Steve McVey, We Will Never Overestimate God’s Grace
Steve McVey (D.Min., Luther Rice Seminary), is founder of GraceWalk Ministries.
In this interview, Dr. McVey shares the theological insights he has gained over the years.
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Michael Morrison: In an earlier interview, you talked about how you had a couple of theological transitions in your life and you gave a synopsis of the first one. Could you could give an even briefer synopsis now, and then describe the second one?
SM: Sure. I understood the gospel as a young boy. I grew up in a Christian family and I believed in the Lord at a very early age, became a senior pastor at 19 years old, and for 17 years as a senior pastor I was sincere, but I was caught up in the typical, I’ll call it traditional, religious legalism, and that is the mindset that says that God blesses me or approves of me because I’m doing all the right things that I need to be doing, reading my Bible, praying, involved in church, sharing the gospel, those kinds of things.
In 1990, the Lord brought me to a place of brokenness. I came to the end of myself and my struggle of trying to be the perfect Christian and trying to be a good pastor. He began to show me that it wasn’t about me and what I could do for him, that he didn’t call me for that, he didn’t make me for that, but instead it was about him and what he wanted to do through me. I wrote about that in my first book, Grace Walk, in the early 90s. It came out in ’95, and I wrote about that time in life.
That was the first monumental shift for me in my thinking. I realized that I was in union with Christ and that it wasn’t Steve with a split personality, an evil twin living inside, a new nature and an old nature combating, but I began to understand co-crucifixion — that the old Steve was crucified with Jesus and now Christ is my life. I began to understand what it means to walk in grace instead of religious legalism, instead of building my life around rules, to just relax and let him live his life through me. That was in 1990.
For another 15 years, I taught that message. It’s what many have called the “exchanged life” message — “exchanged life” is a phrase that some missionary coined to describe this idea of biblical truth, that our old life died with Christ and that in its place he’s given us a new life. I call it the grace walk, Hudson Taylor called it exchanged life, some have called it the higher life, the deeper life, I think Andrew Murray called it the abiding life, Watchmen Nee called it the normal Christian life. Whatever you want to call it, it means Jesus living his life through us, and understanding that our identity is in him.
The second, I’ll call it a cataclysmic event, a revelation, if I can use that word, that came to me and I began to grow in, was about six years ago. I’ve been a Calvinist for about 27 years. I believed, and still believe, in the sovereignty of God. I found that attractive about Calvinism, and so I’m not trying to be disrespectful to those who hold a Reformed theological view or are Calvinist. But in my own teaching I had said for many years, “No matter how big you imagine God’s love to be, it’s bigger.”
Then I began to think about it and I thought, wait a minute. Some of what I’m teaching about how big God’s love is, is inconsistent with the tenets of what I have professed to believe, the five points of Calvinism (represented by the acrostic TULIP, total depravity, unconditional election, and it was that third one that I began to grapple with — limited atonement, and then there was irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints).
I began to think about that “limited atonement.” Did God choose everybody, or not? I’ve said everywhere, God’s love is bigger than you can imagine it to be. If God is love the way that I’m teaching, how could this God that I’m teaching and that the Bible says is love by essence, how could he choose the majority of his creation, his people, born to be reprobates, to never have the opportunity to know him? How can I say that’s love? How can I say that a minority of us will go to heaven and celebrate forever how loving he is, when he chose not to elect the majority of people?
My theology, my concept of God, began to mess with my biblical understanding. Some people might get rattled with me for this, but it wasn’t that I looked at the Bible and said, wait a minute, my Calvinistic understanding won’t line up with Scripture. That wasn’t what precipitated the change in me. What precipitated the change was, I began to say, the Christ who lives in me, who is the exact representation of his Father, I know him. He’s not somebody who would decide to never choose the majority of those that would ever be born and never include them in the finished work of the cross. My understanding of the Father through the Son who lives in me and the Spirit who illuminates truth caused me to say, I’ve got to go back and look at the Bible again. I began to study the Bible again with fresh eyes, if I can use that phrase — I hope that makes sense.
MM: With new lenses.
SM: A new lens. That’s right. It was the lens that said my God is not a punitive judgmental God, but my God is love, pure and simple. That’s not one of his characteristics. Love is not “one of his attributes” — love is the DNA of God. I began to go back into the Bible and study it again. You know how the Holy Spirit works. I began to see things in Scripture in a different light, through the different lens, that I had never seen. I began to realize that this God the Father did indeed express who he is through the Son in his earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit does give us revelation of his love. I began to see a shift.
As I began to see a biblical transition in my thinking, the Lord brought along folks that, lo and behold, had written on this very subject of what we know is a Trinitarian perspective. The Lord began to bring people across my path, guys like you here at Grace Communion International, and people like Baxter Kruger, Thomas Torrance, J.B. Torrance, and others, Robert Capon, and some of these others that have written from that perspective. It’s like wow! All these years I’ve been teaching the grace of God as what I call the grace walk, and now I get it. The grace of God is even bigger than I had thought. I don’t guess we’ll ever overestimate God’s grace, will we?
That’s a long question for a short answer, but that at least sets us in the direction of where my thinking came from and where it is these days.
MM: So you examined the Bible from the perspective that God is like the Jesus you had been taught about, or the Jesus you had experienced. Was there previously a “disconnect” between what you thought of God and what you saw as Jesus?
SM: The problem with speaking of my experiences…it might sound to somebody like I’m being critical of the evangelical world, and I’m not, but I will say I don’t think my experience is unique. I had the idea that many do, that you have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the Father, in my thinking at the time (this is not how I see it now), this Father was a just God who demanded that there be payment for sin, and he had this seething anger, and to get it out of his system and balance the books and satisfy his justice, somebody had to pay. That somebody was going to be me and you and everybody else. I had this concept of a judicial, punitive, harsh God who found everything in him screaming out that his justice be avenged.
Then I had the good cop (you know what I mean? Bad cop, good cop…) Jesus who says “Father, it’s okay. How about if I go down… [and I’m using hyperbole, okay? I’m not being fair to the evangelical perspective I grew up with, sometimes I exaggerate things to make a point, so let me concede that at the start, but there’s some truth in this]… It’s like my mind said it was Jesus who said, “Father, how about this? I’ll go down to the world, I’ll live a sinless life, and I’ll go to the cross and you can vent all this anger you have against sin toward me, so that you won’t have to vent it toward Steve.” God says, “Okay.” So Jesus comes into this world, lives a sinless life, goes to the cross, and God kicks the daylights out of his own Son at the cross. He pours out his anger, he pours out his rage about sin onto Jesus and he gets it out of his system. And now I believe on Jesus, and so God won’t pour out his rage on me, because he’s poured it out on Jesus.
But even then, I had this idea that God still is this judicial God who’s obsessed with right and wrong, so that even as a Christian, when I would sin, God still would have come at me, but Jesus was going, “Father, Father, the scars, the scars.” God would say, “Oh yeah, you’re right, the scars.” I thought God saw me through his Son Jesus, and that’s what protected me.
The fallacy in that, is that what we had was a schizophrenic God. And the Spirit, well, we don’t even go there, because I didn’t belong to a charismatic or Pentecostal denomination, so I knew the Spirit existed, but we didn’t talk a lot about him. I knew the Spirit existed, but in my mind I had this harsh, judicial, judgmental God who had to have justice through punishment, and I had this loving Jesus.
But the fallacy in that view is that Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” There’s the disconnect. How can I see loving Jesus and him say I’ve seen the Father, if the Father was angry and had some sort of justice (and that’s a distorted sense of God’s justice) that necessitated that he vent anger against somebody about sin. No. Our triune God, three in one, all share the same heart, and all share the same love and the same passion. They, he, has lived in this perichoresis, in this circle-dance of love that has existed through eternity past, it will exist through eternity future.
One day God said (if I can take a little literary liberty, a little imagery here), “This love we share, Father, Son, and Spirit, it can’t be improved on. It’s perfect. It couldn’t be improved on, it’s already perfect. But you know what we could do that would intensify it? We could share it. We could widen the circle.” So the Father, Son, and Spirit said in Genesis, “Let us make man in our own image.” You know the story. It starts there in the garden, where God created mankind. The reason we’re here is so that we can be loved by the Father through the Son and the communion of the Holy Spirit. That’s what it’s all about. It wasn’t a good cop/bad cop. Even the fall of Adam didn’t change God. Adam hid because he thought God had now gone over the edge and was angry. No. God came for his walk in the evening just like he’d always done.
MM: Even though he knew what Adam had done.
SM: Exactly. Adam’s sin didn’t change God — it changed Adam’s perception of God, and it’s affected us and contaminated our view of God ever since, unless we see the truth in Scripture that we’re talking about today. So God came…and from the get-go he told him, “You don’t have to sweat it. His seed will bruise the heel of your offspring, but your offspring (speaking of Jesus) will bruise his head [Gen. 3:15]. One day the devil will be destroyed, and in the meantime I’m going to cover you with these animal skins, these bloody skins, to show that the remedy is on the way, don’t panic. I’m going to banish you from the Garden and keep you out, so you won’t eat from the tree of life and be doomed to this life of sin and distortion, forever living under the delusion and the lies.”
From the beginning it’s grace, grace, grace, grace, and when Jesus came to the cross, contrary to my old view (which as you understand, and some of the viewers will, is called the penal substitution view — the idea that Jesus took our punishment so that we wouldn’t have to take it)…
The apostle Paul said it this way in 2 Corinthians: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting those trespasses against them.” God the Father was in the Son. In Hebrews it said he offered himself by the eternal Spirit. We’ve got the whole Trinity. We’ve got our Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) on a rescue mission, not God the Father punishing Jesus, but the Father and the Son and the Spirit in sync working together to rescue us from this destroying thing called sin that would, to use C.S. Lewis’s kind of imagery, make us wither away into nothingness if he didn’t come along. I get excited about this.
MM: So there was no change in God’s attitude toward us because of the death of Jesus?
SM: Here’s a verse some people know: “God says, I am God and I change not.” God has never changed. God’s always loved us. God’s heart was toward us before the death of Jesus. That’s why Jesus came. It’s not that God the Father was against us and Jesus came to change God’s mind about us — Jesus came to change our mind about God the Father, not to change the Father’s mind about us. The Father, the Son, the Spirit had always loved us, and Jesus came to help us see that.
Who were his biggest critics when he tried to show and express that love? It wasn’t the drunken cursing sailors. It wasn’t the woman taken in adultery, it wasn’t the harlot who washed his feet with her hair using the perfume from the alabaster box. No. The people who got all bent out of shape about Jesus saying let me show you the kind of loving Father you’ve got, the people that got bent out of shape by it were the religious people.
When I teach this message today and you teach it and everybody you have on this program teaches it, we find out the same thing still happens. It’s not those “out there,” so to speak. I hate to use that term in a dichotomy like that, but it’s not those who don’t believe, it’s those who profess to believe who get mad as the devil about the love of God. They’re the older brother in the story of the prodigal. I know – I’m a charter member of that club. I’ve lived there.
MM: But you, as the older brother, finally went in to the party.
SM: Which gives me hope. That’s why I share this message of perichoresis now. Thank God, it speaks well of my Father that he stood out there in the darkness of my own religion, he stood out there in the darkness when I was saying, “God’s not like that. It can’t be that good. You can’t tell me everybody gets off scot-free. You can’t tell me everybody’s included. You can’t tell me that God loves us all. No, no.” My Father didn’t give up, but he kept pleading and appealing and showing and wooing (that’s an old biblical word), and enticing me to see his love, until finally like that prodigal melted in his father’s embrace and accepted it. The interesting thing about the older brother in the story in Luke 15 is we don’t know if he went in or not, but one thing we do know, the father didn’t go in without him. He didn’t go in, but neither did the Father. Our God doesn’t give up on us.
This idea of perichoresis, this dancing with deity concept, this idea that we live in the communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit and we live out of that as our reality, that’s enough to excite anybody. It’s not just us, but the essence of this program that you guys have here, You’re Included, points toward the good news of the gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Everybody was wrapped up in that big bear hug, that big group hug at the cross — not just the religious people. (That would be a sour party, wouldn’t it?) Not just the people who believe, but we’re all wrapped up in it.
Somebody’s going to watch this and say, “Don’t you think we have to believe?” Sure. Who wants to stand outside in the darkness of unbelief if you’re missing the party? But let the record show: both sons had the same privileges. It’s just one accepted his acceptance, and the other didn’t.
MM: What are the consequences if we don’t believe?
SM: You’re going to stand out there in the cold and the dark and miss out on the party, but don’t blame your father, because as the father in Luke 15 said, the accepting father in that story that we call the parable of the prodigal, he said to his older son, “Everything that I have is yours.” The problem with unbelievers is that — unbelief. It’s not like there’s something left for God to do for them. God’s done what he’s going to do for all of us. He’s done what he’s going to do for humanity.
The problem that exists, and I’m speaking as a pastor, I’ve been preaching since I was 16 — for 40 years I’ve been preaching. I was pastor at traditional institutional churches for 21 years, and the problem in the modern church world (I don’t intend to be mean, it’s just a fact) is we don’t preach the pure gospel. By and large, we preach a potential gospel, not the pure gospel. We say, here’s what Jesus did for you, now if you will believe, then he’ll forgive your sin. No. It’s not if you believe, then you’ll be reconciled to God. No. If you believe then he’ll do this or that. No, no, no.
That’s not the gospel. That’s a potential gospel. The gospel is good news that he’s already done it whether you believe it or not. If you don’t believe it and want to stand out in the darkness, you’re going to miss out on the party, but the truth is that the objective reality of what he did at the cross is real, whether you believe it or not, but by believing it we experience it. Experiencing it is where the abundance comes in that Jesus talked about in John 10:10 when he said, “I’ve come so that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”
MM: You said earlier that Jesus didn’t die as a punishment. God didn’t punish Jesus on the cross. Then why did he die? What’s the connection between his death and our salvation?
SM: Because this thing called sin had infected all of humanity through Adam, and it’s a congenital disease that everybody’s born with, and it’s fatal — the wages of sin is death, and such sin was being passed down from person to person through the generations from Adam. Left to ourselves, we would be destroyed by sin, so God said “Sin shall not have the last word. Sin will not be the trump card. I didn’t create mankind to wither away into nothingness. I didn’t create humanity to die out.”
To use a literary imagery, it’s like the Father, Son, and Spirit said, “We’re going down there and we’re not coming back until this thing is done.” They came — Jesus the Son came empowered by the Spirit, superintended, if you will, by the sovereignty of the Father. He came into this world to finish a job. What did he come to finish? Daniel 9:24, prophesying about the Messiah, says, “He’ll make an end of sin.” He’ll make an end…he’ll finish the transgression. Centuries later, Jesus shows up on planet earth. The angel said, “Call him Jesus, because he’s going save his people from their sin.”
Come down the road another three decades or so and here’s John the Baptist saying, “Look, it’s the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And before his crucifixion you’ve got Jesus holding up that cup saying, “This is the blood of the new covenant which is shed for the remission of sin.” We’re getting closer. He came on mission to finish a task. All the way from Daniel, he’ll finish the transgression (Daniel 9:24), make an end to sin. Here’s Jesus on the cross.
What does he do? He takes all the sin of the world and he draws it into himself. It’s not God the Father punishing Jesus. It’s sin punishing Jesus. Sin brings punishment. It’s not God who brings the punishment, it’s sin. The wages, the punishment, the penalty of sin is death. Jesus draws that into himself. It’s not God. I’ll give you an example. A poor diet and poor exercise habits will lead to the punishment of bad health. It’s not God that’s punishing you with bad health – it’s your own choices. Those habits are pregnant with punishment, with penalty. And so it is with sin. It wasn’t God punishing Jesus, it was sin punishing Jesus. He drew it all into himself. When he had drawn the sin of the world into himself, now that which had been started in the eternal circle of heaven before the beginning of time comes to a climactic finish at the cross when Jesus said, “It’s finished.” He dealt with it, and that’s the gospel we proclaim.
Later on, John in his epistle would say, “He appeared to take away the sins of the world.” The writer of Hebrews would say, “He put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” The question I would ask the evangelical church (and myself included) is, Did he succeed, or not? Did he fail, or did he do what he came to do? We know he did what he came to do, and he did succeed, and it is finished, and it’s all over now except the celebrating. Those of us who believe it are celebrating.
MM: But yet we look at the world around us, we even look in ourselves and say, “the sin isn’t completely gone.”
SM: That’s right. We live in this little box called time/space, and the old Adamic race died with Jesus, and he did defeat sin. He conquered it, as the phrase goes, once and for all. We know the truth…people say the truth will set you free. The truth is, Jesus dealt with sin. No, no, no…the Bible doesn’t say the truth will set you free. The Bible says, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” It’s not just the truth that sets you free – it’s knowing the truth that sets you free. The truth is, he has dealt with sin. He’s conquered it. It has no power over us. But if you either don’t know or you don’t believe the truth, then a person will still live under the lie that befell Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. If they appropriate the lie, then guess what they’re going to live like? They’re going to live as if the lie is true. It’s not. They’re going to live in a counterfeit reality (which seems like an oxymoron, but you get my point), out of a delusion, they’re going to live as if Christ didn’t really do what he did, but he did.
Back to the 2 Corinthians 5 passage, verse 17, “If anyone is in Christ, he’s a new creation.” Most Christians know that one. But let’s come down to verse 19, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” There’s the objective reality. That’s real whether anybody believes it or not. Then it says, “And he’s committed to us the message of reconciliation, therefore we’re ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” There’s the subjective reality. In other words, it is real whether you believe it or not, but we’re begging you, we’re appealing to you, believe it, so that it will be real to you.
MM: The verse said that he wasn’t counting people’s trespasses against them. Does that mean that I don’t need to ask for his forgiveness?
SM: Bingo. It insults the finished work of Christ when you ask for forgiveness. I’m glad you asked that because this is one of those things that are so misunderstood in the church world. How about Colossians 2? Let me turn there a minute. (You better be careful, you’re going to put me in a preaching mode here in just a minute, because I do get excited about this.) How about this one? Colossians 2:13-14:
When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having cancelled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees which was against us and hostile to us, he’s taken that away and nailed it to the cross.
Do we believe this Bible or not? Colossians 2:13 says he’s blotted out all our transgressions. Somebody says, “You mean my future sins?” Here’s a question, how many of our sins were future when Jesus died? They were all future sins. Yes, he dealt with all of our sins at the cross. They were all future sins, and he’s dealt with them all.
Let me quickly add, to confess my sin doesn’t mean that I’m asking for forgiveness. Somebody’s going to mention 1 John 1:9, that’s what always pops out. That’s not to say I won’t confess, I won’t admit. “Confess” means to agree, to say the same. I’m going to acknowledge it when I’ve sinned, but I don’t do it to get forgiveness, I do it because I’ve already gotten forgiveness. There’s a big difference between the two.
1 John 1:9, if I can give an amplified explanation or paraphrase, might read like this: Since it’s the nature of the believer to constantly admit it when we’ve sinned, so is it the nature of God to constantly relate to us from a posture of forgiveness, keeping us cleansed of all unrighteousness. My part is that I admit it. What else am I going to do, lie? He knows. His part is to keep me in that state of constant forgiveness because of the work of the cross. What else is he going to do? It’s finished.
MM: Often we try to repent and prove our repentance and show how sorry we are.
SM: That’s idolatry. Do you know why it’s idolatry? Because if I think I have to show my sorrow and I have to wallow in self-condemnation and I have to rededicate myself and promise God this or that, then what I’m really saying is, I don’t believe the work of the cross was enough to deal with sin, there’s a contribution I need to add to it, and what I add is going to put it over the top. Idolatry.Let’s relax. We’re forgiven. Let’s just believe in the finished work of Christ. Somebody says, “If you tell people that, they’re going to go out and live like the devil.” No, they won’t. Authentic grace won’t do that. Paul told Titus, “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all men, teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and how to live soberly, righteously, and just in this present age” [Titus 2:12]. Grace is divine enablement for us to live a godly lifestyle. It doesn’t create a desire to sin – it creates an appetite for righteous living. That’s what grace does, real grace. Anything else is disgrace