reality of both of these movements in Christ. In Christ, God has come down and been made one with us in our brokenness, and in Christ’s response we are brought up and made one with God in a new creation. In Christ, the gap between God and humanity has been closed from both directions, and we find ourselves wrapped in the love of God, participating in the divine communion.
To elucidate these two movements of grace, McSwain surveys the thought of several major 20th century theologians: Thomas F. Torrance and his brother, James Torrance (ch. 1), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth (ch. 2). Because each of these theologians regarded the grace revealed in Christ as absolutely central to their thought, McSwain’s book serves as a splendid introduction to these theologians as well. The first chapter on the theology of Thomas and James Torrance is capable of standing alone as an overview of their proclamation of the gospel. I highly recommend the second chapter if you are seeking an evangelical reading of Barth that appreciates his Christ-centered approach to theology and does not simply dismiss him as neo-orthodox, or if you are hoping to recover an understanding of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship that does not misconstrue his opposition to superficial religious conventions and “cheap grace” but appreciates Bonhoeffer’s own Christ-centered approach. So, for reading or reflecting upon Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrance brothers, one could hardly find a better guide in such a brief compass. One does need to be prepared to read slowly and carefully, of course, for the book is densely packed and tersely written, at only 152 pages including the bibliography. Think of it as a “Very Short Introduction” to these theological giants.
— A Riddle Interlude (skip if you want) —
After reading Movements of Grace, one can better understand the riddle-like saying which the Torrances (echoing Barth) formulated to keep theological students up late at night talking at the coffee shop:
“grace is God’s Yes to a yes, and his No to our no.”
The Father says “Yes” in Christ (the first movement listed above) to Christ’s answering “Yes” on our behalf (the second movement). And because God’s grace is not a free pass, in grace he says “No” to our “no” by refusing to accept our refusal to be in relationship with him, but pledging himself to cleanse us of all sin in order to fulfill the loving purposes for which we were made for all eternity. God has said “Yes” to Christ’s answering “Yes,” but not “Yes” to our “no” – in Christ he has crucified our “no” so that God’s grace to us in Christ is a “Yes” to a “Yes.” As McSwain says (in the first podcast episode mentioned below):
“In liberal notions of grace, what you have is God as kind of the grandfather figure, he says, ‘Oh I forgive you, I love you, no matter what you do, just know that I’m always going to accept you and love you no matter what…’ That’s kind of a… Unitarian kind of forgiveness. It’s not a Trinitarian forgiveness at all. God is just saying… he doesn’t care – I’m going to give you carte blanche on your sinfulness and … I’m just going to turn a blind eye, or grace kind of lets us off the hook. And to me, the beauty of Trinitarian forgiveness, the beauty of Trinitarian grace is that it always couches forgiveness inside of re-creation. It never says, OK, I’m just gonna slap a little forgiveness on your sinfulness. Instead it says, ‘Yes,’ God is saying to you, ‘I love you and I love you unconditionally, and I’m never gonna change….’ When all we can say to God is ‘no’ in our sinfulness, stuck in our sinfulness, when all we could say to him is ‘no,’ Jesus Christ comes and he says, ‘I’m going to extricate you from your slavery to the ‘no’ and I’m going to come and for the first time in human affairs I’m actually going to reciprocate the love and faithfulness of the Father toward you that’s unconditional from the human side and I’m going to say, ‘I’m gonna first crucify the ‘no’ that you’re inextricably bound in, I’m going to crucify it and I’m going to recreate you and so now, God is not just saying ‘yes’ to you or ‘yes’ in spite of your sin, or yes, go ahead sinning and I’ll forgive you as much as you want. He is saying ‘yes’ from that direction to you in Christ, because Christ has taken the ‘no,’ he’s crucified it, and he said ‘yes’ to the Father in your behalf. So when we begin to understand that grace is a ‘yes’ to a ‘yes’ – a yes from the God-manward direction, and then a yes from the man-Godward direction [both in Christ], all of a sudden we begin to realize, wow, that forgiveness is pretty thorough, it’s not just a matter of slapping forgiveness on our sinfulness – or just kind of pardoning the criminal – it’s actually a matter of crucifying us and re-creating us in Christ.”
Grace is God’s “No” to our own ability to fix ourselves, for our meager efforts at self-improvement work superficially and do not get at the root of our sin, yet God’s “No” to our own efforts does not make us passive objects. Rather, because of God’s “Yes” to us in Christ, we are now included as active participants in a loving relationship where the power of God is everywhere at work within us, recreating and transforming us from the inside out. As Thomas Torrance says, Jesus is the “personalizing person,” whose grace empowers us to become more fully ourselves, established in loving communion with God.
— End of Interlude —
Just as we should not abstract grace from the incarnate person of Christ, so it would be a mistake to read Movements of Grace in abstraction from McSwain’s own experience of grace in action through incarnational ministry to teenagers. In an interview about his youth ministry, McSwain recounts the impact of his father’s embracing of teens at their worst back in the early days of Young Life:
“Young Life leaders were being ‘as Christ’ unto teenagers and others. That’s why Rayburn [founder of Young Life] encouraged Young Life leaders to base their weekly ‘club’ meeting messages to teenagers on these gospel accounts. The result was a beautiful co-inherence between what was done by Young Life leaders with kids between club meetings and what was spoken from Scripture by those same leaders at the meetings.”
McSwain learned from that ministry and from his theological education to emphasize our belonging to Christ,
“the idea that humanity belongs to Jesus Christ by virtue of creation and redemption. Rather than splitting Christ as Creator from Christ as Redeemer, I was keen to preserve the gospel symmetry proclaimed by Paul in Colossians 1, where he speaks of the Christ who created and reconciled all things (Col. 1:16, 20)*. This is the gospel ‘that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven’ (Col. 1:23). This is the gospel that declares that every person is included not only in the first Adam but also in the second (Rom. 5:18)**…. My point was that preaching this kind of a Christ-centered message actually brings congruence between our incarnational work and our proclamation message. In other words, we habitually embrace kids at their worst because that is the way God is! We do not show love and grace to kids so that we can eventually introduce them to a different ‘god’ (i.e., a god who is angry and withdrawn).”
* Col. 1:16, 20: “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him…. and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.”
** Rom. 5:18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
For more information about McSwain’s youth ministry, check out the Reality Ministries website, an article in Christianity Today, McSwain’s interview for The Other Journal (already quoted), a brief note on “Fearless Belonging” by Jonathan Brink, and a note by Tony Jones.
Another way I’ve benefited from McSwain’s ministry is through his appearances on You’re Included, a “unique interview series devoted to practical implications of Trinitarian theology” hosted by Michael Feazell. In each conversation, about a half hour long, McSwain discusses critical issues in Christ-centered theology with insight and eloquence. Because of their conversational nature, these podcast episodes offer a welcome complement to the tighter analysis of the printed page. If you’re reading Movements of Grace, or planning to, watching these episodes (especially the first two) will make the book easier to digest.
1. Helping Youth Experience Christ
In this conversation, McSwain discusses the approach of Reality Ministries to youth ministry. For example, he describes the reality they want youth to see with these words:
“What I want them to know is that the way we are treating them, the way we are accepting them, the way we are loving them unconditionally, the way we are embracing them at their worst and being faithful to them even when they’re faithless to us – and you know how fluctuating the life of a teen-ager can be – one minute they’re warm and leaning in and accepting of you and the love you’re giving to them. Another minute, the next minute, they’re calloused, and the quills come out. And they’re like, ‘get away from me.’ But to continue to be faithful to them regardless of their response – that’s what we do with teenagers and yet what we really want them to know in Reality Ministries is the reason that we do that is because that’s what God is like.”
2. Does Jesus Appease God’s Anger?
In this conversation, McSwain corrects the mistaken perception that Christ and the Father were at odds on the cross, as if Christ had to placate an angry God like a pagan sacrificing to his deity. Rather, as Paul tells us, “God [the Father] was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5.19).
“I began to realize, well, you know, I’m thinking about this in the wrong way. Yes, I love my kids more than I love other people’s kids because they belong to me and that’s natural. But that’s a wrong way of thinking about God as if somehow we belong to God by our decision and then he loves us more than he loves the other people – but instead God has embraced all of us in a filial way and said, ‘No, Jeff, I love every human being as much as you love your own children and more – and that’s where your love for your own children comes from.’ And so again, thinking about that circle of analogy and making sure and going in the right direction. Not that God loves those – that small sub-group of those who belong to him more that others – but that he loves all people in the same way and even more than a loving father on earth loves his own children.”
3. Calvinism, Arminianism, and Karl Barth
In this conversation, McSwain discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Arminianism and 5-point Calvinism. He shows how a Christ-centered, Trinitarian theology charts a new way while affirming the best of both: that (like the Arminian) Christ died for all, and that (like the Calvinist) our relationship with Christ is established by grace.
“God’s election is not one of excluding others. It is actually meant to always include others. In Romans 9, God says, I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy. And Paul says, in the next paragraph, ‘God will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy.’ And it talks about ‘what if some people are made unto destruction and others for life?’ And so all these words are used…. And then two chapters later, we get the crescendo to it all in Romans 11:32 where he says, ‘God has given all men over to disobedience that he may have mercy upon all.’ So it’s beautiful: I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy, so I will have mercy upon all.”
“This keeps the do inside the done. And it essentially says even Christ is the one who believes that you are reconciled to God. So instead of standing out here, aloof and actually looking at this whole situation of reconciliation as if it’s in your laboratory, and you as the almighty human being get to make a decision about this, we have to say, ‘Part of reconciliation is that Jesus Christ does everything from the human side. There is not one modicum of our independent humanity that can make a decision outside of God. We all live and move and have our being in him.'”
4. Are We Sinners, or Saints?
In this conversation, McSwain talks about sanctification, how Christ transforms us, considering the question of how, if we are a new creation, why do we still struggle with old habits?
I think one of the biggest struggles that we have is, well, if I’m already a new creation, then why do I sin the way I do? — maybe even worse than I did before I became a Christian? The other side of that coin is: What about people who aren’t Christians, but who seem to live lives that are more Christian, than Christians do? What about people who seem to exhibit more fruit of the Holy Spirit who aren’t Christians — where does that come from? So it’s both, it’s two sides of the same coin.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard people say this before, but they’ll say, sanctification is kind of like John the Baptist, his saying of, ‘I must decrease and he must increase.’ If we think of that in a linear way, it’s kind of like a football field and the teams marching down the football field, and they get to mid-field, and they get to the 40-yard line, 30-yard line, 20-yard line, and we’re trying to get to be more Christ-like, which would be to cover all the whole distance. But then we fall back, and we slide back, and we get pushed back into our own end of the field. And we’re constantly going back and forth, and it’s a zero sum game. We’ll be 60 percent like Christ and 40 percent not. Maybe we fall back to 30 percent, maybe we fall back to 20 percent and 80 percent needs to be improved on, and it’s this sliding scale of sanctification. And we think that we’re trying to get to a place that we’re not already. The beautiful thing about the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and as is patterned in the Chalcedonian formula, is that we’re already there. We are 100 percent pure and holy, without blemish, free from accusation, seated with Christ in the heavenly realms as sons and daughters of God. That has already taken place — not because of anything we’ve done, but because of what Christ has done.”
“Karl Barth says, ‘I was and still am the old man. I am and will be the new man.’ He gets those asymmetrical. Those solidarities are there, but he always wants us to know they’re asymmetrical. One has a future, one doesn’t.”
5. Reading the Bible With Jesus as the Guide
In this conversation, McSwain discusses how to read the Bible in a Christ-centered way, through an “incarnational lens.” Christians rely not only upon ordinary grammar and syntax, literary sense (not “literalistic” sense), historical context, and parallel passages to interpret the meaning of scripture, but we also read the Bible theologically in light of the fullness of divine revelation in the Son, the Word of God made flesh:
“It would behoove us to make sure that everything we read in Scripture is fit into the interpretive key of grace, the interpretive key of Jesus Christ. That means reading the Bible from right to left instead of from left to right, I guess you could say.”
Update; new episode, 5/19/2011:
6. Everyone Belongs, Whether They Know It or Not
Jeff explains that Jesus Christ is already the center of our lives and of the cosmos and of everything. All reality belongs to him. As the second Adam, he has joined the human race (and the universe) to himself. Therefore, we are defined by Christ more than by Adam. In his death and resurrection, Christ has lifted us up into the reality of recreation in new life. In contrast to approaches to evangelism that begin with our sin and death, Jeff shows how to begin with Christ – to give priority to Christ, the ultimate reality. Nothing less than starting with Christ as the definer of reality can offer the hope in God we need:
In this generation, this broken and blended generation more than ever, we’ve got to start with belonging. We’ve got to start with every young person knowing that he or she belongs to God. To me, it all comes down to “are we going to define reality by Jesus Christ?” If we are, then there’s at least four points…
1. Do we belong to God because of what Jesus has done, or because of what we’ve done?
2. Secondly, are we reconciled to God because of the work of Christ, or because we made a decision?
3. Thirdly, are we forgiven before we ask, or are we only forgiven when we ask?
4. And fourthly, are we a child of God when we decide we want to be, do we adopt ourselves into God’s family, or are we adopted into God’s family and made sons and daughters of God by the grace of God and what he’s done in revealing his heart through Jesus Christ and in the person and work of Jesus Christ?
Scriptural grounding of Reality Ministries (Reality Ministries website); highly recommended.