What, exactly, do they mean by this?
Well, I'm pretty sure I think I know what they mean. From my reflections, I believe these individuals are comparing a shift from the old paradigm of judgmentalism and legalism, to acceptance and forgiveness. When a church, pastor, president, teacher - or whomever - is labeled as "grace-oriented," this person or institution is creating a culture of a "come, as you are - warts and all" mentality.
And such a culture is refreshing. There is no doubt that, to a large degree, many churches in the past have been plagued by legalistic and judgmental attitudes (especially here in New England). To say that anyone can come to church - no matter how they're dressed, what they're drinking, who they're sleeping with - is a true representation and reflection of the gospel. It's a true representation of the God who said, "Neither do I condemn you. . . "
But it is not "grace." At least not it its totality.
From my observations, pastors or churches that are labeled as "grace-oriented" are labeled as such because they overemphasize one component of grace - the "acceptance" part. And when there is an imbalance in one's emphasis on grace, it turns into what many have labeled "cheap grace" (I do not particularly like this term because it is implicitly redundant. Grace, by definition, is cheap - at least to the one who receives it. Perhaps a better term to use, instead, would be something to the effect of "unappreciated grace." I don't know. Maybe you have a better suggestion if you understand the concept I'm getting at. It is still a work in progress).
The reality is, grace is more than just acceptance and pardon. It is more than simply saying, "I'm okay; you're okay; we're all okay. Just come to church as you are and we will 'love you up.' " Paul, quite explicitly states, in Titus 2:11, 12, that "the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age" (NIV).
This is the same Paul who was so "grace-oriented" that he told the believers in Corinth "not to keep company with with anyone named a brother [what we would call a "church member" today], who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner - not even to eat with such a person" (1 Cor 5:11). Furthermore, the people in Corinth were to "deliver such [individuals] to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (v. 5). In other words, Paul told the people in Corinth to kick such persons out of the church, in an attempt to save them "in the day of the Lord."
How's that for grace?
And yet, that's the reality of grace. It goes beyond simple acceptance, to proclaiming the beautiful reality that grace is powerful enough to make sinners into saints. It is powerful enough to keep a person from stumbling ever again (see Jude 24).
As my pal Herbert Douglass writes:
When God goes about providing grace to men and women of faith, it is an ethical matter and not merely a judicial act leading to legal fiction. The gospel is concerned about redemption, not legal transactions. Grace liberates men and women of faith from their sins by helping them to overcome them, not cover them by some kind of theological magic or legal fiction - and then call all this "righteousness by faith." (Herbert Douglass, Should We Ever Say "I Am Saved"?, p. 71)Of course, any type of overcoming does not merit us salvation. It is not the Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness where our good works earn our title to heaven. But it is a full understanding of the gospel, correlating beautifully with the Most Holy Place message of the heavenly sanctuary; that as God cleanses the heavenly sanctuary, the Holy Spirit is trying to cleanse - completely and totally - His people here on earth.
Such an understanding is the totality of what it means to truly be "grace-oriented."
Now, I know that most people who subscribe to the "traditional" (if I may call it that) understanding of what it means to be "grace-oriented" would never say that they only emphasize the "pardon" aspect of grace (as opposed to also emphasizing the "power" part of it as well). I know that somewhere, deep down inside, they have this understanding that, yeah, we're supposed to be overcomers by God's grace. But I think, far too often, such individuals and churches get so swept up in the thought that "God loves me just the way I am," that they figure they may as well stay that way.
That's the natural result of an overemphasis on that component of God's grace. If we emphasized the second part of Jesus' wonderful statement to the woman caught in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more," as much as we did the first, then we would truly see the heights to which grace can take us. And if we understood, as well, that, just as Ellen White has told us that all of God's biddings are His enablings, then we would see that the "go and sin no more" part is awesome news, and that God has already accomplished that victory for us on Calvary. Such a concept is a glorious thought.
Thus, there is power in the pardon, if one truly appreciates the pardon.