Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ray Lewis, John Newton, and the Majesty of Grace


When it comes to sports, I am a Baptist: I believe in a wall of separation between faith and football. Hence, unlike many of my Christian contemporaries, I was never tempted in my youth to support the Dallas Cowboys simply because of the outspoken faith of coach Tom Landry and quarterback Roger Staubach. More recently, I refused to jump on the Tim Tebow bandwagon and either ignore or deny his transparent quarterbacking inadequacies simply because of his squeaky clean evangelical Christian persona. When it comes to sports, my loyalties will forever lie with my hometown teams, whether it be the Phillies of Lenny Dykstra, the Sixers of Allen Iverson, or the Eagles of Terrell Owens or, more recently, DeSean Jackson.

But even such "Baptist" athletic supporters such as I can be inconsistent. And so, when the Baltimore Ravens—a franchise I have yet to forgive for abandoning Cleveland in 1996—reached the Super Bowl following the 2000 season, I fervently rooted against them, ostensibly for a "righteous" reason. And that reason? Their preeminent player, linebacker Ray Lewis, was involved in a fight in January 2000 that resulted in the stabbing deaths of two men. Though Lewis and two of his friends were indicted on murder and aggravated assault charges, later that year he was acquitted of these charges in exchange for a guilty plea to the misdemeanor crime of obstructing justice. No matter. To me (and to countless other moralists) Lewis was, and would continue to be, a "murderer" and unworthy of our support, notwithstanding his stature as—sorry, Dick Butkus—the greatest inside linebacker ever to play in the NFL.

Along the way, however, something strange happened. Lewis converted to Christianity (for the story, see the Sports Illustrated article here). And so, despite his criminal record, despite his six children from four different women (none of whom were his wife), Lewis is, whether his Christian critics like it or not, their brother in Christ. Indeed, after the Ravens' 24-9 playoff victory over the Colts earlier this month, Lewis sported a sleeveless t-shirt with Psalm 91 inscribed on it. And Sunday, after the Ravens defeated the Patriots to earn a trip to the Super Bowl, Lewis explicitly glorified God. Now to me, as a trained theologian (even, I might add, a Calvinist one), I wince when athletes like Tebow and Lewis speak as if God directly caused the victories of their teams. Nevertheless, their instincts as Christians are correct. God is to be glorified in all things, whatever the circumstances of life.

But I wonder whether America's vast evangelical population will gravitate to Lewis the way they did to Tebow last year (the nadir of such support, to me, was the frequent criticism of the Broncos for ditching Tebow in favor of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning!). My hunch is that they won't, and for a very predictable reason: for all the lip service they give to the grace of God, they are still moralists at heart. They support Tebow because of his apparently spotless "testimony." But other people—be it Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Osama bin Laden, Bob Dylan, or Ray Lewis—are either too evil or morally compromised to deserve a "chance" to be "saved" from their sin. Only the relatively "good," be it Tebow or they themselves who are untainted by egregious sins, are implicitly "worthy" of grace. But such an attitude, even if embraced only subconsciously, ignores both prominent texts from Scripture and the experience of saints from the past.

You see, nobody can "deserve" grace. God's saving favor is unmerited. Indeed, it is, as my dad used to say, favor extended where wrath is deserved. So the Apostle Paul argues in Romans 1-3, especially in 3:10-18, where he offers what Richard Hays has called "a jackhammer indictment of human sinfulness" in a catena of scriptural quotations (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [New Haven and London: Yale, 1989] 50). Quoting Psalm 14, Paul affirms that "there is no one who is righteous" and that "there is no one who seeks God." Indeed, even the Jews, who were privileged to possess the Torah, could not stand acquitted before the bar of God's just judgment, and so can only, like the godless Gentiles (1:18-32), be "justified" by God's grace through faith in Christ, whose sacrificial death was the definitive, "eschatological"  expression of God's saving justice and faithfulness (3:19-26). This means that none of us, whether a blatant infidel or dutiful product of a godly home, has a leg to stand on before God. We all need the grace enacted by God in the cross of Christ. Consequently, we have no grounds on which to begrudge the grace shown to such men as Lewis, no matter his chequered past. After all, Jesus himself shows that it is never too late to repent, as his encounter with the criminal crucified at his side (Luke 23) attests. And remember that this man was no petty "thief." He was a lēstēs, a revolutionary insurrectionist or guerrilla (what certain right wing Americans would consider a Jewish "patriot"). Yet, if the Lukan Jesus is to be believed, this man that very day would experience the bliss of Jesus' presence in "Paradise" while awaiting the resurrection promised in the Book of Daniel.

While reflecting on Lewis, I was reminded of one of the great heroes of British Christianity, John Newton (1725-1807). The story of Newton's life is a famous one. Raised in a Christian home by a godly mother, Newton abandoned the faith after his mother's death and eventually was conscripted into the Royal Navy. Eventually he deserted the Navy and found his way to Africa, via falling in with a Portuguese slave trader, with the express desire to "sin his fill." While in Africa he was, for a time, even a slave to slaves, being rescued by a British captain sent expressly by Newton's father on a search and rescue mission for him. Newton, ever the sinner, broke into the ship's supply of rum and got both himself and the crew drunk. When confronted by the captain, Newton wound up in the sea, only to be saved by harpoon. Later on that voyage to Scotland, a terrible storm off the coast of Donegal in Ireland caused the ship to begin to sink. While manning the pumps Newton recalled the Bible verses and songs taught to him by his mother, and his journey to conversion to authentic Christian faith began. Eventually, despite only two years of formal education, Newton became an Anglican minister, serving as curate at a small parish in Olney in Buckinghamshire and, later, as Rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, London, where he served until his death. While at St. Mary's, Newton became friends with the young Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, and lived to see the implementation of the Slave Trade Act 1807 the latter championed.

Newton was a man gripped by the grace of God. He was saved by grace, and never got over it. And it was not a watered down version of grace that Newton championed, but the robust, Pauline, Calvinist doctrine known as irresistible grace:
We needed sovereign, irresistible grace to save us, or we would be lost forever!
Moreover, this is a grace that operates over the whole expanse of the believer's life:
I am not what I ought to be — ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be — I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be — soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, "By the grace of God I am what I am." (The Christian Spectator, vol. 3 [1821] 186)
Near the end of his life, he is said to have uttered the following words (a variation of which were memorably quoted by the great Albert Finney in his portrayal of Newton in the compelling 2006 film, Amazing Grace):
When I was young, I was sure of many things; now there are only two things of which I am sure: one is, that I am a miserable sinner; and the other, that Christ is an all-sufficient Saviour. He is well-taught who learns these two lessons. 
Most famous of all, however, is a hymn he wrote, originally entitled "Faith's Review and Expectation," more commonly known as "Amazing Grace:"
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see. 
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believ'd!
Thro' many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who call'd me here below,
Will be forever mine.
These words never lose their power for all who, like I, am confronted day by day with the sin from whose power I am constantly being saved. Like John Newton, like Ray Lewis, so also Jimmy McGahey. Soli Deo Gloria!

I leave you with with a performance of Newton's "Amazing Grace" by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, one which warms both my Christian and my Celtic hearts.

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