Question: "What is the ragamuffin gospel?"
Answer: The ragamuffin gospel is a concept made popular by the best-selling and influential book of the same name, originally published in 1990. Author Brennan Manning, a former Catholic priest, wrote the book “for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out” (page 14), not for the “superspiritual” (page 13). The Ragamuffin Gospel proved popular with several Christian songwriters and musicians, including Michael W. Smith and Rich Mullins, who formed the Ragamuffin Band in 1993.
Manning’s books, including The Ragamuffin Gospel, emphasize the grace of Jesus in ministering to the “ragamuffins”—the ragged, disreputable people of His day—the sick, the tax collectors and sinners, the woman caught in adultery. Jesus often served these “ragamuffins,” while the religious leaders of the day opposed Him and refused to dirty their hands with society’s problems.
This article is not a review of Manning’s book—or a critique of his ecumenical, mystical approach to spirituality— but rather a discussion on how an understanding of God’s grace plays out in the lives of believers. Manning says, “We can’t earn God’s acceptance, any more than we can earn our salvation. Yet [He] gives it to us, willingly—no matter who we are or what we’ve done. We are all ragamuffins. Each of us come beat-up, burnt-out, ragged and dirty to sit at our Father’s feet. And there he smiles upon us—the chosen objects of his ‘furious love.’” In other words, Jesus accepts the broken. He accepts those people who know they will never be perfect. The ragamuffin gospel says that we can come to God in our sin and ask for forgiveness. In Isaiah 1:18, God offers the invitation to come, though our sins are as scarlet, and He will make them white as snow. God desires sinners to come to Him as they are so He can cleanse them.
Jesus came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). “Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace” (The Ragamuffin Gospel, page 27). As with many themes in the Bible, it is important to understand the delicate balance that God presents—His grace to take us “as we are” and our willing response to not stay “as we are.”
To fully understand grace and the balance God’s Word presents, we need to consider who we were without Christ and who we become with Christ. We were born in sin (Psalm 51:5), and we were guilty of breaking God’s law (Romans 3:9–20, 23; 1 John 1:8–10). We were enemies of God (Romans 5:6, 10; 8:7; Colossians 1:21), deserving of death (Romans 6:23a). We had no way to save ourselves (Romans 3:20). Spiritually, we were destitute, blind, unclean, and dead. Our souls deserve eternal punishment. To say that we are all ragamuffins is an understatement.
But then came grace. God extended His favor to us. Grace is what saves us (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is the essence of the gospel (Acts 20:24). Grace gives us victory over sin (James 4:6). Grace gives us “eternal encouragement and good hope” (2 Thessalonians 2:16).
The Bible repeatedly calls grace a “gift” (e.g., Ephesians 4:7). Grace is the ongoing, benevolent act of God working in us, without which we can do nothing (John 15:5). Grace is greater than our sin (Romans 5:20), more abundant than we expect (1 Timothy 1:14), and too wonderful for words (2 Corinthians 9:15).
So how do we keep that grace from becoming “cheap grace”—a “grace” that promises all the benefits of Christianity without repentance or obedience? Cheap grace seeks to hide the cost of discipleship, to nullify our willing response to God’s gift of grace. While we believe that God’s grace covers all our sins, we can also accept that faith manifests itself in repentance, obedience, and a transformed heart. Believers are new creations.
We come to God as ragamuffins and accept His grace, and God calls us to renewal. As we accept God’s grace throughout lives, we do not stay in sin. We seek to be transformed to the image of Christ. He receives us just as we are and then begins to change us as we submit to Him in obedience. Yes, the gospel is for ragamuffins. No, God does not leave people as ragamuffins.