Most everyone is familiar with the figure of speech “in a nutshell.” I suppose the phrase, which usually refers to someone’s explanation of a concept in a short and simple way, was coined as a colorful way to describe something so short that if written down it could be contained in, yes, a nutshell. I’ve never learned what particular nut might have been in the mind of the coiner, but personally suspect peanut shells. Why, you ask? They’re easy to crack open but hard to clean up, look great on the outside but often conceal shriveled contents that are inedible, definitely need to be roasted and seasoned with salt to give them some interest, and some people are deadly allergic to them. Don’t get me wrong – I love peanuts and have spent many happy hours devouring them, especially at baseball games, when you can blithely toss them on the ground with reckless abandon. Of course, that also produces a slipping hazard. *sigh*
Anyway, all of these things lead me to the problem with “nutshell” definitions of important truths. They might be easy to carry around and share, but are often less than satisfying and can even be downright dangerous. A prime example is the way folks understand and talk about the Bible’s teaching concerning God’s grace. I’ve been thinking about grace quite a bit lately, and have come to realize that my understanding of it in times past has been rather incomplete. Oh sure, the old tried and true “nutshell” definition has its usefulness. Saying grace is “undeserved favor” is true enough. But that definition just doesn’t go deep enough or broad enough. We’re usually willing to acknowledge that we have received Christ’s favor without any merit on our part, but then inexplicably live as if our happiness and freedom from shame is dependent upon our performance. If we really serve enough, if we really suffer enough, if we really prove somehow that we’ve really gotten the message, then we’ll feel good about that grace. But that attitude betrays that we really don’t understand what grace is, and what it implies. At our fallen core we still want to be the heros who save ourselves, all the while nobly nodding in God’s direction with appreciation that he has given us a break. Fooling ourselves with this nutshell version of this truth only enslaves our hearts to our weakness, rather than providing the freedom we have been promised through the power of Christ.
What does living with a true understanding of grace look like? I can think of no better example than King David. Here you have a man who had God’s Spirit poured into him, a man set in high places, a man who is gifted, clever, capable, and even handsome. It would be easy for such a person to understand grace as just those blessings he had been given. However, David’s understanding of grace is shown to be much deeper when he sins, and sins badly (2 Samuel 6; Psalm 51). Upon repentance, he is forgiven. Though he is disciplined, he is not crushed. Experiencing the consequences that inevitably accompany sinful acts, he nonetheless manages to live in freedom and joy, as if the sin had never happened (at least, as far as his relationship with God is concerned). It’s amazing! How can he do that? Doesn’t he know that mere repentance isn’t enough? Discipline doesn’t cut it? That you really have to suffer a long time before God’s full restoration kicks in (not sure how long that’s supposed to be, but somehow we’ll know when it’s time)? What right does he have to be happy in his walk with God, or in life at all? Maybe there’s something to that purgatory thing after all.
Actually, there’s nothing biblical about that kind of thinking. Christ bore the shame of our sin, paid our debt, and tells us that in him we are “free indeed” (John 8:36). And when we sin again and again, he points to that payment again and again, and restores us to full fellowship immediately with no reservations: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Even when appropriate discipline and consequences follow, there is still freedom and joy in our relationship with him as we see those difficulties as tools in the loving hand of our Savior to further refine us. He doesn’t put us on the rack, so to speak, just to make sure we get the message after we’re forgiven. The debt is satisfied by him. THAT is what grace is all about, and that is truly liberating. Not only is it liberating to our souls, but it also means that God continues to bless us in our lives and brings glory to himself in spite of our sins. To bring this back to David, although his sins regarding Uriah and Bathsheba were utterly reprehensible and numerous dire consequences necessarily followed, his relationship with God was restored. God continued to use David in mighty ways as David corrected his behavior and righted wrongs, and Solomon was the result…not to mention a long while later, our Lord Jesus Christ – the eternal Davidic king who fulfills all of God’s promises. This just doesn’t fit into a nutshell.
Grasping the enormous truth of God’s grace, however, goes beyond the grace which God himself practices towards us. We get some hints that more is involved even in such passages as Christ’s instructions about prayer, when he tells us to pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Do we really comprehend what we’re praying for with that request? I wonder sometimes what would happen to us if the Lord’s grace went down to the standard of our grace toward others. The thought is not comforting. The Lord’s words to the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:2-5 ought to send chills up our spines as we think about how we too often treat others who are caught by the snares of sin:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
This passage is often misinterpreted to mean that the Ephesians had ceased to love Christ. But that doesn’t make any sense. They were being commended for their zeal for him and his truth! But they were beating up on each other, using discipline as a club. They had become so zealous for their understanding of truth that they had forgotten about their obligation, and former love, toward their brethren. They were discipling, but without compassion. They were damaging tender souls who certainly needed to be corrected, but also needed restoration and the love of the body. They had forgotten their own fallen state from which they had been delivered and were in danger of the Lord disciplining them in turn by removing their testimony from the world. Seeing what happened subsequently in history to the church and the entire city of Ephesus ought to make us sit up and take sober notice.
Think about Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 concerning the disciplined sinner in their midst. He writes, “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you.” No question about it, sin hurts the entire body. That particular man’s sin was disgusting and perverse, but note what follows: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him.” Paul goes on to say that this is a matter of obedience to thwart Satan’s devices aimed at dividing the Church. Yet, in spite of a passage that is so clear that no explanation is really necessary, talking about discipline in most American evangelical churches these days will usually get you a shudder, or a horror story about how someone was run out on a rail rather than be shown true godly grace and restored to full, unconditional fellowship. No wonder so many churches just don’t discipline anymore. The damage to the Church and its testimony is incalculable. And all because we’ve been content with a nutshell definition of grace.
So let’s not slip and fall on nutshells. Rather, let’s embrace the full definition, rejoicing in the grace that God has shown to us and its freedom, and demonstrating that grace to one another with love, humility, and patience. It won’t fit in a nutshell, but it will sure be satisfying.