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God's Alchemy of Grace

God's grace turns evil to good.

One of the odder phrases in the theological lexicon is felix culpa: "happy/beneficial sin." Augustine was perhaps the first to use it, and he referred to the Fall, the terrible primordial sin of Adam and Eve that occasioned the marvellous gift of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

We know that God, the "source of all good," as Calvin calls Him, is at work when good blossoms out of evil …

The Bible depicts many other evils that God turned to good, of course, whether Joseph's sale into slavery that resulted in Egypt's and Israel's salvation or Paul's being arrested and testifying before senior Roman officials at the other end of the Bible.

The great English historian Herbert Butterfield taught that one could trace the hand of God in history precisely here: where good was brought out of evil. Whether or not Butterfield was correct about this assertion from a professional historian's point of view, the Christian who knows his or her Bible can rejoice along with Butterfield. We know that God, the "source of all good," as Calvin calls Him, is at work when good blossoms out of evil wherever it happens—even in a jazz club.

Journalist David Hajdu recently profiled Wynton Marsalis, arguably the greatest jazz musician of his generation—and one of the finest classical musicians as well. Marsalis has won Grammy awards in both categories, and has presided for some years now as head of "Jazz at Lincoln Center," arguably the highest profile position in the world of jazz. He is easily the most recognizable jazz musician of our day, and ranks among Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis as one of the premier trumpeters of all time.

So what was Marsalis doing as a sideman playing with a small, little-known combo in a New York basement club in the "dead time" at the end of August?

He was about to act out a parable of the felix culpa.

In the first few tunes by the band, Marsalis played only a little, virtually unrecognizable as he lurked in the shadows at the side of the stage. But then he walked to the front of the bandstand and began an unaccompanied solo of the heartrending 1930s ballad, I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You. Hajdu records that the audience became rapt as Marsalis's trumpet virtually wept in despair, almost gasping at times with the pain in the music.

Stretching the mood taut, Marsalis came to the final phrase, with each note coming slower and slower, with longer and longer pauses between each one: "I … don't … stand … a … ghost … of … a … chance—"

And then someone's cell phone went off.

It began to chirp an absurd little tune. The audience broke up into titters, the man with the phone jumped up and fled into the hallway to take his call, and the spell was broken. "MAGIC—RUINED," the journalist scratched into his notepad.

God was at work in that [night]club.

But then Marsalis played the cell phone melody note for note. He played it again, with different accents. He began to play with it, spinning out a rhapsody on the silly little tune, changing keys several times. The audience settled down, slowly realizing they were hearing something altogether extraordinary. Around and around Marsalis played for several minutes, weaving glory out of goofiness.

Finally, in a masterstroke, he wound his cadenza down seamlessly to the last two notes of his previous song: " … with … you." The audience exploded with applause.

God was at work in that club. That same versatile, resourceful God is at work in your life and mine.

That same brilliantly adaptable God is at work throughout this sin-sick world, bringing beauty out of baseness, heroism out of holocaust, love out of loss—even salvation out of sacrifice. He calls us to believe, and then do the same.

O felix culpa!

John Stackhouse teaches at Regent College, Vancouver, and is the author of three new books: Humble Apologetics (Oxford); Evangelical Landscapes (Baker Academic); and Church: How We Do It (Baker).

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2003




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