“For by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
I wish to acknowledge the insight and assistance of Ps Phil Buechler, C3 Long Island. Phil is one of the better theological minds in C3: well read, articulate, and an astute practioner. His knowledge of church history gives him that unique perspective of – ‘I’ve seen that before and it inevitably leads to this.’ Thank you Phil, and so to our topic – Grace.
Unless you are a descendant of Rip Van Winkle you will know that grace has been getting quite an airing in the last few years.
Some speak vehemently in its favour, in the sense it is everything, and others argue it is not the only word/term to delineate the wonder of our salvation, and that it certainly cannot, and should not, be used as an excuse for bad behaviour, (not the intention of grace preachers).
I recently attended a conference at which a speaker claimed he wasn’t merely for grace, but a grace ‘only’ devotee. The tone of his voice left no doubts as to his conviction, equally his thoughts about anyone that didn’t share his enthusiasm.
Now it would be a strange thing to argue against God’s grace, in the sense of minimising it. To even have an argument would seem counterproductive. The topic itself appears to militate against this being an option. Hence the following comments are more pastoral and observational than theological, much less argumentative.
I have witnessed two things. Firstly any message of conviction is not a message disassociated from the circumstance of the preacher. Our message is as much about our need as it is about a free standing truth, if such a thing exists. Revelation will always make something very personal, and therein is its efficacy and its danger. Luke Timothy Johnston, states, “Even though they (the NT letters) were written from within a religious movement, the compositions gathered into the New Testament were not intended to be sacred texts that express eternal truths. They were written to address the real situations of specific readers … Paul’s thought, then, is not that of a systematic theologian, but of a pastor who tries to get his readers to think about their lives.” He makes a point.
A Christian leader who speaks about grace came from a traditional evangelical tradition where the word, tradition, may well have trumped the word, evangelical. He expressed the all too common burden of never feeling good enough, never doing enough, never believing enough. It is little wonder the message of God’s grace is to him the lifeline to victory and liberty, as it is to many from a similar legalistic tradition. So much so that he now sees everything via this prism. His inability to be good enough for God seems sufficient reason for his emphasis on grace. However his shoehorning of scriptures into this theme, his unifying theory of everything, is less justified. Phil Buechler notes that when grace is overstressed licentiousness is never far away, although we know it’s hardly the intention of the most preachers.
The gentleman, mentioned previously, faced a very sad relational collapse – a divorce. He has no doubt had some dark nights of the soul, leading to self-examination, which can so easily lead to self-recrimination and its attendant – guilt. Guilt is in opposition to grace – grace is an antidote of guilt – grace was his rescue.
Their understanding of God’s grace is as much psychologically and sociologically driven (in the sense of personal need and being situated in a particular milieu), as it is theologically motivated. This hardly invalidates it, as the same is true for all of us, but it doesn’t impose on everyone with the same forcefulness.
My second observation relates to the strident toing and froing about grace being dominated by the U.S. It does not appear to be a fixation/dividing doctrine in Europe. It is possible this is due to the polarising nature of the U.S. – where, by way of example, Democratic and Republican lines have traditionally been sharply and divisively drawn – still are. U.S. Christian leaders, in a similar polarising spirit, seem to be quite happy to slug it out in public via books, over their pulpits, and through social media. They appear combative and relentless. I’m not sure as to the value of this. They will likely retort they are defending the faith against heretical tendencies, which justifies their public spates – or maybe not?
The point being that polarisation seems the consistent and graceless outcome.
I wonder if people are failing to see that grace is not just one thing – unmerited, unearned favour. It is two things – position and power. It defines a standing we have with God due to the gracious action of Christ in becoming sin for us, and it is a power to live the life that Jesus has modeled in himself and that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he expects of us. If we only see one aspect we necessarily minimise the other, instead of seeing it as both – positional and enabling.
I quote Phil Buechler: “It is important to see that the Greek word normally translated into English as ‘grace’ has 2 basic definitions … The definition is determined by the context. The first is that grace is the unmerited favour of God that positionally places us in Christ … yet the second and most predominant definition … is that of the (enabling) power of God.”
There is nothing we can or could do to deserve God’s grace, and there is nothing we can’t do to express it – by the power of the enabling spirit. Reformed theology tracks along similar lines, in stating, “We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone.” Our legal right is the basis of right living, and not the right to an absence from it.
Luther stumbled at the book of James in which James clearly states that an unexpressed faith (by itself) is useless. “You observe that a person is justified through actions and not through faith alone.” James 2:24 ISV.
He used the life of Abraham – not just the first instance of his believing but the outworking of it – so that he was justified in the action of being prepared to sacrifice his only son. Luther’s rant about James being an epistle of straw was clearly by way of reaction to his life finding no peace with God by following the prescribed pattern of Roman Catholic liturgy and lifestyle – works. He would have nothing of any intimation that faith alone wasn’t enough. He proves the point suggested in the two instances I gave earlier – his need and God’s remedy became his stance about everything for everyone, to the point of rejecting an entire book of the canon, as it fell outside the purview of his insight/need, and therefore of his theology.
No one person sees it all, and when they claim they do, they only prove the point.
Grace sufficiently and wonderfully saves us, and it in so doing enables us to live a holy life.
To divorce these two thoughts does damage to the intent of scripture, I posit.
Phil comments, “Already emerging in the hyper-grace camp are strong exhortations against the basic spiritual disciplines (or any discipline for that matter) such as the need to repent of sin, to confess them to God and to pursue holiness without which we will not see the Lord. Obedience to the NT teaching is now seen by some, as a ‘work’ that negates grace. Allergic reactions to NT good works are on the rise. Grace has for some, become the absolute attribute of God and the quintessence of the gospel. It seems that for a growing body of grace alone teachers, grace has removed all need for the spiritual disciplines. There is no need to work out what is already taken care of and covered. Grace, in the hands of a few, is becoming in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s turn of the phrase ‘cheap.’ Quickly disappearing is that healthy fear of God – that reverential awe that loves what God loves and hates what God hates. Jude warns us about those “who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality….”
It must be possible then, otherwise why would Jude mention it? And nothing is new under the sun.
In concluding this, the first part of two regarding grace, we leave you with Paul encouraging Titus, in Titus 2:11-15. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.”
– Thoughts about Grace –
This is part two of, Grace has its Merits. In the first part Phil Buechler and I spoke to and of the current emphasis on the Grace of God. Now to some thoughts about grace:
1. Hebrews 12:15 warns us of failing to ‘obtain the grace of God.” The context is of holiness, morality, and repentance. This is not appealing to a positional stance regarding grace but to the active and serious outworking of grace in our lives and it is followed up with strong warnings – the sort we are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with, because we may consider them not in line with our preferences about grace.
But grace is not just a nice attitude of God’s towards us. Grace is juxtaposed with wrath otherwise it isn’t the empowering grace of God. God’s wrath is something implacably holy, only ever satisfied by its absorption on the cross in Jesus. He took in his body, in his person, the weight of sin’s punishment – death forever. This is the work of his grace towards us, something hardly lightweight, or merely gracious.
2. Grace is also coupled, or more precisely, seen in opposition to works. The term works however needs clearer definition as it does not refer to just trying to be good – defined by good deeds and moral virtue. Works based salvation was referring to the works of the Old Covenant – the actions of the community of God’s people, actions and things that defined them. They didn’t do them to become the people of God. They did them because they were the people of God.
Torah, temple, land, and such, were not just the goal of good living but the boundary markers of the people of God. Falling from grace was to return to the way of their fathers, to Moses for salvation. It is highly unlikely that immorality and riotous living was on their agenda when they were doing this – but they were mocking the cross of Christ for salvation – which, you’ll agree is something much more significant than getting drunk or stealing.
3. 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. Paul’s statement about grace being sufficient means more than is often understood. Firstly, he is not referring to the grace of salvation as Paul was clearly already saved. But he is referring to a grace (charis – gift) of power – but not that which we may expect. This grace was one of both endurance, and a new way to power via weakness. We tend to equate grace with strength, but here it is aligned to weakness.
Paul was buffeted by a messenger of Satan in a way that troubled and hampered him. He wasn’t relieved of this through prayer, regardless of his persistence, but was rather told that grace was sufficient for him. His experience of weakness was God’s door of power.
This made Paul actually boast about his insufficiencies (V9-10) as he now saw that Gods power was perfected in his personal weakness, enumerated as, “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities.” Most people would immediately consider these to be the very opposite of the benefits of grace, as these hardly made for a blessed life (in our terms). And it must be added that Paul had unusual levels and experiences of revelation, so what refers to him doesn’t necessarily refer to all.
Still, we are slow to see God’s grace in these terms of weakness, and frankly, seeming defeat, as they simply militate against understandings of grace that may be misunderstandings in the first place.
However we view it, grace is certainly more robust than an understanding mediated only in the terms of a father’s love for his children, or his unmerited favor towards us.
4. Grace in Romans 12. Paul states by the grace given him – not specifically a saving grace, but the grace of his ministry, which was formative and authorative – that others were to think soberly of themselves in light of what measure of faith they were entrusted. In other words the faith given to each differs, as their function differs. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us.” No room for big heads. We are to act proportionally. Paul’s proportion was larger. His grace was different – not his salvation, his function.
The word grace hasn’t changed but the situation it is applied in has, therefore it looks different. Grace still means gift, but in this instance it is a spiritual gift of service to God’s church. It has its source in the cross, it is mediated by faith, and it is manifested as a function of being a member of Christ’s body – therefore it is different in each case.
We are unwise to make one thing everything, and to make everyone the same.
5. Showing Grace. In an age delineated by permissiveness, showing a person grace can often mean the endorsement of bad behavior. Far from helping and enabling a person, showing them this sort of grace can as easily weaken their resolve, and make light of a serious issue. They aren’t going to be saved by moral resolve but salvation by grace will result in change and conformity with the image of Christ, and the structure of scripture. Being accused of not showing grace when a person is in clear, deliberate, and belligerent opposition to the law of Christ is to misunderstand grace.
There exists a fear of offending people that has absurd out workings. I heard recently of a young man who had taken exception to, and been offended by a church, when he was called to account over the morality of his immorality. No doubt he huffed his way out of that church saying they showed no love or grace – whereas, in fact, that is exactly what they had shown – love in caring for his future and choices, and grace as in trying to point him to Jesus and his enabling grace/power that teaches us to say no to ungodliness.
We are unwise to validate bad behavior under the rubric of grace, so called.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Written by Simon McIntyre