Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More Grace-Oriented Than Jesus

(While searching through the archives of our magazine New England Pastor, I came across this editorial I wrote in May 2009. I thought it might scratch where someone is itching today.)

I don’t know about you, but I continue to grapple with the balance between emphasizing the so-called “positive” elements of the Gospel and the not-so-glorious components of it. There is a constant tension in my mind between calling sin by its right name and yet uplifting the love and forgiveness of the Savior. This tension plays out in the sermons I preach, the articles I write, the interactions I share with members and non-members alike.

This tension also finds its way into the conversations I have with some of my parishioners. I find that some of the saints want stronger messages against sin and the follies of this world, while others are quite uncomfortable with anything other than a “grace-oriented” sermon coming from my lips. Such individuals have openly told me that they will not invite their non-Adventist friends so long as they do not feel it is “safe” to bring them, in fear that they will hear a sermon that talks about the negatives of the Gospel.

This sentiment is shared by many, of course. I’ve heard of numerous churches that have moved more towards a “grace-oriented” style of church, hoping to be more “seeker-friendly” and welcoming to visitors. And, truth be told, if it were left up to me, I would prefer this type of approach completely. My personality and interests are such that I enjoy uplifting Christ’s love and forgiveness and grace more than dwelling on the “negatives” of Christianity.

The problem is, when we pursue such an approach exclusively, we may find that we are actually acting a little more grace-oriented than Christ Himself did. It’s funny how selective we are when it comes to the Gospel story. After all, the same Jesus who said, “Neither do I condemn you,” to the woman caught in adultery, also said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).[i]  The same Christ who declared, “My peace I give to you,” (John 14:27) also curiously stated, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” (Matthew 10:34).  This is also the same Guy, by the way, who pulled no punches when He called the Pharisees “snakes” and a “brood of vipers,” (Matthew 23:33) and gave no greater endorsement to any human being than to John the Baptist, whose ministry probably wouldn’t exactly be considered “PC,” were he alive today.

The other problem is that such an approach is also incredibly imbalanced. And in an age when the buzz word is “balance,” we cannot afford to be anything but. Thus, in order to be balanced, we must be willing to share the good and the bad. A physician’s career would be short-lived if he or she only gave out positive diagnoses and nice, red lollipops to all of his or her patients. Similarly, merely dwelling on forgiveness all the time doesn’t do a whole lot of good if people don’t recognize that they need to be forgiven in the first place.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all, however, is that such an emphasis on grace is not really giving a full picture of grace at all. The truth is, this five-letter word has been incredibly watered-down throughout its history. You see, grace involves forgiveness and pardon, yes, but that is not it. Grace is also about power to leave the life of sin and selfishness behind. “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,” Hebert Douglass writes. “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.’ ”[ii]

This is, after all, certainly what Paul meant when he talked about grace. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,” he informed Titus. “It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11, 12, NIV). For Paul, God’s grace could accomplish much more than simply overlooking past mistakes. It could actually take root in the believer’s life and teach him or her how to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory.[iii]

So here’s a call to truly be “grace-oriented.” Let’s give our parishioners and “seekers” the full picture of grace. Let’s show them a picture of a Savior who not only pardons their sins, but tells them that they have a problem to begin with, and can give them the power to overcome. Such will be the most refreshing picture of grace they have ever seen.

[i] Scriptures taken from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.
[ii] Herbert E. Douglass, Should We Ever Say, “I Am Saved”? (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2003), 71.
[iii] See 2 Corinthians 3:18.


Bill said...

"There is a constant tension in my mind between calling sin by its right name and yet uplifting the love and forgiveness of the Savior."

That's where the traditional Protestant (esp. Lutheran) distinction between Law and Gospel is critical. Gospel is good news, it is promise, it is grace. Law is demand, requirement, condemnation. Both are necessary. But they are distinct. And if you turn the Gospel into a new law, or if the law is deprived of its teeth so as to be all affirming, you get into trouble. Keep each clear, and in its proper sphere, with both present in every sermon, and a lot of headaches are avoided.

Dingo said...

Quite a thought provoking challenge. Grace is such an awesome thing - but not when it is alone. It is awesome because of its context. No matter how wonderful the sermon on grace is, no matter how inspiring the language or how majestic the texts, how will I know it if I have no context. Jesus paid it all - all what? What did I owe and why? God died my death - but what caused me to be sentenced to death? Christ's perfect life is available to transform my life and give me victory - over what? Why? How can the seeker understand the indescribable grace of God in Jesus' gospel without understanding what that grace is for and why we need it? We can't appreciate the height to which grace carries us without also being able to see the depth into which we have fallen. I will be thinking a lot about how to create the desire in the congregation to appreciate the “negatives of grace” as part of that breathtaking contrast that defines the positives of grace so incomparably clearly.

Shawn Brace said...

Very well put, Dingo!

And thank you Bill for especially pointing us back to that law and gospel distinction. Ellen White so often emphasized this balance, saying the "law and the gospel go hand in hand." We cannot have one without the other, as Dingo has so eloquently described.

Andrew said...

I will have to think about this.

My thinking,which may be wrong, is that experientially your parishioners have been beat up by so called "balance" over the years; and I have had their full of it.

"Balance" in th past seems to have been all about cancelling out any hope or assurance you might have- or at least keeping it under heavy guard.