Thursday, June 5, 2008

What's so "grace-oriented" about your church?

A certain phrase is sweeping the land of late, that is a bit intriguing. I have heard a number of fellow pastors in the last few years celebrating the fact that they are privileged to pastor a church that is "grace-oriented." Or someone else is excited because a new pastor, who is coming to the conference, is "grace-oriented." Or perhaps even a new president has shifted the focus of the whole conference because he, too, is "grace-oriented."

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.


Anonymous said...

Can't one just appreciate the pardon? Why does it have to be truly appreciated? :)

Personally, I like the NIV translation best: "Go now and leave your life of sin."

Marty said...

Thanks for the thoughts! I've never heard the term "Grace-oriented"

Lori said...

Just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed your book. The first time through I read it rather quickly, but now I have my ruler and pencil and am reading it much more thoroughly and slowly. You did a great job with the Lord's leading. The message is certainly one that we all need to hear and read over and over again.
I have given away several of my extra copies and will be ordering some more to share.

Blake said...

Very timely points Shawn. Thanks.


Blake said...

Very timely points Shawn. Thanks.

Dingo said...

How about "powerless grace" or "grace without gratitude"? thanks for the fresh look at grace-imbalances. Our treatment of grace seems to be included in the "temperance in all things" caution.

"Grace-oriented has been a buzz word in a couple of churches I know. They moved so far to the extreme of "just accept everyone and love them" that they no longer served as Christ's ministers of changed lives. they almost became social clubs for worldly lives. then that scared them into swinging back the other way, and they almost became strictly social clubs for the judgmental. They nearly dissolved, and are now trying to survive by letting God lead them into a balanced ministry of grace.

Didn't Yancy say something about grace being the last unspoiled word in our language. He feared it too would be spoiled by intemperate or casual use - grace without gratitude.

Shawn Brace said...

Hello all,

Thanks for your thoughts. Vera, thanks for keeping me on my toes. I add the word "truly" to differentiate it from those who say they appreciate pardon, but don't "truly."

Marty, I guess you have now heard of the term! Do a Google search with the words "grace-oriented church", or, better yet, just click here. Perhaps you'll be fascinated!!

Blake, glad the points were timely.

And Dingo, thank you for your thoughts. I love that phrase "grace without gratitude." Is that original to you, or is that how Yancey puts it?? Either way, I may have to "steal" it and use it from now on. I love it!!!

Dingo said...

Not sure if Yancy put it that way or not. Can't remember. It at least paraphrases his concepts though.Enjoy the use of it!

Rondi said...

Hi Shawn--

I'm so excited...I was just going through my snail mail and discovered a copy of New England Pastor there!!! It's so beautiful...visually and otherwise. I love knowing that you're doing this...and so much more. God surely is using you to bless many.

I've been enjoying your mom's travelogue/blog, too. Sounds like she and your dad are having a great time.

Thanks for sharing your magazine with me. I will share it proudly with others =)

Rondi said...

(by share, I mean show. I intend to keep it!)

Sue and Don Perkins said...

I really appreciated your thoughts on this. Through the years, I have listened to those who like to share their "grace-oriented" opinions on this subject. Some even like to argue the point and point fingers at other SDA’s they claim to be “works-oriented”.

Although I have never met an Adventist who thought they were saved by works, a close family member insisted that there were such people. Personally, I think both sides believe the same way, just have different ways of explaining it…this blog helps me understand the “discrepancies”. Could it be anything like left-brain vs. right-brain thinking? The “grace-oriented” accuse the rest of being “works-oriented”…yet they still won’t say that we can just go on sinning. Makes no sense to me.

Shawn Brace said...

Hi Sue,

I really appreciated your thoughts. I understand what you're saying about there being nobody who really does believe that we are "saved by works." But I would still argue that there are people who still maintain this, despite the fact they explicitly say otherwise. Far too often, we have the habit of putting the "cart before the horse," and say that, although we're saved by grace, we then have to try real hard to sanctify ourselves.

I wish I could give you a concrete example right now, but my brain is partially on vacation during Campmeeting!

Sue and Don Perkins said...

Yeah, you're right, and I DO get it about the "try real hard" aspect that may cause some to not fully get what grace really is. I think the bottom line that stumps some parents is how to make sure their kids get it about grace and still see what joy comes from seeking His will for their life. Ok, I'm hesitating to use the obey word...why is that? Is it a bad word?