Grace once drove a family from our church. Not by being denied grace; quite the opposite: They had been welcomed and befriended, received into the fellowship and ministries of the church. But when I preached that the grace of God has literally no limits beyond our willingness to receive it, they left.
Granted, the story I told stretches us to believe in a God so forgiving that, in our humanity, we respond in shock and in awe over the power of exploding grace.
Few criminals have repulsed America as much as Jeffrey Dahmer. Probably none, ever. Between 1978 and 1991, Dahmer murdered at least 16 young men. By the end of his horrific serial murders, he descended into cannibalism. After his capture, trial and conviction, Dahmer lived at the Columbia Correctional Facility in Portage, Wisconsin, his sentence so great that he would never be free again. I have been unable to find a single voice that protested Dahmer’s sentence.
Inside that prison, Jeffrey Dahmer encountered Jesus and His grace.
Preston Sprinkle, in “Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us,” tells the story. Mary Mott watched a television interview with Dahmer and began sending Bible studies to him. He asked for more, and she sent more; she also sent Roy Ratcliff, a local Church of Christ minister. Not too long after, Ratcliff led Dahmer to Christ and baptized him.
An old gospel song of the church has the Lord Jesus proclaiming, “Rejoice! I have found my sheep,” but the church did not unanimously celebrate the news of Dahmer’s conversion. According to Sprinkle, “Many people were cynical, doubtful, even angry — like the Old Testament prophet Jonah — over Dahmer’s ‘religious experience’ in prison. Roy Ratcliff recalls with discouragement that many people he talked to doubted Dahmer’s conversion. And most of these doubters were Christians.”
When I told that story in a sermon, a family chose to stop attending. We could not be a church that believed in grace that included serial murderers and be their church too.
I wouldn’t want you to be too critical of that family. Grace at God’s level challenges us.
In Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” he tells of a conference where C.S. Lewis identified grace as the most unique doctrine of Christianity.
Grace sets believers in Jesus apart from believers in any other religion.
Grace tells an amazing story: the story of a God estranged from creatures He had created in love and blown the breath of life into their lungs. Estranged in a way that no spiritual bandage could mend, God gave Himself to do away with the separation.
Having been commanded to multiply and fill the earth, these creatures obeyed that directive with fervency, now all separated from their Creator. Some separated in purely internal, invisible ways, living lives that did not demonstrate open rebellion. Some were so reprehensible in character and action that other humans saw their depravity and hated them. The numbers were so great, the separation so complete.
But God, so gracious!
So gracious that He extended His grace to all those estranged creatures, all across the planet, through all the years of time. “For this is how much God loved the world — He gave His one and only, unique Son as a gift. So now everyone who believes in Him will never perish but experience everlasting life” (John 3:16 TPT).
Church people commonly share this definition of grace: God’s unmerited favor. Sprinkle writes, “Grace is God’s aggressive pursuit of, and stubborn delight in, freakishly foul people.” As the Passion Translation accurately tells us, Jesus was given as a gift — and the Greek word translated as grace in our New Testament actually means, well, gift.
One time the Martins got invited to spend Christmas Eve with a family from our church. The great holidays of the faith often make family visits impossible for pastors, if the family doesn’t live close — and ours didn’t. Our kids, teens and younger, wanted to go to this gathering. The matriarch who had invited us was a great cook.
After dinner, we all gathered around their Christmas tree, and we expected to watch as they opened their gifts. We’d coached the kids to “oooh” and “ahhh” at the right times. The Martins got shocked. Our hosts distributed gifts to everyone — even to us, and we did not belong to this family.
We have to be careful not to think that God is just the best version of us possible, as William Paul Young cautions against in “The Shack.” But when we see grace extended by one of us, it’s at least a dim, blurry picture of the perfect grace extended by a perfect God who gives that gift — charis, grace — to anyone who will receive it. The gift of grace is at the base of His tree, the cross, and it has your name on it — no matter your name.
God prepared and gave the gift of grace to you before you existed. In 2 Timothy 1:9–10, Paul wrote, “He has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
A familiar evangelistic aphorism tells us that sin will take us farther than we ever intended to go. Christians in touch with their character affirm this: we know how far we could have fallen — except that Jesus met us and kept us from reaching the depths.
Wesley emphasized prevenient grace, or preventing grace, in his preaching. Grace permeates the process of salvation — and we see from 2 Timothy 1 that grace precedes the process. Testimonies of miraculous conversion prove to us that God’s reach is long. Jerri, a faithful member at the first church I pastored, joined me in trying to create a physical description of the indescribable God. He has very long arms, we reasoned, because He had to reach so far to find us.
We know that some roads back to God are harder to find, harder to negotiate, harder to travel. While one person might be able to come to the Savior from the bottom of the moral and behavioral barrel, another person might not. And therefore, God gives preventing grace that keeps the bottom of the barrel from becoming the point we all reach — but we all could have landed there. Sin’s evil, sin’s sickness, seems limitless. But grace precedes sin, grace came first, grace tells the truth that no one need reach the bottom; but if they do, they will find the grace of God beneath them, able to raise them up and bring them back.
I made a new friend last year at a pastors’ conference on outreach to the LGBTQ community. She grew up near Chicago, a member of a moderately religious home (her words), and she self-identified as gay from the time she was 13 years old, and she made friends who had come to the same conclusion about their own sexuality. But in her youth group, she learned that pursuing intimate same-sex relationships violated Scripture.
She decided to forego intimate same-sex companionships until becoming a student at a university, where she intended to throw off all the spiritual constraints she had picked up from family and church, to find someone and have her first serious relationship. But during her senior year of high school, God’s preventing grace invaded her life.
Her youth group scheduled a special “Get Close to God” weekend. She went. God showed up. And though it was the farthest thing from her mind when she agreed to the special weekend, she said yes to an invitation from Jesus to make a new commitment to Him. My friend says that the speaker hadn’t said anything about her secret issue, and she never told him, but “he knew exactly what to say to reach my heart. He talked about me, and about my very superficial relationship with God.”
She went home from that weekend a different young woman, and the group she identified with at her university was an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter. She’s gone out with a few guys, but she struggles to feel real attraction for them. She chooses not to be intimate with anyone, because she knows that the Bible teaches clearly that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage between two people of different genders. The great miracle in her story, the great truth heralded from heaven: God reaches first. God’s grace sneaked into her life first, before she had gone down a road harder to get off of than to get onto. God made it possible for her life to follow a trajectory that led to Him, by His preventing, prevenient grace.
Convincing grace makes it possible for us to believe the incredible: First, Jesus’ story. Perfect, sinless man. God, enrobed in human flesh. Completely God. Completely human. Murdered by His contemporaries. Dying as the payment for our sins. Risen from the dead on the third day. These are the deal-breaker beliefs, I often preach. Beliefs that we cannot embrace without God’s help through convincing grace, and beliefs we must hold to be forgiven by our awesome God.
We live in the most skeptical age of human history. Faith once anchored in the good character of Christian leaders, of government leaders, of heroes from many stripes of human experience and activity became unmoored by publicly revealed misconduct, and the believability of the gospel sustained deep wounds.
Andrew Thompson tells us that John Wesley equated convincing grace with repentance, and cites as Scripture’s main example the dying thief “who rejoiced to see” Jesus as the Son of God, as his Savior. “Repentance should not be attributed to human will, because human will absent the power of God’s grace would never be capable of it,” Thompson writes in “Convincing Grace: The Grace of Repentance.” No part of our salvation can be attributed to anything other than the grace of God — the grace that goes before us, and the grace that convinces us to “repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
Saving + Sanctifying
God’s convincing grace is followed by His saving grace and by His sanctifying grace. Even on the heels of belief and repentance, a holy God must look at fault-ridden folk and forgive them despite their failures, not because of their successes. In his description of his May 24, 1738, encounter with God’s saving grace, Wesley wrote, “About a quarter before nine, while [the leader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ. I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
I miss altar calls where I witness men and women of all ages having that same experience Wesley had — though Wesley didn’t have his experience after an altar call.
The thing is, in our era, we’re so jaded, so numbed by our world that such experiences are no longer common in the church. And there’s no way to whip it up with fervent preaching or loud “Amens.” Only the grace of God can warm hearts to spiritual truth and convince people of something that they cannot see.
Recently, I taught a session on Principle 2 at our Celebrate Recovery chapter. CR’s second principle challenges the recovering individual to “earnestly believe that God exists, that I matter to Him, and that He has the power to help me recover.” The second element of the principle can be a high bar to reach too: believing that I matter to God. Even though we hear it from earliest childhood (“Jesus loves me, this I know…”), some of us tend to harbor a certainty that if He knew the real me, how I have been wounded and the choices I have made, all the songs and theology and Bible verses would be set aside in our case. We know and disparage ourselves with intensity.
If God knew me, how could He love me?
The question, better asked: What can convince me of God’s love?
The answer is still the same: God’s grace.
Because He does know the real you and the real me: wounds, choices and all.
How powerful grace must be!
Questioned many times about Jeffrey Dahmer’s conversion, Roy Ratcliff expressed his certainty that the serial killer had met Jesus and been changed. If ever a person existed who must have thought themselves beyond the reach of God, surely Dahmer would be one of the most likely. But God kept reaching out to him, and Dahmer took the proffered hand of grace.
Dahmer did not live long after his conversion. Another inmate beat him to death with a broomstick. In the intervening time between meeting Jesus by faith as Savior and meeting Jesus face-to-face in heaven, Dahmer held on as Jesus held on to him. I don’t think living grace is a real theological term, but I believe it to be reality along with daily grace to keep on walking with the One who has wanted to walk with us since before the dawn of time.
And that’s amazing.
Chet Martin has been lead pastor at Light and Life Free Methodist Church on the outskirts of Indianapolis since 2007. He has also served congregations in Columbus, Indiana, and Griffith, Indiana, as well as being the superintendent of the Wabash Conference. He is a novelist seeking an agent and an online high school English teacher as well.4