Gifts of grace

By  Alison Hari-Singh, Catholic Register Special
  • October 25, 2006
 The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges, (NavPress, 253 pages, paperback, $13.30 at amazon.ca).

Rediscovering Daily Graces: Classic Voices on the Transforming Power of the Sacraments, by Robert Elmer (NavPress, 205 pages, paperback, $12.54 at amazon.ca).

Evangelicals, as many of their leading protagonists have defined themselves, are those who hold a triad of beliefs and practices that the wider Christian church has too often overlooked: personal conversion, biblical authority and evangelistic witness. I grew up a Protestant evangelical, and like many in my church community, books that encouraged spiritual growth, devotional piety and developed Christian character were a large part of my reading repertoire.

Two recently published books by NavPress — the publishing house of The Navigators, an international evangelical organization geared toward global evangelization — have caused me to revisit these sorts of emphases with rejuvenated interest.

Though the two books share a common aim of cultivating their readers’ evangelistic faith, they are actually quite different. In Rediscovering Daily Graces, Robert Elmer, an evangelical noted for his prolific fiction, challenges his readers to find that which has been lost among evangelicals — namely, the sacraments. His book is an anthology of writings from famous Protestant leaders of the 16th-19th centuries, which he reproduces in his own contemporary paraphrase. Elmer identifies not merely two sacraments (as most Protestants stress) but seven: Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Prayer for the Sick, Marriage and Vocational Service. For centuries, Elmer writes in his introduction, the sacraments were “seen as God’s direct gifts of grace to His people — aids to navigate through the stormy seas of life.” 

Note, however, that for Elmer the sacraments are not means of grace, but gifts of God’s grace. While Christians of more “sacramental” traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) may hold that the sacraments are both means and gifts of God’s grace, for Elmer (and most evangelicals) they are simply gifts. For if the sacraments were indeed means of grace, they would be in some sense “revelatory,” which consequently would undermine the uniqueness of Holy Scripture as the fountainhead of divine revelation.

This theology of sacraments as mere gifts is tenaciously upheld by Elmer’s numerous sources, among whom are the Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, the great Baptist minister Charles Spurgeon, the evangelist John Wesley and the revivalist preacher D. L. Moody. Though the anthology focuses on seven sacraments — which may render it intriguing to Catholics — except for two very short selections from Tertullian and Cyril of Jerusalem, it has an overwhelmingly Protestant and evangelical flavour. Elmer makes no apology for this, as these sources represent authoritative voices of the tradition from which he comes.

In the final analysis, his selections do not really ever critically challenge the evangelical or engage the Catholic. Moreover, the study questions found at the end of each chapter do more to reinforce evangelical assumptions than to build bridges with those outside the evangelical fold. Rediscovering Daily Graces is an honest exercise, but Elmer misfires most of all in his attempt to make his sources understandable to the lay person. His paraphrasing may actually cause these writers to say something other than they intended. Fortunately, neither Spurgeon’s writings, nor Calvin’s for that matter, are so abstruse that the lay person, with a little patience, could not accurately comprehend them. 

While Elmer is concerned about the role of the sacraments in developing Christian character, Jerry Bridges’ The Discipline of Grace takes another approach. Each of the book’s 13 chapters constitute extended reflections on specific biblical passages that pertain to divine grace and personal discipline. In the first sections of the book, Bridges advises his readers that Christian growth requires both our assent to God’s gracious work in our life and our unyielding pursuit of holiness. He is careful to eschew any suggestion that this pursuit is a work of human achievement. Rather, insists Bridges, our pursuit is a response to what God has already done on our behalf. As he explains, “God has ordained certain disciplines or practices that are necessary in order to grow in holiness.” Bridges then proceeds to probe those disciplines by which we become holy, such as commitment, conviction, choice, watching and adversity. 

Disappointingly, The Discipline of Grace falls short on several counts. First, Bridges does little to engage an audience wider than those evangelicals who already agree with what he contends. Second, while Bridges does consistently affirm the notion of divine grace, his resolute focus on the human being’s personal piety and choices tends toward a kind of semi-Pelagianism that supplants the primacy of grace. Third, there is little discussion in The Discipline of Grace of Christian community, that is, the church. Though Christians do make choices based on their individual convictions and commitments, the practices of Baptism and Holy Communion, for instance, are ecclesial disciplines instituted to mould one’s convictions and commitments. Fourth, Bridges’ overemphasis on personal piety squares all too neatly with modern secular presuppositions of individual autonomy and, consequently, fails to address systemic and structural dilemmas shaped by the principalities and powers that govern our present age.

Both The Discipline of Grace  and Rediscovering Daily Graces do not demand much of their readers, but the latter book is, to my mind, a more helpful and challenging contribution.  Though not without its flaws, it succeeds in its basic objective of encouraging Christians to explore the intentional effects of the sacraments as disciplines, so that the development of Christian character might ensue. Indeed, as I have found, rediscovering daily sacramental graces is a valuable exercise, one that I will continue to pursue. 

(Hari-Singh is studying for a doctorate in theology at the University of Toronto’s Toronto School of Theology.)

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