Free grace, sinners! Free grace!

by Tom Tredway

The college where I studied and later taught is in a Mississippi River town. The immigrants who founded it built a big stone Old Main with a dome that towers over the Mississippi Valley. Once, in my junior year, long decades ago, I took a class that had some dull spells. Sometimes I’d sit looking out of Old Main 320 across the river wondering what was going on over on the tree-covered banks and hills of Iowa. Later when I began to teach at that college, I noticed students enrolled in my 8 a.m. Western Civ class were themselves studying those hills when things sagged. Well, good! For plenty has come to pass up and down that river valley. It still does. It’s a wonderful place to live.

There are flocks of pelicans who fish the churning water below the lock and dam near our house by the river. When they take off to look for better fishing elsewhere, the birds look like boxcars, barely able to lift up from the water. But as they soar above the river they look like great aircraft gliding on the winds. Or if you stop during a bike ride to eat a Cliff Bar at the gazebo in Shuler’s Shady Grove ten miles further upriver, you can see wide patches of yellow flowering lily pads where the Mississippi bends to go straight north to Wisconsin. The best pizza for miles can be had for $9.99, a large pie, at the convenient store in the next town. Get the pepperoni.

That’s our stretch of the Mississippi Valley now. Once, way up and down this Valley, early in the 19th century, revival preachers roamed carrying the Gospel, sometimes on horseback, sometimes by flatboat. We read that one of them, Peter Cartwright, called to the settlers pouring into what was then “The West,” “Free grace, sinners! Free grace!” He was a Methodist, and that meant that in contrast to Calvinist Presbyterian evangelists, who were predestinarians, Cartwright believed that divine grace was meant for everybody. God willed that all should be saved, not simply those few whom He had elected. His grace was free for everyone.

It was a salvation-centered message Cartwright preached, and he – like many of our Pietist forebears – believed that a sinner must flee from the coming wrath, turn from the world to live a Gospel-centered life. You had to stay out of the taverns and grog shops that came west with the settlers, find your friends among the saved, and with them act as a Christian leaven in frontier life. We are told that Cartwright baptized thousands. (He also, like Luther, fought with the devil. Luther threw inkpots at the fiend; Cartwright just rassled Satan — and won.)

If you fast forward a century, you might be surprised to discover that in the early 20th century the faith that had propelled Cartwright and the other Methodist circuit riders into the wilderness to save sinners had itself become a more sedate sort of cultural religion. Every country seat town in Illinois or Iowa seemed to have a Methodist church on the town square opposite the courthouse. Its pastor usually said the prayers at the high school baccalaureate service and at Rotary meetings. Often enough he’d been educated in the more liberal American Christianity that was ascendant in the mainline Protestant Churches and seminaries, maybe Methodist especially. (Cartwright didn’t need school; his credential was his own salvation experience.)

The question of the relationship of divine grace to ordinary everyday life, personal, social, and natural has been a tricky one through Christian history. “Free grace sinners! Free grace!” Does that mean only the grace that saves the Christian from sin? Or can it be that God’s grace is woven through all of life? Theologians ancient and modern have elaborated categories and distinctions too fine to be dealt with here, but it’s clear that historic Christianity has held a range of opinion on these matters. For example, Methodists taught that there is prevenient grace; it precedes the sinner’s turning to God. Calvinists spoke of irresistible grace; when God offers grace to one of the elect, it can’t be resisted. Faith is always seeking understanding: Fides quaerens intellectum, St. Anselm (d. 1109) held centuries before there even were Calvinists or Methodists or Pietists.

Seeking understanding, St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) wrote that Gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit: Grace does not cancel nature, it perfects it. That suits me. It means that like Jesus himself we can look to nature (“Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not neither do they spin”) and to human life (“But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion and ran and embraced him”) when we want to understand the divine. I realize Jesus was in these biblical instances offering figures for God’s mercy. But when you see a bright lily or think of reconciliation in your family, don’t you get drawn into the very grace of the flower or of family forgiveness itself?

Some modern Anglican theologians, William Temple and John Macquarrie among them, have written that this is a “sacramental universe.” The idea that all of nature and life contain signs of divine grace has been a powerful factor in modern environmental theology in its effort to halt the ruin of nature by humans. At its simple core the idea of a sacramental universe holds that heaven’s grace dwells in all manner of common and ordinary things and events. God’s grace is proclaimed in buildings with steeples and altars, but you can find it in farmyards and city parks too.

As I said, I like the Mississippi Valley where we live. In Moline, Illinois, there’s a school in the Floreciente neighborhood where first graders with sparkling eyes and gaps in their front teeth scream all over the playground at recess. Twenty some miles upriver in Albany is Julie’s Café, where sunburnt farmers gather every morning to talk about hog prices and laugh at their favorite old jokes one more time.

And outside the café windows the great river, whether flood high in spring or sand bar low in late fall, flows on like the grace of God through our lives. In July the roadsides that run along Highway 84 by the river are almost choked with deep blue chicory flowers growing on their bony stalks. Even the state highway mowers can’t kill them. One of the kids who works in the McDonald’s across the river from us in Iowa is the placekicker on the high school football team. His coach told him that he could be the hero who wins a tight game, and this guy knows his date life will really pick up should that come to pass! Meantime the river rolls on.

Gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit. Free grace, sinners! Free grace! It’s still all over the Mississippi River Valley.