“The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning

Several years ago I attended an Easter Service where communion was to be served. Prior to distributing the cup and the bread a lady got up and read from Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel. She read the part where Manning describes how Jesus overturned the customs of the day by dining with anyone who would eat with Him – sinners, Pharisees, all were welcome. The rules of table fellowship, as practiced by Jesus, said that it did not matter who you were or what you had done. The only condition for Christ’s acceptance is that you had to want it. If you would dine with Him you have to open the door and let Him in.

The Easter lady explained that Jesus showed grace by inviting sinners to His table. She then did the exact opposite by inviting sinners NOT to partake of the communion that was about to be passed around. She closed a door that Jesus had opened and I did a face-palm.

Like that lady, many in the church pay lip service to grace but they don’t show it. I am not saying they are mean-spirited or deliberately ungracious. It’s just that they don’t get it. They understand grace in theory but not in practice. Still it is strange that this lady missed it since she had read The Ragamuffin Gospel and this book is about the relentless love of Abba God as revealed in Jesus, the friend of sinners.

Grace accepts the unacceptable

In his book Manning takes aim at those “so-called Christians who disfigure the face of God, mutilate the gospel of grace, and intimidate others through fear.” He finds it unthinkable that the church rejects those who are accepted by Jesus. Jesus loves those whom the Father loves. If Jesus accepts sinners then God accepts sinners – and He does. How can any of us enter the Kingdom except that God accepts us in our sinful state? (See Romans 5:8 if this troubles you.)

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for those who are burned out, beat-up, and bedraggled. It’s for those who are sick and tired of a religion that only pays lip-service grace. It’s a book about the gracious and mind-blowing acceptance that we have in Christ:

Grace calls out: you are not just a disillusioned old man who may die soon, a middle-aged woman stuck in a job and desperately wanting to get out, a young person feeling the fire in the belly begin to grow cold. You may be insecure, inadequate, mistaken, or potbellied. Death, panic, depression, and disillusionment may be near you. But you are not just that. You are accepted. Never confuse your perception of yourself with the mystery that you really are accepted. (p.29)

Grace is so simple it confounds the wise. Many just don’t get it. They either don’t believe it (“we must author our own salvation”) or they think we don’t need to do anything to receive it (“everybody is saved regardless of whether they want to be”). In his ministry as a vagabond evangelist, Manning encountered both errors:

I have encountered shocking resistance to the God whom the Bible defines as Love. The skeptics range from the oily, over polite professionals who discreetly drop hints of the heresy of universalism, to the Bible thumper who sees only the dusty, robust war God of the Pentateuch, and who insists on restating the cold demands of rule-ridden perfectionism. (pp.36-7)

Perhaps grace is not something we can easily catch from a Sunday sermon. Perhaps grace comes to us better through story and intervention. In that case, grace-preachers ought to be story-tellers and Manning certainly is. His book is full of brilliant stories with characters ranging from about Fiorello La Guardia, the former mayor of New York, to people Manning has met at AA meetings.

Manning’s best stories are his own. In a world of be-suited and toothy preachers, Manning gives us a warts-and-all testimony of raw honesty. You don’t have to wonder at his faults because he comes right out and tells you. We learn that he became an alcoholic after he was saved and that he broke his priestly vows by getting married. It is not hard to imagine that his experiences have exposed him to the ugly, unaccepting side of churchianity.

Manning has no time for ungraciousness. It’s un-Christlike. It’s the basis of dishonest religion where we dare not confront our faults. Manning argues that the sooner we stop pretending that we have it all together and start loving each other for who we really are, the better. I wholeheartedly agree. Pride hinders grace. God gives grace to the humble and those who honestly admit they are poor and needy.

But in his calls for greater honesty Manning sounds much like Philip Yancey who, in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, takes a generally dim view of those who call themselves saints. Both authors admire the AA program and seem to think the church could learn a few lessons from it. In that world a core value is the view that once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. I understand the logic behind this: the only way to receive grace is to be honest about your ongoing need for it. But I have to disagree with the conclusion that in Christ we are just “saved sinners” or “sinners saved by grace.” I was a sinner, but when Christ came into my life the old went and the new came. I’m not claiming sinless perfection. I am claiming a new identity in Christ. I am saying that grace changes us and that it is dishonest to talk about ourselves as though we are still who we used to be.

Honesty brings an end to pretense through a candid acknowledgment of our fragile humanity. It was always unpleasant, and usually painful, and that is why I am not very good at it. But to stand in the truth before God and one another has a unique reward. It is the reward which a sense of reality always brings. I know something extremely precious. I am in touch with myself as I am. My tendency to play the pseudo messiah is torpedoed. (p.138)

Grace changes us

Honesty keeps us real but believers operate in two realities – the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. The honesty that Manning speaks of seems to me to be the lesser of these realities. Focus on self and sin and you’ll end up self-conscious and sin-conscious. This is not the way forward. There’s no grace in your navel. Whatever your problem the solution is not to take a long hard look at yourself and your faults, but to fix your eyes on Jesus and His wholeness. Yes, you are just a crumbly jar of clay, but you have a great treasure inside! Treasure the Treasure.

Where The Ragamuffin Gospel really shines is in our dealings with people. If you are looking for more reality in your community life, then this is the book for you. It’s about the furious love of God, the Really Real and the life that we share in Christ. But read it in the understanding that the grace of God is truly transformative – it can change you from something you are into something you are not. Jesus heals cripples. He delivers the oppressed and depressed and raises the dead. If He can do all those things then He can heal alcoholics and deal with whatever other problems you are facing.

Understand that I am NOT passing judgment on anyone who enjoys a drink. I am saying that grace and unbelief don’t mix. If you don’t think He can heal you, guess what, He probably won’t. Go around telling people that you are this and that and you speak death over yourself. You will experience a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t recommend you do that. Instead, agree with what Jesus says about you. You were a sinner, now you are a saint. You are not a saint because you act like it; you begin to act like it because it’s who you are in Christ (see 1 Cor. 1:30). Brennan, you are a saint!

St. Brennan the Brave

I have read many good books on grace that left me marveling at the author’s depth of revelation. This is probably the first time where, having finished, I just want to give the author a big hug. Brennan Manning is one special guy. He has seen the church at its ugliest and rather than run away he stayed to preach grace. That takes a lot of heart. He reminds me of Jesus who got involved and took responsibility for a mess that was not His own. Brennan Manning is a grace-giver in spades.

The Ragamuffin Gospel is a modern classic. When it was first published in 1990 it resonated with many. It inspired musicians (Rich Mullins and the Ragamuffin Band), artists, poets, and not a few bookstore owners. The metaphor of the ragamuffin continues to capture our attention because many are hungry for the gospel. They are the poor in spirit who have heard of the Kingdom and have perhaps entered it, but they are not living in the fullness of God’s amazing grace. Ragamuffins include Christians who have been force-fed a toxic diet of grace and law and remain unsatisfied, still hungry. If that describes you, then the good news as told by Saint Brennan will set you free.

Have you read this book? Tell us what you thought of it below.
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19 Comments on “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning

  1. I think this is a very accurate review of The Ragamuffin Gospel. It is one of my favorite books for its raw and honest look at grace and the relentless love of God. I’m glad you were able to read it and enjoyed it so much.🙂

  2. Thanks for the post Paul. I just reread Ragamuffin Gospel a couple weeks ago and fell in love with it again. It lead me to read more of Brennan’s books including his memoirs, All is Grace. All is Grace is even more self revealing and transparent. I’m glad to have read Brennan’s books and share in highs and lows, successes and failures. It takes a huge amount of courage to be as honest as he is in All is Grace and I applaud him for it. He is definitely in love with Abba even though his focus sometime strays to his self deprecating disappointment in himself…but don’t we all? Thanks again.

  3. This book has been on my “To Read” list for about six months now. After this post, I’m going to pick it up today.

  4. I am currently reading this book. A girl who does a lot of missionary work recommended that I read it couple of years ago. About a year after she recommended that I read it, I finally bought…and I am soooo glad that I did. Something about Brennan Manning’s and his writing is just captivating! His spirit and the way he shares always intoxicated me in the love of God. This is a great book that I would highly recommend! And great article about the book btw!

  5. Roshan Easo // July 29, 2012 at 10:35 am // Reply

    Paul, you say one thing I agree with, and one thing I don’t. But you’re awesome! Actually I simply have a different perspective on both. One – you say that we don’t “author our own salvation.” Two – You say we must “do something to receive that salvation.” Actually I believe you can author your own salvation – or can try anyways – put it would all fall pitifully short as you one day fall into the arms of Jesus. He’s so unconditionally accepting. Two – well, I’m divided on that second comment. On the one hand Papa is the one who reveals all things to us, not we babes ourselves. And eureka moments and raptures of the soul (for me, when my neck, brain and joints and breathe start popping in all kinds of directions as exstacies of everyday revelation of Christ) are best produced spontaneously. But I also recognize that out of my stubborn Self-born half, that I’ve got repent/release/turn back to the implications of joyful “good news-es” of the Good News!!) I tend to agree with Crowder’s jargon – that we don’t speak of saved or unsaved, yin or yang, saint or sinner, but rather simpler believer and unbeliever. Amen? Yet there are moments when every doubt must be turned over and brought into alignment. In such moments we are reminded that even believing is a complete gift. Nirvana man! And then, Papa is still by my side and I may continue on in this journey of “curse-less” effortless existence! Effortless? Yeah I know that sounds naive and delusional. But honestly, I think the efforts of pride are only the fear of man. THAT’s the Real delusion. Remember? Papa has already accepted us, swallowing us whole and infesting our inner being with His love! Wisdom will ALWAYS be proved right (as the saying goes) by her actions! As far as My inner being goes, his love waits outside the doors of my doubts of his love. Papa Jesus, are you really this loving? Alright! Come on in! I guess we don’t “have” to repent/release/turn back to Good News. Joy promises such a huge free steak of goodies that I “get” to repent/release/turn to Bliss!

    • I’m pretty sure I don’t say we have to do anything to receive salvation other than receive salvation – meaning, believe in it. Grace only comes through faith. If you don’t believe you won’t receive.

  6. Thank you for reminding me why I loved the Ragamuffin Gospel in the first place. The quote you give from the book…that we define ourselves in many different ways, and at times, see ourselves in a very negative light, and that God accepts us and loves us…it is why I love the book. These past two weeks I hear the Holy Spirit telling me that I am “good enough”. I think that at times we are our harshest jcritics. But praise God, Jesus paid for that too.

  7. i have to agree w/ your assessment of the aa program… and i also understand why the author thinks the church would benefit from it. admitting you have a problem and are powerless to change, believing God can restore you, and surrendering your life and will into the care of God are applicable to anyone who is walking in the flesh… when God has delivered you from something, it is very natural to want others who are suffering to experience deliverance. and then there is “one day at a time”… but the flaw of the aa program is that it keeps people in a cyclical movement through its steps… even though there is no strict adherence to the steps, they are “steps” nonetheless… aa is an good example of mixing law and grace
    i went to aa once a week for almost a year. God had already delivered me from alcohol before i went to my first meeting… but b/c of step 3, i surrendered my life to Him before i even knew what i was getting myself into! (lol) one month later i was born again and i made Jesus my “sponsor” – i never made it to step 4. i went to meetings mostly to listen to and encourage others… but after a while, i started dreading the meetings, b/c people kept focusing on their “disease” and their “character defects”. i stopped going when the Jesus showed me that every time i said “hi my name is jennie, and I’m an alcoholic,” i was saying something that wasn’t true. i was healed and it was time to “forget what was behind and move forward into what was ahead”

    • That’s a great testimony Jennie. I love that you saw Jesus as your sponsor. What a great Sponsor!

      • yeah! the BEST!🙂
        im convinced that Jesus showed me a step that wasn’t in “the program”…
        it was called: “pick up your mat and walk”!😀

    • Jennie, thank you for that testamony. In one of A. Wommack’s CBC classes that my daughter just finished, Andrew says the same thing. That AA has it’s place but that the person must keep confessing that they are still an alcholic. WRONG Making negative confessions never allows the person to move on. Like you said,”take up your mat and walk”.

  8. I have recently read The Ragamuffin Gospel twice. The first reading was heart-soothing; the second, a chance to try and cement my belief that God loves us more than we can possibly comprehend. I may need to read it again.
    Thank you for reviewing this wonderful book. I wish the Gideon’s would pass it out with the Bibles they give away.

  9. I agree, it was was given to me and I’ve been trying to read it. I agree with his grace perspective but as I am reading it I just keep thinking “where is the victory though? We have victory because of His grace.”

  10. Thanks for a great article and one that really encourages me. At the risk of sounding like I am looking for ‘steps’ or ‘a mixture of law and grace’, are there any links to sites that offer grace as a kind of counsel. I’m (ex, I think)hardcore against sin, Pharisee-like, reached the end of the rope myself, ‘fell’ into sin and got severely depressed. I think that about covers it, Please help me

  11. Just bought the book after reading your review…hungry to know my Father God..cant wait to read the book! Thanks

  12. Paul – that is a brilliant, life-giving, gracious response! Loved the way you struck the balance of fiery grace with fiery new creation reality. Just now beginning to read the book.

  13. Thank you Paul for this review of Brennan’s book. When I first I read it I knew I’d struck oil!! Holy Spirit oil!! I so connected with his assessment of the love of the Trinity towards us although it’s been sometime before it’s begun to penetrate my heart.

    I have to agree with your assessment of the AA mantra. I could only see it locking us into something that is no longer true for us who have been swallowed up in His righteousness and life by his faith. Either it is finished and our state of being is now in Christ and we are at rest or we get on the merry go round of try harder again.

    I will live from the former.
    Blessings brother. Very pleased a brother put me onto your site and writings.

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