Steve McVey, The Grace Walk Revisited
Steve McVey (D.Min., Luther Rice Seminary), is founder of GraceWalk Ministries. In this interview, he discusses the themes found in his book, Grace Walk.
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J. Michael Feazell: Steve, it’s great to have you with us again.
Steve McVey: Thank you – glad to be here, Mike.
JMF: You wrote Grace Walk back in...
SM: The book came out in ’95; I wrote it in ’94.
JMF: Okay. Around 1990, you started to have a change in your understanding of what it meant to be a Christian, what it meant to trust in God. Can you talk about how that happened? What led to writing your first book, Grace Walk? Then we want to talk about where you’ve come since.
SM: There have been two really significant years in my life in terms of the development of my understanding of God, of myself, of other people, and salvation. The first was in 1990. I had been a senior pastor for 17 years. I had been a Christian for 29 years. I grew up in a Christian family; my parents took me to church as long as I can remember. I became a senior pastor at the age of 19. I was one of these go-getters who just wanted to build my church and reach people. For the most, I had felt very successful. I wrote about it in my first book, Grace Walk, that you just mentioned. Churches I served grew numerically and the members loved me and I loved the members and things went well.
To compress the story, in 1990 I went to a church in Atlanta, Georgia, thinking that I was going there to build a great mega-church. The church I’d left had been a growing church and by all the ways that I measured success back then, I considered myself successful, and the people there didn’t want me to leave. It was a small town in Alabama and I thought when I get to Atlanta, the potential there is so much greater, there’s no telling what’s going to happen there. I prayed for the Lord to really use my life in an unprecedented way for me. I believed that it was going to explode, and I’d ask God to do whatever he wanted to do in my life, to cause me to know him as intimately as I could.
Let me slow down there, because it’s so important. Let me say it again, I prayed for God to do whatever he needed to do in my life to cause me to know him in as intimate a way as I could. I didn’t really understand what I was praying, because when I moved to Atlanta, I thought I was going to go there and this church was going to grow, grow, grow. The church I went to had been declining in every measurable way for five years. Everywhere I’d been, that would reverse when I got there and pulled out my programs – church-growth programs and my home-run sermons and all of this.
But to my dismay, the church continued to decline in every way. I became frustrated, and that frustration turned into discouragement, and that discouragement turned into depression. If you read my book Grace Walk, the first sentence says, “It was October 6th 1990 and I was lying on my face in the middle of the night crying.” The reason I was crying was because everything I’d done to cause that church to grow had failed. I was about to have to get up the next day (because I had told the church I would) and give a state of the church address where I was going to share with them how…. Typically I’d always used it as a time to share how we’d move forward and cast vision for the next year, but nothing had happened to celebrate in my first year there. It was lying on my face, October 6th 1990, that I came to the end of myself. I call it brokenness, giving up on my own ability to manage my own life and ministry.
Lying there, I poured out of my mind and my consciousness everything I’d been depending on to give me a sense of value, to make me feel that I was successful, that I was lovable, that I was significant. I said, “Lord, I’ve been depending on all these things to move me forward spiritually and in every way, but I quit. I give it up.” I said, “If this is the Christian life, it’s overrated.” I said, “If this is what ministry is, I want out.” Then in anger I hurled an accusation against God in prayer, lying on my face, I’ll never forget, I said, “God, I’ve given my whole life to you, what do you want from me?”
The thought came into my mind—and I knew it didn’t originate from me—the words came into my mind, “Steve, I just want you.” That was new to me, because when the Lord spoke that in my heart, it resonated up into my consciousness. I realized that God didn’t want me so that I could build big churches or counsel people or even lead people to Christ or preach good sermons or any of that. I began to realize when he said that, he meant: “I don’t need you as an employee. I’m not looking for a maid, I’m looking for a bride.” In other words, “I’m looking for somebody in my church to pour my love into and for them to experience this intimacy with me.” Over the weeks that followed, I began to study things like Romans 6 and Galatians, where Paul talks about our identity in Christ and what it means to live free from the law (I was very legalistic at the time).
My life began to transform as he revealed my identity to me and who I am. I began to understand what it meant when the Bible says, “We’ve been crucified with him.” I began to understand what Paul meant in Galatians 2:20 when he said “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” That was a turning point in my life because I had given my whole lifetime to try and to perform for God, to do for him, to make sure that I made spiritual progress and gained his blessings based on what I could do. The Lord began to show me that that’s not what grace is—that’s the essence of legalism: thinking we can make progress or earn God’s blessing based on what we do. The Lord began to show me that grace is the expression of his love toward us, so that we’re blessed and we make progress not because of what we do but because of what he’s done.
That was the greatest turning point in my life up till that time, from the time that I had begun to trust him as a young boy. Everything changed. The life I lived was what missionary Hudson Taylor called “the exchanged life,” that was the phrase that I often used. When I wrote a book I called it the Grace Walk, but Hudson Taylor called it the exchanged life. Andrew Murray I believe called it the life, Ruth Paxton called it life on a higher plane, Watchman Nee called it the normal Christian life.
The bottom line, whatever you want to call it, is that life in which we understand that we’re not our own source but we actually live by the life of another person. It’s not grace in our walk, it’s not us trying to do things for Christ, but to the contrary, it is Christ doing things through us. He’s the source, and that makes all the difference. I’ve never been the same since the Lord began to show me that. I’m still growing in my knowledge of what that means.
JMF: You wrote a series of books starting around that time, you wrote Grace Walk…
SM: My second book was Grace Rules. My third book initially was called Grace Land and after some years the publisher changed the title to Grace Amazing. Those first three books that I wrote (I’ve written nine) specifically dealt with the topic of who we are in Jesus Christ and what it means to live in grace, because that is such a transformational message for people to understand.
JMF: So around ’95, though, more things happened.
SM: 1995 is when Grace Walk came out, and for a number of years I taught and still teach what Hudson Taylor called exchanged life, I call the Grace Walk. Basically it’s the teaching that we died with Jesus Christ, we were co-crucified with him, we were buried with him and when Jesus was raised we were raised to walk in the newness of life. That is the message that I have been teaching since 1990, and also teaching what it means to live in grace as opposed to living in legalistic religion, and there’s a big difference between those two. From 1990 up through 2004, I taught what I called and many have called the believer’s identity in Christ.
But in 2004, that was the second significant year in my life where a real radical paradigm shift came. That was when I began to be exposed to what I believe now to be the broader message of grace, or if you prefer the deeper message of grace. I like the way the apostle Paul referred to God’s grace as the manifold grace of God. The word means multi-faceted. You look at a diamond from a certain angle and you see the beauty of it, but when you shift it, and a different facet is exposed and the light catches it in another way, now you see this diamond from another facet and you realize that it’s more beautiful that you had initially known.
One of the things that the Lord began to show me in 2004, that I think is so important for all of us to understand is this: we never graduate with our advance degree in grace. In other words, we’re always growing. Peter said, “Grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The apostle Paul described the love of God as fathomless, we cannot fathom it. In 2004 I was first exposed to some Trinitarian writers. I think my first exposure was to Baxter Kruger and his book The Great Dance, and other things that he has written. I heard some of Baxter’s podcasts and some of the interviews he did with you. Baxter put me onto the Torrance brothers, and I began to read Thomas Torrance and some of his things, and the circle widened. I began to watch You’re Included and see some of these guys.
It’s like I began to say, “I thought I hit the mother lode when I began to understand the Grace Walk, or the exchanged life,” but I began to realize, “I don’t have a degree in grace because we never graduate from that school, from that course of learning.” It was by the things that Torrance wrote, and it was by the understanding that this efficacy of the cross of Jesus Christ didn’t just apply to Christians but that the efficacy of the cross of Christ applied to all humanity. It’s as if Grace 101 now expanded to Grace 201 and I began to say, “That which was facilitated in the lives of mankind by Jesus is not a reality merely because I give it a thumbs up by walking down the aisle and shaking the pastor’s hand on Sunday morning, or with a profession of faith, or by praying a sinner’s prayer or by anything that I do.”
I began to understand, “The objective reality of what Jesus did is true for everybody, whether they believe it or not.” You won’t benefit from it if you don’t believe it, you won’t experience the reality of it, but I began to see “This is true for all of us.” That was 2004 as the Lord showed me that, and I didn’t talk about it for five years. It was only five years later that I began to publicly speak about this, because I thought, “This is off the charts. Grace can’t be this big. I know I’ve said God’s love is bigger than you can imagine, but I didn’t mean this.”
JMF: In our baptism we’ll say such language as “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?”, and it’s as though our first exposure to grace is “I’m a sinner and I need salvation and I need Christ in my life.” I, I, I … We go about focused on how do I walk with Christ and so on. It doesn’t occur to us yet that we are part of a humanity that has been rescued in total.
SM: That’s exactly the thing that shocked me, because like everybody that I’ve grown up and around (I suppose it’s true in the Western world; we have such an individualistic mentality), that it’s about me, and as you said, Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior. Nobody’s denying that we each have a personal relationship to God the Father through Jesus, but the key is that what Jesus did, he did for us all. I taught many times from Romans 5: “As through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so in the same way through the obedience of the one the many are made righteous.” I would say, “Just like we were all utterly sinful to the core in Adam,” then I would say, “Those who believe are utterly righteous to the core now.”
But now I understand that my exegesis of that verse was not complete, because the Bible is saying that just as what Adam did had universal effect on humanity, so is it the case that what Christ did had universal effect on humanity. As the program title here says You’re Included, we’re all included. We don’t make it so by believing it; we believe it because it is so. That was a change for me. My appeal used to be, “Won’t you believe on Jesus and be made right with God? Won’t you believe on Jesus and be put in union with the Father? Won’t you believe on Jesus and have your sins forgiven? He’ll forgive you if you’ll just ask him.”
That negates the statement of Jesus when he said “It is finished.” When Jesus said “It’s finished,” that’s what he meant. As a guy who taught grace for many years, from 1990 till 2004, I was teaching the grace of God (and certainly I’ll call it a level up from where I had been because at least I knew it was him more than I had) but I still found myself saying that it only becomes when you do it. It wasn’t really finished at the cross, it’s not finished until you do it. I often say these days, “Jesus’ last words on the cross were not ‘Your move.’ His words were ‘It’s finished.’”
JMF: Now it’s your turn, over to you.
SM: No, that’s not it. It’s finished. It’s finished whether you believe it or not. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” I always knew that part in the next verse: “So we go out like ambassadors, as though we were speaking on God’s behalf, saying, be reconciled to God” but I zeroed in on that, and I neglected the first of that passage in 2 Corinthians 5 that says, “We have been reconciled.” Everybody’s been reconciled, so the authentic gospel is to go to people and say, “You’ve been reconciled through Jesus. Our triune God has made it right for everybody. Now, you believe it: make that objective reality your subjective experience by believing it.” It amazes me how that rattles folks sometimes when we say that, but I’ll be quick to say it thrills others.
JMF: Many people are afraid to believe the gospel because they don’t believe it could apply to them because they think, “I’m so bad that I’ve got to get better before I can take that step.”
SM: Isn’t that the truth. Despite the fact that Jesus said that we all have need for the physician. The more desperate we think our situation is, in actuality we might say, the more suited we are to experience his grace. Because grace is experienced not by those who think they have it all together. Jesus came for us all and we realize none of us has it all together. None of us has dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s and got it all sorted out. We all need grace. We all need it equally. I’ve taught for many years on the topic of brokenness. Brokenness is that condition that exists when we’ve given up all confidence in our ability to manage life, when we come to that point where it’s “I just can’t do it. I could never do it. I can’t.” That’s the point where we experience grace.
Even a lot of believers will say “I want to rededicate myself to Christ and I’m going to try harder to do better.” How many times do we have to do that before we realize it doesn’t work? You know the old definition of insanity, but how many of us have done the same thing the same way over and over and over and yet, we’ll find ourselves at the place where we say, “But this time I really mean it.”
JMF: Yeah, and you feel like you do mean it. But you sin again, and then you’re back where you started.
SM: That’s right. I call it the motivation, condemnation, rededication cycle. Most of us have lived on that cycle, many of us for a long time.
JMF: Say the cycle again.
SM: The motivation is where you charge hell with a squirt gun, “I can do it all, I’m excited for Jesus.” Condemnation is when you backed off and realize “I’m not doing all the things that I think I should be doing,” and you wallow in self-condemnation. Rededication is where I say, “Lord, if you’ll just please forgive me, I’m going to try harder to do better with your help. I’ll do better this time.” We rededicate ourselves and then move back to motivation. Mostly back to the rededication of ourselves.
The problem is self. That’s the whole problem: self is the problem. We’re not alive from the self life. The biblical word the apostle Paul used for that is flesh. “Walking after the flesh” is the phrase of the Bible, which means basically the self life. Me living out of my own resources and abilities. You can rededicate that and buy some time (many of us have), and you’ll experience the same failure that you did last time. That’s not the answer. No matter how sincere we are, it’s coming to the end of self that’s the answer. Not saying “It’s hard for me to live the Christ life,” but instead acknowledging the fact it’s impossible for me to live the Christ life. There’s only one who can live …
JMF: We’re saved by grace through faith. We turn faith into a work. We know it’s by grace, but then we say it’s through faith. I need faith, we say to ourselves, and it’s been preached. That’s what you’re talking about, you’ve got to, when you believe, when you accept this, when you do your part to accept it, then God will change his mind towards you, apply the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ to you, when you take the step of faith. But we do need to believe, so how does that work?
SM: Let’s start with a comparison of the new and the old covenant. We know the new covenant is better—if you read the book of Hebrews, the word better is a commonly used word in that book. One thing Hebrews does is to compare the new and the old covenant and the sacrifices and the priest. In the old covenant, when the priest on the Day of Atonement offered up the sacrifice, what was it that caused that sacrifice to be efficacious? Was it the faith of the people? In other words, if some Jewish guy was out there and he didn’t come to the temple that day and the high priest offers up the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, that guy out there, he’s not expressing faith in the sacrifice, he’s out there doing his thing.
Was that sacrifice efficacious for that man? The answer is yes. Because it wasn’t the behavior, the belief, the faith of the guy out there that caused his sins to be covered under the old covenant for another year. It was the purity of the sacrifice. It was the sacrifice that God looked at, not the man and his performance or his belief. I think most people would agree with what I’ve just said, that guy out there in Israel, if he wasn’t at the temple, he was covered by that sacrifice with or without faith.
Now we come to the new covenant. Are we going to say that under the new covenant, that somehow it’s less than the old covenant? No. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice for all humanity, and the efficacy of what he did on the cross applies to everybody whether they believe it or not. As you said, do we need faith? Yes. Why? Because the writer of Hebrews in chapter 2 verse 4 said, “The same gospel that was declared unto us was declared unto them [unbelievers] also but it profited them or benefited them nothing because they did not combine the truth with faith.” The guy who doesn’t believe in the sacrifice of Jesus, does the sacrifice apply and has it fulfilled its purpose for him? Yes, it has. But if he doesn’t believe, he will not enter into the joy, the experience, the subjective reality of the benefits of the cross.
Let’s talk about the faith. A lot of folks who talk about grace are quick to say “Jesus is my righteousness,” and we’ll say “Amen.” They’ll say, “Jesus is my peace”; we’ll say “Amen.” “Jesus is my wisdom” (Paul said that in 1 Corinthians 1:30, “It’s by his doing that you’ve been put into Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom and righteousness,” and he goes on). Some of those people that I’m speaking of now will say, “But you have to have faith. You have to generate faith”—as if faith is some currency that we spend with God to get what we need. The Bible teaches, no, Jesus is your faith, too. In Galatians Paul talked about “before faith came” and then “after faith came,” and he personifies faith there, because faith is Jesus himself.
To go back to the old King James Version I like, our newer translations sometimes don’t nail this exactly because they’ll talk about faith in Jesus so in Galatians 2:20 we’ll talk about “The life that I now live I live by faith in the Son of God.” But if you go back to some of the older translations, even the King James Version, Galatians 2:20 will read, “The life that I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the son of God.” That’s an important distinction. It’s not even our faith – it’s his faith in us, and all we do when we say “I don’t have faith.” Well, welcome to the world, if you think you can’t generate faith on your own – you’re right. What we do is we lean in, and we align ourselves, so to speak, with the faith of Jesus, and he’s got plenty of faith for us. That’s what enables us to experience the reality.
JMF: We wind up trusting in our faith.
SM: Faith in faith, that’s right.
JMF: Then we question our faith. We know our faith is poor. Sometimes it’s great and then sometimes, most of the time, it’s kind of in the toilet. We struggle with “I need faith for salvation. I don’t seem to have any faith; I’m lost.” So we’re back in depression again. But we’re not trusting in our faith, we’re trusting in the person, we’re trusting in Jesus himself, who has faith for us. We can trust in his faith and in him in every way to cover all the bases that we can’t cover, because we can’t cover any of them. We’re dead in sin. He’s the one who raises us in righteousness. What a comforting and encouraging thing to get ahold of it and quit worrying so much.
SM: You’ve nailed it. If we could just get in our minds this reality: it’s finished. “You who were once so far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ,” Paul said.
JMF: “Have been”—past tense.
SM: “Have been brought near.” When did that happen? It happened at the cross. It doesn’t happen when we press the magic button saying the magic words — it happened at the cross. If we could just believe that. I’m speaking to me as well…
JMF: It applies at all times to all people going both directions.
SM: Right. It sweeps across time, it sweeps across forward and backward, because the cross is eternal. We think of the cross as being something that happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, but in reality, the cross is eternal. The problem of man’s sin was remedied before the first molecule was created, because he is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. If that truth really gets ahold of us, it would cause a sigh of relief. It would release us from thinking that we have to do something to either get in God’s favor or stay in his favor, because we don’t.
He has taken care of it all through the incarnation. He’s identified himself as a man with us, and he’s inseparably joined us together to his Father through the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. We’re joined together in him, before the Father. “seated with Christ in the heavenlies,” Paul says. We’re not big enough to change that. We’re not big enough to nullify what Jesus has done. If we just believed and understood it, can you imagine the kind of stress that would roll off of our minds and lives?
JMF: Isn’t that a new creation?
SM: That’s right, yeah.
JMF: Thanks for being here and going through this stuff. Great stuff.SM: Thank you Mike, it’s my pleasure to be here.