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An elemental faith

Grace as the building block of who we are in Christ

by Perry Engle

Maybe I should have given chemistry a chance. But I was only two days into the class my senior year of high school when I received my acceptance letter from the college of my choice. I realized that I didn’t need chemistry to get into college, so I dropped the class quicker than you could say “beryllium” and switched to something more practical, like underwater poetry-writing.

After two 50-minute periods of diligent study (cough), the sum of all my chemistorial knowledge was this: Elements are pure chemical substances made up of one kind of atom, and elements never change.

In college, I found I had much more of an affinity for Christianity than for chemistry. But the concept of being “elemental” as a follower of Jesus hasn’t left me. If we were to reduce the Christian faith to its purest form—the one Christ-like atom that never changes—what would it be?

A story is told about a group of scholars who gathered in England to dialogue about which belief among world religions might be unique to the Christian faith. The debate went on for some time until writer and theologian C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. Upon hearing the question being discussed, he responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

One might argue whether or not grace is limited to the Christian faith, but it’s impossible to argue against its centrality in the life and message of Jesus. If Lewis is correct, and the elemental attribute of the Christian faith truly is grace, then how might that affect the way we respond to the world around us?

In the past, we BICs have used various terms to describe our relationship to the world: separation, nonconformity, and, more recently, countercultural. Each describes us as people standing in opposition to the culture around us.

If we were to reduce the Christian faith to its purest form—the one Christ-like atom that never changes—what would it be?

But what if we applied this basic tenet of chemistry to our faith, describing ourselves not by what we are not, but by what we are? What if we recognized that the singular, pure atom that forms our essential make-up and is at the heart of God in Christ is grace? What if we lived as though this “unmerited favor of God,” as theologian St. Augustine put it, was the driving force behind everything we do, whatever our context?

An amazing thing about chemical elements is that although they never change, they can be combined with other elements to create completely new compounds. Join sodium and chloride, and you get salt, a preservative. Join hydrogen and oxygen, and you get water. Mix carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and you get sugar . . . or aspirin.

What happens when the element of grace is applied to a sinful world? Grace joined to conflict becomes peace. Grace combined with sin becomes forgiveness. Grace fused to selfishness becomes generosity. Grace applied to loneliness results in community.

John R. W. Stott, a leader in the Evangelical community, once described grace as being “love that cares and stoops and rescues.” If chemical elements are the building blocks of matter, then grace is certainly the building block of a life that matters.

Maybe I should have given chemistry a chance. But even more importantly, maybe we should all give grace a chance. It is, after all, our elemental nature. It is who we are in Christ.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of In Part magazine.
Perry Engle

Perry Engle’s favorite element of all time is Californium (Cf, 98). He is bishop of the Midwest and Pacific Regional Conferences, and has great chemistry with his wife, Marta, who lives with him and their family in Ontario, Calif.

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