Getting Ready for Grace
By Thomas Kuster
Recently I went to a showing, free for religious workers and educators, of the new film The Grace Card. I appreciated the chance to see it, hosted by a local chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
The film is a project of Calvary Church, a Nazarene congregation near Memphis that consciously modeled its program after the work of Sherwood Baptist Church in Georgia, producers of Flywheel, Facing the Giants, and Fireproof, all full-length feature movies that have received wide circulation in theatres and DVDs. It might be that the success of those films made it easier for Calvary to make Hollywood connections (stars Michael Joiner, Michael Higgenbottom, and Louise Gosset, Jr., and an array of professionals, not to mention Sony Pictures).
The result is a film that is quite well made. The acting is generally good, and avoids the tinge of amateurism in the lesser roles that afflicted the Sherwood films. The camera work is excellent, although in my viewing the colors were somewhat washed out – perhaps due to some money-saving corner cutting by producers, or perhaps just an artifact of the theatre where I saw it. Production values are decent, even if they did dwell a bit long on the helicopter scenes, as if they were feeling, well we got this helicopter and might as well get our money’s worth out of it.
The story is predictably predictable. I feel no need for a “spoiler alert” here as I discuss the plot, because everyone going into a movie like this knows how it will turn out. It follows the classic theme of films by Evangelicals: things in life get very very bad, but when you are finally brought to the point where you pray to God, suddenly you learn the right things to do, and change your behavior so that everything works out just fine. Some aspects of the plot are incredibly naïve; an audience used to regular doses of House will be challenged to believe that a kidney donor with blood type A-positive could not be found anywhere in the US or Canada. Of course, as soon as we hear that a kidney is needed, we know whose it will be, and are surprised only that it took the people in the movie so much longer to figure that out than it took us. I must admit that the plot did keep me engaged throughout, primarily out of curiosity about whether they might break away from the predictable. I was both relieved (for the sake of the characters, who were likable) and disappointed (for the sake of wanting to see an interesting movie) that they did not.
Of most interest to those acquainted with the Christ in Media Institute at Bethany Lutheran College is the theology in the film. CMI’s mission is to study ways of bringing the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to vast audiences through the media. So I went to this screening wondering whether this film, made by a Christian congregation, would do that.
The answer: a clear and disappointing “no.”
As such, the movie is a step back from the work of the Sherwood Baptist people. After two disappointing tries in this regard (Flywheel and Facing the Giants), they finally did, in Fireproof, find and display in the firefighters’ “rescue” theme a clear analogy to the work of Christ, and it was shown in a climactic scene in the presence of a cross.
In The Grace Card, disappointingly, the name of Jesus is never heard. One wonders why this should be the case in a production by a Nazarene church. Perhaps they feared that an explicit mention of Jesus would hurt the film’s commercial appeal. Maybe that was part of a deal to get some Hollywood support. This is only speculation, and perhaps unfair or unkind. But if you don’t find in the film the name of Jesus, who is the main point of the Bible, you won’t be very surprised to find missing also the main message of the Bible, that salvation comes to us as a free gift solely through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the film, the concept of grace is identified with forgiveness, and the message of the film is that we can change society around us if everyone can be taught to be forgiving. The “grace card” of the title is the “card” you “play” when you forgive someone who has wronged you. Yes, we hear in the film that God forgives us, but never is it made clear that this can happen only because of the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ on our behalf. In fact, the film teaches that “grace” or forgiveness is something we must earn; we must prepare ourselves for grace in order to receive or deserve it. At the very least, we must ask God for it before we receive it (line at a climactic point in the film: “Now you are forgiven, because you asked for it.”) This is a gross distortion of the Bible’s clear teaching, that due to the work of Jesus, the whole world is already forgiven, and since it is already done, we can or must do nothing to “deserve” it. 2Cor. 5:19 “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” Rom. 5:6 “When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” Rom. 5:8 “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And the movie’s own tag line Eph. 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved” should have been extended through the following verse, “…through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast.” In Lutheran theology, this Biblical teaching is known as “objective justification.” Because of Christ’s work, by which he made the complete payment for all the sins of all the world, God has forgiven all those sins for everyone of all times and all places. That is done. We receive the benefit of this forgiveness simply by believing this good news (Gospel) and trusting in Jesus as our Savior. There is no other way to receive God’s “grace.” And only by viewing grace in this biblical light, can we rest certain of our salvation, since it depends not on us or our feeble efforts to forgive others or anything else we do, but only on the work of our powerful and loving God for us.
In the final (predictable) scene of the movie, the filmmakers sadly missed a wonderful chance to bring home this beautiful Scriptural truth. In this scene, the filthy and worthless scumbag whose wrongdoing launched all the sad downward spiral of the film’s main characters returns and asks for forgiveness. After some predictable tension, the main character does in fact (predictably) “play the grace card” and with a warm embrace he forgives the man who has done him the terrible wrong. It’s a feel-good ending, certainly. But here’s the missed opportunity: the scumbag has become deserving. He has repented. He has reformed. He has become a believer, in fact a religious teacher. He has even dedicated his life to foreign missions. And he has come back from the African mission field to seek out those he wronged, and beg for forgiveness. And so he receives it.
That’s not a biblical picture of what God did for us. It would have been a much more powerful (and accurate) picture of the Gospel if the main character instead had sought out the man who had wronged him, and even though the man was still a filthy and worthless scumbag, had forgiven him, and sacrificed everything he held dear to raise up the worthless one, and consider him worthy and of value.
That’s what God did, in Christ, for all of us filthy and worthless scumbags. That’s grace. That’s the really good news, the Gospel, that we hope to proclaim in our media productions and in our lives.