Brennan Manning died Friday night.
Long before the recent resurgence of interest in "gospel-centrality", Brennan was a voice calling out in the wilderness–a voice reminding us that we are great sinners but God is a greater Savior. Theologically quirky and personally idiosyncratic, he was nevertheless a broken man on a passionate mission to remind Christians of the truth that while our sin reaches far, God's grace reaches farther. He desperately wanted bedraggled, beat-up, and burned-out Christians (like himself) to recover a sense of God's "furious love" for them.
A lifelong alcoholic who spent his entire life ferociously battling the demon of addiction, he was uncomfortably transparent about his weaknesses and failures which made him a prime candidate to teach us something of God's scandalous grace (2 Corinthians 12:9). Every addict I've ever known–every person who has crashed and burned and, as a result, come to terms with their own powerlessness–has taught me something about God's grace that I would've never known otherwise.
Brennan's life (tragic and sad as it was, according to him) was a living testimony that horizontal consequences for sin (they led to untold miseries in Brennan's life) cannot forfeit the "no condemnation" that is ours in Christ Jesus. This was his hope. His lifeline. Unable to bank anything on himself, he banked everything on Jesus. In this sense, his well-documented weaknesses were a gift to him. And to us.
I never had the chance to meet Brennan, but I know many who knew him well…and their lives were never the same. He knew Jesus, loved Jesus, and is now with Jesus…finally enjoying the full measure of the freedom he longed to experience.
The night after he died, I sat in bed and read (once again) these amazing words from his bestselling book The Ragamuffin Gospel–a man after my own heart:
Put bluntly, the American church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice. We say we believe that the fundamental structure of reality is grace, not works–but our lives refute our faith. By and large, the gospel of grace is neither proclaimed, understood, nor lived. Too many Christians are living in a house of fear and not in the house of love.
Our culture has made the word grace impossible to understand. We resonate with slogans such as:
"There's no free lunch."
"You get what you deserve."
"You want love? Earn it."
"You want mercy? Show that you deserve it.
"Do unto others before they do unto you."
"By all means, give others what they deserve but not one penny more."
A friend told me she overheard a pastor say to a child, "God loves good little boys." As I listen to sermons with their pointed emphasis on personal effort–no pain, no gain–I get the impression that a do-it-yourself spirituality is the American fashion.
Though the Scriptures insist on God's initiative in the work of salvation–that by grace we are saved, that the Tremendous Lover has taken to the chase–our spirituality often starts with self, not God…We sweat through various spiritual exercises as if they were designed to produce a Christian Charles Atlas. Though lip service is paid to the gospel of grace, many Christians live as if only personal discipline and self-denial will mold the perfect me. The emphasis is on what I do rather than on what God is doing. In this curious process God is a benign old spectator in the bleachers who cheers when I show up for morning quiet time. Our eyes are not on God. At heart we are practicing Pelagians. We believe that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps–indeed, we can do it ourselves.
Sooner or later we are confronted with the painful truth of our inadequacy and insufficiency. Our security is shattered and our bootstraps are cut. Once the fervor has passed, weakness and infidelity appear. We discover our inability to add even a single inch to our spiritual stature. Life takes on a joyless, empty quality. We begin to resemble the leading character in Eugene O'Neill's play The Great God Brown: "Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of the earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid to love, I who love love?"
Something is radically wrong.
Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat out denial of the gospel of grace.
With Brennan, I concur that it is high time for the church to honor its Founder by embracing sola gratia anew, to reignite the beacon of hope for the hopeless and point all of us bedraggled performancists back to the freedom and rest of the Cross. To leave our "if's" "and's" or "but's" behind and get back to proclaiming the only message that matters-and the only message we have-the Word about God's one-way love for sinners. It is time for us to abandon once and for all our play-it-safe religion, and, as Robert Farrar Capon so memorably put it, to get drunk on grace. Two hundred-proof, unflinching grace. That's the kind of drunkenness Brennan would endorse–especially from where he is now. The radicality of grace is shocking and scary, unnatural and undomesticated…but it is also the only thing that can set us free and light the church, and the world, on fire.
Brennan "got" that. He "gets it" even better now.
See you on the other side, brother!