Not Another Christian Cliche

  • Nathan Schneider
Cliche maze

There is one thing that I hate, yea two that I cannot stand: Hallmark Christmas movies, and walking into Christian bookstores. Why do these two things bother me so much? Well, the first is obvious, and I’m fairly certain I hold the majority opinion of every guy on the planet. Hallmark movies are boring, they’re predictable, and they’re all the same story just with a different cast. Add Christmas themes on top of that and you’re in for a real doozy. As for Christian bookstores, well, the first thing that comes to my mind is the distinct potpourri wafting in the air and assaulting the nostrils immediately upon entry. But the second and more important of the reasons is because it seems to me that Christian bookstores have become the premier bastion for Christian cliches. In fact, I’ve been in Christian bookstores that sell more cards, wall hangings, and trinkets than they do books, and on each item is written some inspirational Bible verse. How does that one go? “I can do all things through a verse taken out of context,” or something like that.

The thing about cliches is that it’s a bit of the literary equivalent to the boy crying wolf. At some point, that phrase or saying meant something meaningful, but after it was plastered on 10,000 different forms of cheap jewelry and greeting cards, it began to lose its impact to the point where now it has no power, but rather is skipped over as if it had no value.

The thing is, sometimes we treat passages of Scripture like they’re cliches. We move past them quickly so we can get to the “good stuff,” the “meaty stuff.” “Sorry, folks, nothing to see here!” The genealogies of the Old Testament come to mind. Perhaps the entire book of Leviticus? But equally true are the little formulaic introductions we read at the start of the New Testament epistles. All these letters seem to start out the same, after all. How can you get anything out of a greeting?

But here’s the thing, and it’s important. These New Testament greetings aren’t superfluous. They’re not thoughtless words scraped down on ancient papyrus by men hurriedly trying to get to the main message. As evangelicals, we believe that all Scripture is inspired by God, which means that every word matters. Every word is important. Every word is profitable. So when we look at the various letters by the apostle Paul, we find something that’s not mere happenstance, nor is it simply a formulaic cliche. Far from it.

The apostle Paul wrote thirteen New Testament letters. Of these, the same phrase appears in the greeting of all but three: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Eph 1:2; Phil 1:2; Col 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:3; Philem 3). Now, on the surface, we might be tempted to skim past this little greeting like it was an ordinary type of greeting. “Grace to you and peace”…isn’t that just like every other Christian cliche? Well actually, the answer is an emphatic and resounding “NO!”

Back in the time of the early church, Hellenistic letters often followed a typical kind of formula. The writer would identify himself and specify his intended audience, and then he would follow this with a short greeting, often the Greek word χαιρειν, which means “rejoice!” Paul follows this general formula. He is, after all, a product of his culture. There’s no reason to reinvent the proverbial wheel. But he’s also not a slave to the culture. The formula is there as tracks to run on, and what he ends up doing is modifying this little greeting in some very important ways. Rather than just saying, “Rejoice!”, Paul instead uses a related word: χάρις, “grace.” As Harold Hoehner put it in his commentary on Ephesians, “It is no mere introductory cliche. It is the gospel in one word.”

Think really hard for a moment. Where would you be apart from God’s grace? I mean it. Think about that question. Because if you truly understand grace, you know the answer. Grace speaks of God’s favor—a favor that is unearned and freely bestowed. To a certain degree, every person who has ever lived has experienced the grace of God. We call this God’s common grace, because it is a grace that is wide enough and broad enough to bless everyone regardless of their spiritual condition. It is the grace that allows us another breath in our lungs, another day of life each morning, a job to go to, food to put on the table, friends to interact with, art and beauty to appreciate, a spouse to hold and love, children to raise, and a shelter over our heads. Common grace is the blessing from God that showers down from heaven on everyone. “The rain falls on the just and the unjust” (Matt 5:45). That’s common grace. Each one of us are recipients of that grace which sustains us in this life. The very fact that God does not end our life right here and now because of our sin is a daily, hour by hour and minute by minute testament to God’s unmerited favor which he gives to every person with breath in their lungs.

But for Christians, God’s grace goes beyond that. There is a grace we experience as believers that eclipses common grace. We might call it “special grace” because it’s a grace which is particular and narrow. It is a grace which enables faith and which results in salvation, and not everyone experiences this grace. Once again, we call it “grace” for a reason. It’s nothing earned or merited. It’s nothing God is ever obligated to dispense. He freely pours out his special, saving grace on those whom he chooses to show it, and the result is repentance, faith, and new life. Just consider Paul’s words in Romans 3:23–24—”For there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The salvation we have in Christ is the result of God declaring us justified before him—not guilty of our sin. That legal declaration came not because we showed ourselves worthy of it, but because God decided to gift us with it. That’s divine grace. That’s why Paul is so emphatic in Ephesians that we “have been saved by grace through faith; And this is no of your own doing; it is a gift from God.” Again, there’s the link between God’s grace and God’s gift. You didn’t earn it. It’s not given to you as a wage.  If it were, it wouldn’t be a gift; it wouldn’t be grace.

But here’s the thing: God’s special grace doesn’t just stop at salvation. It continues on into everything we experience as a believer in Christ. Our salvation began by God’s grace, and it sustains and continues by his grace so that we grow in grace and persevere in grace to the very end until Jesus comes. That’s why Peter instructs us to “set your hope fully on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13). From beginning to end, the Christian life is a life lived and filled with the grace of God. Our salvation is by his grace. Our gifts and ministries within the church are the product of his grace. And the completion of our salvation climaxes this grace as we become like him and live with him forever. It’s all grace.

Perhaps now you can see why Hoehner called this “the gospel in one word.” There is no gospel without grace. The same thing is true when it comes to the word that follows in all these introductory greetings. Each time, Paul doesn’t just invite God’s grace in the lives of his readers, but also God’s “peace.” And this should be expected. After all, peace is nothing more than the effect of God’s grace. Where we were once God’s enemies, at enmity with him because of our rebellion, when God gifted us with the grace of salvation, he dissolved that enmity. He did away with it the instant he declared us “not guilty” on account of our faith. That’s why Paul assures us that “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). No more guilt. No more enmity. No more strife. We have been reconciled to God and we have been reconciled to each other. Thus, if grace is the cause of the gospel then peace is the effect.

So the next time you pick up your Bible and start reaching one of these New Testament letters, consider what’s in a word. Consider what’s in two words. In this case, the entire gospel and the Christian life is summarized in just two words. Grace and peace. They’re not just necessary at the beginning of the Christian life. They don’t become superfluous and unnecessary once you’re on the dusty road of the Christian life, making your way to the Celestial City. Lord help you if you ever think you’re got to a place where you no longer need grace or peace. You need it. I need it. And Paul seemed to think that his readers needed God’s ongoing grace and peace to continue and sustain them through their journey.