Charis, by Preston Sprinkle

Last time I wrote about one of Preston Sprinkle’s books, I did him the disservice of penning a rambling, self-indulgent, semi-humorous story that only tangentially recommended his rather brilliant book Fight! This time I’ll try to stay on topic…

Charis is a great book. Really very good. Over the course of a year I try to balance out reading books that feed my head and books that feed my heart, and ideally there will be a few in there that achieve both – though sadly fewer than I would like. I’d expected this to be one of the ‘heart’ books. It was one of the ‘both’ books.

Preston Sprinkle sets out to demonstrate how grace is central to the biblical story. It didn’t just come onto the scene when Jesus’ feet touched the Earth; the whole Old Testament is grace-story after grace-story. As Sprinkle puts it:

The Old Testament is a kaleidoscope of grace

Charis takes you right through the Old Testament drawing out some of the most beautiful (and shocking!) examples of Amazing Grace, from the hands of a God who many today want to write off as a moral monster.

The author puts aside questions of how grace works, and how obedience fits with grace, at least until the epilogue. For some that might be an annoyance, and I admit that at times I wanted to skip to the end, just to work out where this thing was going to end up. But I resisted. And so should you! Because what does it say about us if we care more about what grace demands of us, and how it works in our lives rather than revelling in story after story of grace in action? It probably says we don’t understand grace as much as we ought. It probably suggests we care more about the mechanics than the wonder. And if that sounds like a false-dichotomy, it ain’t. Of course both matter, but if you rush to the “yeah, but…” without first enjoying the “oh, wow…” then something is very, very wrong.

This is really the strength of the book. It makes you go “oh, wow!” quite regularly. There were plenty of sections I appreciated, but here are just three:

One particular picture that has stuck in my mind since I read it is a reflection on Isaiah 49:16, a promise written to a deeply rebellious people, in which God says:

See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands

Sprinkle writes:

The Greeks and Romans got a tattoo to show allegiance to their god. For instance, King Ptolomy IV, who ruled a Greek-speaking empire that included Egypt from 221 to 205 BC, tattooed his body with ivy leaves to show his devotion to Dionysus, the god of wine […] God’s tattoo is probably similar to Ptolemy’s, only God turns the meaning on its head. While Ptolemy and other kings were running around, flaunting their devotion to their god – “I’m devoted to Dionysus; I’m devoted to Dionysus!” – your God sits on His throne and declares, “I’m devoted to you!” And I’ve put my palms under the needle to prove it!”

I find that a beautiful and encouraging thought.

Secondly, the chapter entitled “Thug” was a really great profile of Jesus’ earliest followers. Sprinkle writes that we,

usually read them through the lens of their later accomplishments […] Surely they must have been saints. But actually they were thugs.

One by one, he goes through the disciples and other followers and paints a picture of the diverse group of people that Jesus deliberately, prayerfully chose to be his closest comrades and founders of the church. It’s painful reading! When I imagine the disciples, I often think of them as somewhat bumbling, slow to understand, and a little foolish. That barely scratches the surface. They were thugs! And I’m not a lot better…

He ends the chapter by showing that what we often consider to be ‘grace’ is really just ‘tolerance.’ Many Christians and churches

…are willing to put up with social outcasts and misfits. But this isn’t grace. It’s tolerance […] God aggressively and delightfully values and uses thugs and misfits to build His glorious kingdom: abrasive, thickheaded people like Peter, hotheaded racists like James and John, violent brawlers and extortionists like Simon and Matthew, and mentally deranged bag ladies like Mary Magdalene. […] Grace isn’t a term. It’s not a doctrine. It’s not a buzzword. […] Grace is what flows through the veins of Jesus, whose heart stubbornly beats for you – a thug loved by the One who gladly endured the cross to bring you back to Eden.

And the third section I really appreciated… well, it was the Epilogue. He very clearly shows how many of us approach grace by asking the wrong questions (‘what can I get away with?’) which only demonstrate that we have failed to understand the real scandal of grace. And then quickly and succinctly he expresses a view of the relationship of grace and obedience, which I think is balanced and extremely helpful. Energism. I won’t spell it out, since as I said earlier, you really should read the stories before skipping to the conclusion. But I think he’s right, and he brings some real clarity to sometimes-confusing doctrines like justification, sanctification and union with Christ.

All in all, I would highly recommend Charis as a challenging but refreshing pick-me-up for the soul. It will be uncomfortable reading in places, but ought to lead you to a greater appreciation of God’s radical love, and the love which He calls us to exhibit towards others.

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