We could have been at a mountain distillery in Scotland, and indeed, my sister Nancy had just returned from a month in that lush, green country and deposited this array of single malt Scotch whiskies on my dining room table. She regaled us til past midnight with stories of the Highlands and its clannish folks, along with histories of each distillery, some centuries old, which produce one of Scotland’s finest gifts from her unparalleled mountain springs. Nancy spoke of oak casks and aging and proofs and I delighted in the mere names on the bottles.
And so I thought of this visit with my sister when I read this bit about two-hundred-proof grace and one man who found it:
The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred-proof grace—of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the gospel—after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about perfection—suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, nor flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter in. ~ Robert Farrar Capon
I saw that quote yesterday and so my mind began throbbing about grace. I considered how my sister’s Scotch was proof enough with just a whiff to convince me of its power and how just a taste sent my nagging cold into oblivion, and wasn’t grace good medicine, too, especially for ailments of the conscience?
And then today, as the Lord would have it, I got to follow up on Martin Luther’s wild discovery, uncovering, about that grace. A radio show this morning told the story about the day Luther was conducting his very first Mass (still in the Roman Catholic church, and before his crisis of faith that led to the Reformation). His father, bursting with pride over his son, who he really wanted to be a lawyer, but at least now he had an official vocation, invited his closest business associates to the momentous event.
Martin Luther executed the mass flawlessly, up until the point where he was to pray over the bread and wine, to supernaturally intercede for it to become the actual body and blood of Christ. And then, in what his father hoped to be Martin’s finest moment, Luther froze. He opened his mouth to speak and not a word came forth. He trembled. Sweat beaded down his face. Another priest had to take his place.
Luther’s father pulled him aside afterward to express his agonizing disappointment, and really, because he was humiliated in front of his important friends. Luther, ever the man to feel the full guilt of his humanity, but so deeply aware of Christ’s presence, was only able to say (something along the lines of), “But, I was holding Jesus in my hands!” He was terror-struck at the thought of the majesty and justice of a holy God right there in his hands, his own sinful hands, and could not go on.
Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God. ~ Luther
And what does this have to do with grace? Because Luther so desperately himself needed grace, because he literally could not function without it, as evidenced by this terrifying experience in his first Mass in which grace alone could stand between him and a holy God, though he hadn’t yet grasped that, because of this and so much more, Luther found a way to grace.
He was condemned as a heretic, but he had found grace.
Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times. ~ Luther
And what are we to do with this gift of two-hundred-proof grace? Accept it, for it was prepared for us and done before the foundation of the world, and is already ours for the taking, and isn’t it just ridiculous to leave a gift unopened under the tree?
This is Part III of my study on Romans 12:3-8, just a look at grace in this post, because as Martin Luther preached in his Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans:
To begin with, we have to become familiar with the vocabulary of the letter and know what St. Paul means by the words law, sin, grace, faith, justice, flesh, spirit, etc. Otherwise there is no use in reading it. ~ Luther