From Humbug to Hallelujah: The Conversion of Mr. Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is a name that has come into our vocabulary through the genius of Charles Dickens. If you haven’t read his classic novel, A Christmas Carol, chances are good you’ve seen it on stage or on television. Some of the more popular versions include:

  • Reginal Owen (1938)—one of the first productions in the modern era
  • Alastair Sim (1951)—still regarded as a classic, aesthetically pleasing rendition
  • George C. Scott (1984)—a rugged and highly regarded portrayal despite its various omissions
  • Michael Caine (1992)—a delightful children’s adaptation with the Muppets
  • Patrick Stewart (1999)—from a one-act play on the stage to a television movie
  • Jim Carrey (2009)—a noteworthy production with dark, realistic animation

Clockwise from upper left: Patrick Stewart (1999); Alastair Sim (1951); Reginal Owen (1938); Jim Carrey (2009); Michael Caine (1992); George C. Scott (1984).

Scrooge, of course, is the quintessential stingy old man who doesn’t want to be bothered with the feastings and festivities of Christmastime. He’s got a porcupine personality and scary looks to go with it. He’s got a hostile demeanor and a glaring eye to back it up. He’s got a roll of money in his pocket, but you will never get any of it. Yet, for all his material wealth, he’s a sad and lonely man. He’s a man in desperate need of redemption.

Scrooge has numerous modern descendants, too, both real and fictitious. Some know him as the Grinch who stole Christmas—the mean, green, furry creature who doesn’t know how to have any holiday fun, and doesn’t want anybody else to have any holiday fun, either. Some know him as the Abominable Snowman—the glacial beast whose mission it is to prevent children from giving and getting gifts on Christmas morning.  

Do you know Scrooge? Does a face come to mind even now? Maybe it’s a sour relative who’s grouchy and hates to decorate in December. Maybe it’s a cold-hearted friend who grouses about all the charity bell-ringers at the store entranceways. Maybe it’s an edgy parent who, with great irritation, follows you around on Christmas morning with a garbage bag so that scraps of wrapping paper never touch the floor. “Bah, humbug!” is the Christmas carol sung by such folks. They snort it out whenever they’re in the presence holiday warmth and good cheer.

But according to Dickens (and more importantly, according to the Scriptureswhich inspired the novel), such folks can change their tune. The dramatic conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge from a tight-fisted old grump into a benevolent big-spender and bringer-of gifts naturally warms the heart. Perhaps that’s because it’s what we all want for ourselves and our loved ones—a real change of heart. We may not like to admit it, but there is a little bit of old Scrooge in all of us.

For one thing, Scrooge is a businessman, and the drive for profit has become for him an obsession. How many of us today are motivated by the almighty dollar (or the pound, or the franc, or the yen)? Making the big bucks in Merchant Square has eclipsed any other goal in life. Scrooge’s focus is the bottom line, regardless of the human cost or the social implications. As a result, Scrooge is incapable of neighborly love. He lacks empathy and compassion. He’s callous and coarse. To put it bluntly, he’s a selfish pig. And that selfishness comes out in many ways throughout the novel.  

On the personal level, Scrooge is indifferent to the basic human needs of his own employee, Bob Cratchit, who exists for him only as a means to a financial end. He exploits Cratchit as much as he can, going so far as to save a few pennies on coal while Cratchit freezes in the next room over. Cratchit’s financial dependence on Scrooge makes him vulnerable to abuse, including the fear of losing his job at the slightest whim of his nasty boss.

On the social level, Scrooge rejects an earnest appeal for charity on behalf of the poor and the destitute. In the novel he says, “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.” He suggests that the poor belong either in prison or in the workhouse. When told that many would rather die than go to either place, he replies, “If they would rather die, they had better get to it, and decrease the surplus population. Scrooge’s language is blunt, but the sentiment he expresses certainly finds harsh echoes in today’s political debates about many social issues.  

Nevertheless, while Dickens is a brilliant social critic of 19th-century England, his primary concern in the novel is not the conversion of his country but the conversion of Scrooge’s heart. Before societies can change, hearts must change. Scrooge’s own nephew gets it right early in the book. The spirit of Christmas, he says, teaches men and women to think of people below themselves as if they really were “fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” How incisive. 

I saw a commercial on television one time where the announcer said, “Here is one place where class and skin color don’t matter,” and the screen showed a hospital maternity ward with dozens of multi-national babies wiggling around in their incubators. “And here is the other,” said the narrator, voicing over the scene of a quiet, green cemetery with dozens of tombstones. “Fellow passengers to the grave”—all of us. That itself should be enough to get us converted. It sure got Scrooge’s attention.  

Evangelicals often criticize Dickens because Scrooge’s transformation in the novel is not explicitly Christian. There’s no tent revival, no altar call, no baptism, and no clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. There’s just a brilliantly crafted self-discovery followed by genuine remorse and a change of lifestyle—sort of like the old television program Touched by an Angel, where Jesus was seldom, if ever, explicitly mentioned.

I’m sympathetic to that critique, but it should also be pointed out that: (1) Dickens was a poet, not a preacher; (2) Scrooge’s nephew cries out, “God save you!” to his wretched uncle, and reminds him that Christmastime cannot be separated from its sacred source; and (3) Dickens has told us clearly in his novel that Scrooge’s transformation comes only after intervention from heaven. 

  • It’s the Ghost of Christmas Past that connects Scrooge to his own childhood suffering and therefore softens his heart a bit. 
  • It’s the Ghost of Christmas Present that connects Scrooge to the impending death of Bob Cratchit’s special-needs son, Tiny Tim, and his own responsibility for that death.  
  • And it’s the Ghost of Christmas Future that connects Scrooge to his hellish destiny—the fate of a wretched man with an uncaring, unconverted heart.  

Had the heavenly realm not invaded Scrooge’s life, he never would have changed. He never could have changed. He would have remained heartless.

When we leave the world of this classic novel and enter the world of real life, we can easily fill in the gaps, for the Scriptures likewise teach that only truth revealed from heaven can tell us the true condition of our souls and reveal what God has done about that condition.  

The Christian canon is about God showing us our hearts, softening our hearts, capturing our hearts, and regenerating our hearts. It’s about how God intervenes to save us. And God does not save us by sending us three ghosts. He saves us by sending us his Son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, God’s Christmas present to the world was himself wrapped in skin. Because of Christmas, we can say with confidence, “God bless us, every one!”

How well do you know ‘A Christmas Carol’? Take the quiz here.

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The God of Yes: He Is There and He Is Not Stingy

Across the street from where I grew up in East Reading, Pennsylvania, there was a vacant lot where we used to play stickball every chance we could get. We lived in a middle-class section of rowhomes, and about eight of those homes featured backyards that lined up perfectly to serve as the outfield “bleachers.” Our goal, of course, was to hit the ball into one of those yards for a home run. (We always used soft rubber balls, so cracking a window was unlikely. It only happened once.)

Most neighbors would sit out on their porches and cheer us on as the game unfolded. If ever we hit a ball into one of their yards, they would simply get up, retrieve the ball, and throw it back to us, and the game would continue. Unfortunately, there was also a grizzled old dame in the bleachers—enshrouded in a bright babushka, and far too rickety to stand up straight—who would always pick up the ball, cuss at us in Pennsylvania Dutch, and then harumph her way back into the house, taking our ball with her. End of game. (It wasn’t even her window we broke that one time.)

Sadly, many people today picture God more like the crabby old lady with a foul mouth than the kindhearted neighbors who served as our cheering section. He’s in the heavenly stands with his arms folded and his hands fisted, always perturbed and glaring at us, eager to convey his divine contempt whenever we send one into his upper deck. We’re major league sinners in his book, and we always will be. If we strike out too much, he’ll send us down to the minors. Or worse. End of game.

Theologian Kosuke Koyama once said that Christians need to make a basic decision in our approach to theological questions: “[We] need to decide whether the God of Scripture is a generous God or a stingy one.”[1] The context of his statement was soteriology, but we can broaden it to include the entire sweep of Christian theology. 

When I first made that shift in my own thinking, it helped me realize how important it is that Genesis 1 and 2 precede Genesis 3. That’s a simple observation, yet it’s vital in the grand scheme of things. Life on planet earth was good—“very good” (Gen 1:31)—before it was ever bad. As such, my theology cannot start in Genesis 3; it has to start where the Bible starts. It has to start “in the beginning” (Gen 1:1). 

Specifically, to help us answer Koyama’s challenge, we can notice that God’s openhandedness is seen on the very first page of Scripture: “Then God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Gen 1:29; emphasis mine). Right out of the gate, God is a giving God. We can safely conclude, then, that generosity is a prevailing attribute of his.

It’s not specified in the text how many edible plants and trees were available for the taking. Were there a hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? We don’t know, but the scene is marked by lush and lavish provisions from the hand of the benevolent God who gave them. Indeed, Yahweh is portrayed as a God of abundance. He says to the first human, “Eat!” and only one tree was said to be off limits—“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17). 

Trust the story. It tells us that God gave about ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Read that sentence again. Don’t pass over it too quickly. God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.” Consequently, he’s not a stingy, crotcehtey God at all; he’s a God who overflows with blessings, provisions, kindness, and grace. And even the one “no” he gave was for our benefit, not our misery. Indeed, it was meant to prevent our misery.

God gave ten thousand “yeses” to one solitary “no.”

In the end, Jesus Christ is God’s full and final “yes” to every good promise he ever made (2 Cor 1:20). As Paul put it, Jesus is God’s “yes” and “amen.” That means he really is for us (Rom 8:31), not against us.

Is this the God you know—the one who cheers you on as you’re trying to find your swing? Or is he the god who cusses you out whenever you strike out? Is he the god who benches you after making an error in the field? Is he the god who tells you to hit the showers early when you’ve had a bad inning? If so, maybe you’re on the wrong team. In fact, maybe you’re playing for Baal instead of Yahweh. Ask to be traded.

Francis Schaeffer famously said of God, “He is there and he is not silent.” To that we can add, “He is there and he is not stingy.”

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[1] Kosuke Koyama, as cited in Richard J. Mouw, “More Thoughts about Generous Orthodoxy,” (March 29, 2011).

He Shines in All That’s Fair: Why Common Grace Should Be More Common

Rachel Lynde: The murder trials in this Boston paper my niece sent me are real interesting, Marilla. Full of heathen, that place. I hope Anne will never go there again. Can you imagine that new minister going on about how he doesn’t believe that all the heathen will be eternally lost? The idea! If they won’t be, all the money we’ve been sending to the foreign missions will be completely wasted. That’s what.

Marilla Cuthbert: I wouldn’t fret if I were you, Rachel. Goodness knows, the world is full of beggars, and it’s a pretty pass if we can’t help out a fellow being in need, Christian or not. 

Anne of Green Gables, The Sequel

John Murray once raised the question, “How is it that this sin-cursed world enjoys so much favour and kindness at the hand of its holy and ever-blessed Creator?”[1] The answer to Murray’s question is found in a distinction made by theologians between God’s “special” or “saving” grace on the one hand, and his “common” or “non-saving” grace, on the other. By God’s design, this common grace is always at work in the broader reaches of human society. 

Common grace is hard to miss once we’ve thought about it for any length of time. God clearly bestows blessings on all human beings—believers and un-believers alike. For example, Jesus said his Father “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45). That is, God doesn’t just water the crops of believers; he waters the crops of the unbelievers, too. He gives good gifts to all of humanity—whether they know him or not, believe in him or not, or thank him or not. God’s goodness extends to all his creation. 

While God’s general goodness and gifts might not always result in the final redemption of every human being on whom it is showered (after all, at some level, salvation encompasses an individual’s personal belief), common grace is still a magnanimous display of his kindness and generosity to persons made in his image. Indeed, all that is good ultimately comes from God, regardless of whose lap it falls into here on planet earth. Maltbie Babcock’s hymn captures an aspect of common grace with these lines: 

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

“He shines in all that’s fair.” That’s common grace. Both saint and sinner alike can appreciate a good sunset. Both can enjoy a breathtaking opera. Both can get a lump in their throats when their children get married. Both can enjoy a slice of hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top and a dollop of whipped cream dusted with cinnamon and sugar and a cup of piping hot coffee next to it right after dinner. (Yes, taste buds are a form of common grace!) Specifically, God demonstrates his common grace by:

  • Giving all humans a conscience, by which right and wrong can be known (Rom 2:15)
  • Sovereignly maintaining order in human society through government (Rom 13:1-5)
  • Enabling all people to admire beauty and goodness (Ps 50:2; Dan 2:21)
  • Setting up governments and putting leaders in power to maintain peace (1 Tim 2:2)
  • Allowing everyone (in or out of Christ) to do good (Luke 6:33)
  • Allowing all people to experience a vast array of emotions (Eccl 3:4)
  • Giving people the ability to truly love each other (1 John 4:7)
  • Allowing people to turn from evil (Job 1:1)
  • Protecting people from constant evil and torment (Job 1:8)
  • Keeping the ocean within its borders (Job 38:11)
  • Allowing everyone to rest (Deut 5:12)
  • Providing people with the necessities to live (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:30)

Tim Keller has said, “This gift of God’s grace to humanity in general demonstrates a desire on God’s part to bestow certain blessings on all human beings, believer and non-believer alike. Understanding common grace provides the basis for Christians to cooperate with and learn from non-Christians.”[2] Really? Learn from and be blessed by people outside the formal covenants enumerated in Scripture? Oh yes. God often works that way. Some biblical examples include:

  • Melchizedek blessing Abraham
  • Rahab serving the Israelites
  • Ruth accepting Yahweh and serving an Israelite family
  • The pagan sailors acting more ethically than Jonah
  • The pagan kings promoting Daniel in their realms
  • Cyrus the Persian funding the rebuilding of the temple
  • The magi worshiping Christ shortly after his birth
  • The Roman centurion acknowledging Jesus’ lordship while the disciples are hiding
  • Accurate statements made by unbelievers and cited in the Scriptures to serve the cause of truth

Without an understanding of common grace, believers wind up committing the genetic fallacy on a regular basis. (e.g., “The MBTI is untrustworthy because it’s based on Jungian psychology.” No, it’s validity and reliability must be determined independently of the original proponent.) We also marginalize people who don’t share our faith, preventing them from being a blessing to us as God may intend. But if God can use Cyrus the Persian to bless the Israelites’ journey home from exile, can I not likewise let my dentist bless me even if he’s an unbeliever, or my brain surgeon even if she’s a Muslim? Just get the job done right, thank you very much. On a related note, much of the world’s music can be raunchy, but some of it is rather pleasant or insightful. Common grace allows it to be so.

If common grace is so common—both in Scripture and in the heart of God—should it not be more common in the lives of believers? Indeed, should we not make loving our neighbor more common than it probably is? Salvation belongs to the Lord (Rev 7:10), not me. I cannot make it happen it my own life let alone anybody else’s. Moreover, Jesus said we can trust him to sort out the wheat from the weeds at the end of the age (Matt 13:24-30). That’s not our job right now. Nor is it Rachel Lynde’s.

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[1] John Murray, “Common Grace,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, II:93.

[2] Tim Keller, Sermon Archives.

Who Asked for Your Two Cents?

Divine math is different from what we learned in school. That’s a comfort to those of us who sometimes find it hard to reconcile our checkbooks with our bank statement. But what if we totally drained our account one day and had nothing left to reconcile? What’s our net worth then? The answer might surprise us.

Mark records the story of a poor widow who put “two very small copper coins” into the temple treasury (Mark 12:42). Surprisingly, Jesus tells his disciples that she “put in more than all the others.” At first blush it’s an odd statement because all the other people that day had surely given larger amounts than she did. So how was it possible for her tiny gift of “two cents” to be larger than theirs?


Jesus said it was because they gave out of their wealth, but she put in all she had to live on. In God’s mind, the size of the sacrifice is more noteworthy than the size of the gift. In other words, the real value of an offering to God is not in the amount given, but in the cost to the giver. How much does it pinch our pocketbooks? How much does it interfere with our unnecessary splurges?

Others at the temple that day gave what they could spare. This poor widow spared nothing. And Jesus took note. But where would her next meal come from? How could she buy flour for bread, or oil for the household lamps? What about new clothes to replace her tattered garments? What about the broken plow in the field?

The real value of an offering to God is not in the amount given, but in the cost to the giver.

By offering all she had to live on, the widow was entrusting herself to God’s care. She was offering herself completely to the One she had come to the temple to worship in the first place. Indeed, for her, devotion to God and his work took priority over everything else.

Still, was it wise for the widow to empty her account? What happens now? Would God provide for her? Would she be able to eke out a living? Would her fellow Israelites—charged in the Torah with being attentive to her needs as a widow—forget about her?


Not to worry. God has a way of taking care of the generous. On one occasion in my younger days, I emptied out our checking account completely because a man told me he had a need. I was an easy touch and quite unaware that he was a professional extortionist. The man preyed on my commitment to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to the one who asks you” (Matt 5:42a).

So I did. I gave him everything I had.

At the time, I thought it was the right thing to do, but it made me nervous. How was I going to pay our bills? How was I going to feed my family? We had two young children at the time, and I was still in seminary. We had obligations all over the place. (With a few more years under my belt now, I would handle the extortionist a bit differently today.)


Shortly after I gave away all our money, a widow in our church (a widow!) came to me and said, “Tim, the Lord is impressing on my heart that I should pay off your student loan. I don’t know what the balance is, and I don’t really care. God has blessed me with resources at this stage in my life, and I just think he wants me to do this for you.”

I was deeply moved. The woman didn’t know I had just emptied my checking account to help somebody else. She was just walking her own journey of faith and trying to follow Christ.

As Providence would have it, the Lord intersected our paths. Amazingly, the balance on my student loan was just about double the amount in my checking account the day I emptied it. Double! God saw fit to take care of our family in a big way the very week I gave away all our money. We rejoiced and celebrated God’s goodness to us.

Document with title student loan forgiveness.

It’s a great story, but honestly, it’s an old one. It’s been a while since I’ve taken such a radical step of faith with my money like that. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s not really my money, is it?

I need to get back to those days when I acted like everything I have belongs to the Lord, because it does—a time when I was willing to fling myself into God’s arms like a toddler jumping from the top step of the living room stairs, knowing for sure daddy will catch him.

It’s time to be openhanded again and watch what God will do. Problem is, we always assume the more we have, the more we can give. That’s only partially true. The widow in Mark 12 shows us the bigger miracle—the more we share, the more we have.

We always assume the more we have, the more we can give. That’s only partially true. The widow in Mark 12 shows us the bigger miracle—the more we share, the more we have.

In the end, God has always wanted my two cents. He wants yours, too. The amazing thing is, we never have to say a word to give it.


Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.

– St. Ignatius of Loyola