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Movements of Grace

The Dynamic Christo-realism of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances



To Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances, grace is not an abstract truth; it is reality itself. By God's revelation in Jesus Christ we are given the blessed assurance to know that all human beings are included in the humanity of the Savior. And in Christ we discover the movements of grace, a double movement at once God-humanward and human-Godward, all by the Holy Spirit. These theologians were keen to remind us that Christ's ongoing mediatorship includes all appropriate human responses to God. In fact, only by grace and in union with Christ do we have true response-ability. It is this "going with the flow" of the Holy Spirit en Christo that makes Christo-realism so dynamic and life-giving.

Endorsements & Reviews

"The joyous gospel of God's love comes alive in this passionately argued and carefully resourced exposition. It has powerful implications for evangelistic practice and provides much needed theological tools for the critical engagement with many questionable forms of evangelism today. It belongs on the bibliography of any college or seminary class dealing with evangelism and on the 'must read' list of any church or para-church concerned about the faithfulness, the integrity, and the promise of Christian witness to the gospel."– Darrell L. Guder, author of Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America

"McSwain's work blends scholarly accuracy, practicality, and unswerving integrity. Here, in dialogue with some of the greatest minds of the church, he recovers and re-communicates the original Gospel of grace for those who have lost sight of it--that God has come all the way to us but also lifted us back decisively and permanently to Himself in His Son, Christ, who is now the reality out of which we all live. These pages will correct, liberate, and inspire."– Douglas A. Campbell, author of The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul

"This book articulates the profound trinitarian dynamic of grace. For all who regard themselves as 'evangelical' this book shows the true extent of the 'Good News,' which penetrates so much deeper than we often assume. McSwain offers remarkable testimony to the way in which the trinitarian Gospel affirms us, liberates us, lifts us up, and, by providing what is required of us, inspires a response that is life-transforming. Further, this book is written by a theologian with a unique ministry to young people which testifies to the liberating power of the faith he expounds so lucidly."– Alan Torrance, author of Persons in Communion: Trinitarian Description and Human Participation

"It is refreshing to find a Christian who works passionately with adolescent youth (in 'Reality Ministries,' which he founded and leads) and who, at the same time, engages passionately with deep, serious theology (Barth, Bonhoeffer, the Torrances, and others). While I have some questions about Jeff McSwain's super-gracious convictions, I have no questions about his profound immersion in the main Christian questions."  – Frederick Dale Bruner, author of Matthew: A Commentary
"An eloquent and compelling exploration of the reality of God's grace in Christ Jesus, this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to grapple with the full extent of what Jesus' humanity means for our humanity, our discipleship, our prayers, and our proclamation of the gospel . . . In the process, he shows us that we can fully, freely, and joyfully respond to God because we are God's beloved children, thanks to the mediating role of Christ and the gift of the Spirit. This is theology at once profoundly gracious and immensely practical. – Kristen Deede Johnson, author of Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism: Beyond Tolerance and Difference
"American Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, have much to learn from Karl Barth and the Torrances. Jeff McSwain has been transformed by Christo-realism and is taking it to the streets and youth of Durham, North Carolina. I recommend this book as an entry point into a much-needed understanding of the gospel."– Christian Smith, author of What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up

Review by Kerry Magruder on his blog Kerry's Loft: 

Over the last year or so, I’ve become very thankful for, and greatly blessed by, the ministry of Jeff McSwain. McSwain grew up in a youth ministry context as the son of a Young Life leader, and studied at a variety of eminent institutions with a who’s who of evangelical theologians (at Regent with Gordon Fee, with Gary Deddo through Fuller, at Reformed with Charles MacKenzie, and at
St. Andrews in Scotland with Alan TorranceTrevor Hart and Jeremie Begbie). Continuing to put his theology into practice, McSwain founded a youth ministry called Reality Ministries based in Durham, NC.

McSwain’s theological training and experience in youth ministry combine to make him a compelling witness to the gospel of grace in Christ. This is beautifully evident in his engrossing little book, Movements of Grace: The Dynamic Christo-realism of Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrances (Wipf and Stock, 2010). The experience of reading this book is aptly characterized by McSwain’s description of his theological education: “an exhilarating adventure across the landscape of God’s grace” (p. 2). All Christian traditions believe we are saved by grace, but not all understand grace in the same way. Grace is hard to define – think about it: what does “grace” mean to you? 

To some, grace is being granted an exception to a rule, a free pass, a “get out of jail free” card, or God’s VISA to pay for whatever damage I cause. To some, grace is a gift we possess, like a bonus toy in a Happy Meal we acquire by attending the right church or trying harder to please God. To some, grace is what kicks in after we do our best to fulfill the law (where law and gospel are mutually exclusive, one starts with nature and ends with grace). To some, grace is a character trait we develop, a property infused into the soul under certain conditions, or a state of being “full of grace” attained by making use of various “means of grace” that put us in God’s “good graces.” Or to some, grace is an inscrutable, impersonal force about which we have no say, and which we can be sure is ours only through much anguish of spirit and hard work.

In Movements of Grace, Jeff McSwain shows us a better way. Rather, grace is, simply and fundamentally, the person of Christ in his saving relation to us. Grace is the free gift of God to be present with us in Christ, recreating all things in the power of his love. The gift and the Giver are the same. We cannot understand grace by considering it in abstractionapart from the person of Christ.  Jesus Christ is the Gospel. In the incarnation, Christ took our brokenness upon himself in order to meet us within our broken lives. Grace is the way Christ encountered Zaccheus, the woman at the well, the leper, the woman caught in adultery. Even now, grace is Christ’s active presence with us, meeting us with unconditional love in the very place of our brokenness, showing us that we belong to him, claiming us for himself in personal relationship and recreating us by his life.

In a foreward, Jeremy Begbie captures the thrust of McSwain’s vision of grace:

“This book responds to a sad distortion of the Christian faith, one that is all too common: we turn the Gospel into something we are convinced needs to be activated and kept in motion by us, something that in the last resort (despite all our talk of ‘grace’) we have to make happen. Jeff McSwain points us unerringly to the joyful alternative, that the momentum behind the Gospel has been running before any human decision, underway long before any of us were born, eternally in motion even before the creation of the world. The utterly dependable love of God, the ceaseless giving and giving back of the Father and Son in the Spirit – this precedes all our willing and acting. And into this extraordinary dynamic we are invited. We are not summoned to make it happen, but because it is already happening.”

In other words, McSwain calls us back to a Christ-centered understanding of grace, in which the reality is that Christ is at work establishing us in a dynamic, loving relationship with him to “reconstitute the personhood of all men and women, equipping us to share in the life of the Triune Persons” (this is the “dynamic Christo-realism” of his subtitle). Grace is not a thing, nor is it static: as a relationship with the person of Christ and a participation in the loving communion of the Trinity, grace is vital, dynamic, and full of movement. Instead of being passive, we actively participate in Christ, yet it is not up to us. Thus, McSwain explains his title, Movements of Grace, as a two-fold reality accomplished by Christ:

  1. A God-humanward relationship in which Christ brings the fullness of God’s love, the Triune communion, to us; and

  2. A human-Godward relationship in which Christ offers the perfect response of obedience and worship to the Father on our behalf.


By the power of the Holy Spirit, we participate in the reality of both of these movements in Christ. In Christ, God has come down and been made one with us in our brokenness, and in Christ’s response we are brought up and made one with God in a new creation. In Christ, the gap between God and humanity has been closed from both directions, and we find ourselves wrapped in the love of God, participating in the divine communion.

To elucidate these two movements of grace, McSwain surveys the thought of several major 20th century theologians: Thomas F. Torrance and his brother, James Torrance (ch. 1), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth (ch. 2). Because each of these theologians regarded the grace revealed in Christ as absolutely central to their thought, McSwain’s book serves as a splendid introduction to these theologians as well. The first chapter on the theology of Thomas and James Torrance is capable of standing alone as an overview of their proclamation of the gospel. I highly recommend the second chapter if you are seeking an evangelical reading of Barth that appreciates his Christ-centered approach to theology and does not simply dismiss him as neo-orthodox, or if you are hoping to recover an understanding of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship that does not misconstrue his opposition to superficial religious conventions and “cheap grace” but appreciates Bonhoeffer’s own Christ-centered approach. So, for reading or reflecting upon Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the Torrance brothers, one could hardly find a better guide in such a brief compass. One does need to be prepared to read slowly and carefully, of course, for the book is densely packed and tersely written, at only 152 pages including the bibliography. Think of it as a “Very Short Introduction” to these theological giants.

— A Riddle Interlude (skip if you want) —

After reading Movements of Grace, one can better understand the riddle-like saying which the Torrances (echoing Barth) formulated to keep theological students up late at night talking at the coffee shop:

“grace is God’s Yes to a yes, and his No to our no.”

The Father says “Yes” in Christ (the first movement listed above) to Christ’s answering “Yes” on our behalf (the second movement). And because God’s grace is not a free pass, in grace he says “No” to our “no” by refusing to accept our refusal to be in relationship with him, but pledging himself to cleanse us of all sin in order to fulfill the loving purposes for which we were made for all eternity. God has said “Yes” to Christ’s answering “Yes,” but not “Yes” to our “no” – in Christ he has crucified our “no” so that God’s grace to us in Christ is a “Yes” to a “Yes.” As McSwain says (in the first podcast episode mentioned below):

“In liberal notions of grace, what you have is God as kind of the grandfather figure, he says, ‘Oh I forgive you, I love you, no matter what you do, just know that I’m always going to accept you and love you no matter what…’ That’s kind of a… Unitarian kind of forgiveness. It’s not a Trinitarian forgiveness at all. God is just saying… he doesn’t care – I’m going to give you carte blanche on your sinfulness and … I’m just going to turn a blind eye, or grace kind of lets us off the hook. And to me, the beauty of Trinitarian forgiveness, the beauty of Trinitarian grace is that it always couches forgiveness inside of re-creation. It never says, OK, I’m just gonna slap a little forgiveness on your sinfulness. Instead it says, ‘Yes,’ God is saying to you, ‘I love you and I love you unconditionally, and I’m never gonna change….’ When all we can say to God is ‘no’ in our sinfulness, stuck in our sinfulness, when all we could say to him is ‘no,’ Jesus Christ comes and he says, ‘I’m going to extricate you from your slavery to the ‘no’ and I’m going to come and for the first time in human affairs I’m actually going to reciprocate the love and faithfulness of the Father toward you that’s unconditional from the human side and I’m going to say, ‘I’m gonna first crucify the ‘no’ that you’re inextricably bound in, I’m going to crucify it and I’m going to recreate you and so now, God is not just saying ‘yes’ to you or ‘yes’ in spite of your sin, or yes, go ahead sinning and I’ll forgive you as much as you want. He is saying ‘yes’ from that direction to you in Christ, because Christ has taken the ‘no,’ he’s crucified it, and he said ‘yes’ to the Father in your behalf. So when we begin to understand that grace is a ‘yes’ to a ‘yes’ – a yes from the God-manward direction, and then a yes from the man-Godward direction [both in Christ], all of a sudden we begin to realize, wow, that forgiveness is pretty thorough, it’s not just a matter of slapping forgiveness on our sinfulness – or just kind of pardoning the criminal – it’s actually a matter of crucifying us and re-creating us in Christ.”

Grace is God’s “No” to our own ability to fix ourselves, for our meager efforts at self-improvement work superficially and do not get at the root of our sin, yet God’s “No” to our own efforts does not make us passive objects. Rather, because of God’s “Yes” to us in Christ, we are now included as active participants in a loving relationship where the power of God is everywhere at work within us, recreating and transforming us from the inside out. As Thomas Torrance says, Jesus is the “personalizing person,” whose grace empowers us to become more fully ourselves, established in loving communion with God.

— End of Interlude —

Just as we should not abstract grace from the incarnate person of Christ, so it would be a mistake to read Movements of Grace in abstraction from McSwain’s own experience of grace in action through incarnational ministry to teenagers. In an interview about his youth ministry, McSwain recounts the impact of his father’s embracing of teens at their worst back in the early days of Young Life:

“Young Life leaders were being ‘as Christ’ unto teenagers and others. That’s why Rayburn [founder of Young Life] encouraged Young Life leaders to base their weekly ‘club’ meeting messages to teenagers on these gospel accounts. The result was a beautiful co-inherence between what was done by Young Life leaders with kids between club meetings and what was spoken from Scripture by those same leaders at the meetings.”

McSwain learned from that ministry and from his theological education to emphasize our belonging to Christ,

“the idea that humanity belongs to Jesus Christ by virtue of creation and redemption. Rather than splitting Christ as Creator from Christ as Redeemer, I was keen to preserve the gospel symmetry proclaimed by Paul in Colossians 1, where he speaks of the Christ who created and reconciled all things (Col. 1:16, 20)*. This is the gospel ‘that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven’ (Col. 1:23). This is the gospel that declares that every person is included not only in the first Adam but also in the second (Rom. 5:18)**…. My point was that preaching this kind of a Christ-centered message actually brings congruence between our incarnational work and our proclamation message. In other words, we habitually embrace kids at their worst because that is the way God is! We do not show love and grace to kids so that we can eventually introduce them to a different ‘god’ (i.e., a god who is angry and withdrawn).”

* Col. 1:16, 20: “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him…. and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.”

** Rom. 5:18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”

For more information about McSwain’s youth ministry, check out the Reality Ministrieswebsite, an article in Christianity Today, McSwain’s interview for The Other Journal(already quoted), a brief note on “Fearless Belonging” by Jonathan Brink, and a note by Tony Jones.

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