Is it possible to emphasize grace too much?
Not according to Jay Bakker’s new book, Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self, and Society, which is certainly an attention-getter and worth a read for all different kinds of audiences. No doubt Bakker has two groups especially in mind though – those like him, for instance, who have at one time been totally burned by the judgmental, narrow-mindedness of fundamentalist evangelicalism, and those like me, on the other hand, who grew up in a church world where regarding homosexuality as anything other than inherently sinful would have been unimaginable and an abomination. In this short, simple, but profound read, I found much more to praise than to criticize – and I learned from it.
Bakker tells his story with great vulnerability. I won’t recall the details here, but it’s worth anyone’s time to get a quick bio by just by googling his name if you don’t know who this not-so-typical pastor is. Suffice it to say, as the book’s description does, if anyone had a reason to leave the faith, it was Jay Bakker. And leave the faith he did – for a little while anyway – until he discovered anew, over time, the freedom and beauty of God’s unconditional love for sinners. Whether in alcoholism, estrangement from a parent, or a broken marriage, the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient for Jay and all of us, he says. Like the father in the prodigal son parable, God demonstrates “reckless generosity” with a love for us that is “complete, irrational, and unrelenting” (p. 26).
The following quote from Elbert Hubbert is cited at least twice, as it captures the spirit of Bakker’s message: “We are punished by our sins, not for them.” Nevertheless, from a theological standpoint, Bakker seems to espouse a fairly traditional theory of atonement – though he does warn against the dangers of overemphasizing penal substitution.
The juxtaposition he lays out between grace and the law is thoroughly Lutheran, and so much so that this might be one of the book’s few weaknesses (borderline antinomianism for you theologians, which Luther actually criticized). In fact, at one point Bakker comes dangerously close to flat out dismissing the logic of faith and works in the book of James, as did Luther himself who described it as “a right strawy epistle, having no true evangelical character.” In this respect, despite an otherwise valiant crusade for the acceptance of gays into the Christian community, along with a genuine depiction of God’s forgiveness for all, Bakker doesn’t do the Jewish faith, nor Christianity’s continuity with the Hebrew Bible for that matter, any favors along the way.
Indeed, Bakker insists that the law of Moses is turned upside down (p. 151), and wants to “reject all the rules and be guided instead by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (p. 154). This is probably an overreaction, however understandable it might be in light of Bakker’s own journey. Living in the freedom Bakker describes requires the nurturing of the law, and this is most enabled by grace (Calvin argues this, for example).
Of course Bakker does not ignore Jesus’ teachings or disregard the importance of good deeds – far from it, but the book is still focused much more on Paul’s letters than on the gospel narratives. But Bakker’s Paul is not the Paul of the Southern Baptists. For Bakker, it’s a “kingdom of God here and now” kind of Paul.
More to come on the rest of the book, and I’ll raise some further questions in the second part of the review!