I had a brief but thought provoking discussion this weekend with a friend about how some people/groups/ministries/churches appoint themselves watchdogs for the abuse of God’s grace. Since I have at times been that person and a member of those groups, I have been thinking about this for several days. My thoughts have centered around 3 main questions: what is grace, can we abuse God’s grace, and what do we do with those who continue in sin?
1) What is grace?
This weekend, a friend asked me how I would define grace. And despite all the study I’ve done and posts I’ve written, I was at a loss to come up with words that didn’t sound trite and shallow for a concept that is so deep and robust to me. The best I could come up with was pictures.
Jesus washing Judas’ feet
Joseph embracing his brothers
Our pastor preached on a little piece of Exodus 15 last week. Right after God has worked marvelously to part the Red Sea and free the Israelites once and for all from Egypt, the very next scene is of them grumbling because the only water they can find is bitter. Grumbling–murmers of discontent because they don’t believe that God is good and worthy of their trust. And God’s response is not to backhand them for such backtalk but to make their water sweet. That is grace.
For a fuller look at the definition biblically of grace, check out this post on grace in conflict.
2) Can we abuse God’s grace?
Here is the question that we need to explore. Because there are MANY Christians who believe that their one job in life is to guard against the abuse of God’s grace in their realm of influence. I’ve seen this in the blogosphere. I’ve seen it in homes. I’ve seen it in churches. And based on whatever perceived abuse of God’s grace they see, they then justify acting ungraciously in their response (again, see grace in conflict for more on, well, grace in conflict).
But the truth from Scripture is that we all are abusers of God’s grace. Like the Israelites, He shows us grace, and we forget it and grumble and don’t trust. And if you copy and paste that sentence a few more times in this paragraph, you will have accurately summed up the whole of our existence. The problem with those who appoint themselves as guardians of God’s grace is that they typically don’t realize how they daily, hourly abuse it themselves. They may be diplomatic or polite in how they word things when they call out others, but they lack the ONE thing that is the dividing line between those who get God’s grace and those who don’t–humility.
3) What do we do with those who continue in sin?
So grace involves bearing long with those who sin against you, washing the feet of the betrayor, embracing in forgiveness those who willingly sold you to slavery, and so forth. Yet we know from Scripture that we are not to continue in sin that grace may abound (Romans 6:1). We know we are to confront sinners and guard against false teachers. Are these contradictory instructions? Not at all! Our problem is that we often read and teach these instructions out of context with the whole of Scripture.
We must first examine ourselves–do I have a firm grasp on my own sinful, selfish tendencies? Do I agree with Paul that I am the chiefest of sinners? Is it just an accepted Christian saying to me or do I have a firm grasp on the depth of my own personal need for God’s grace? It is only those who fully grasp their own depravity and the depth of God’s grace toward them despite their own abuse of it who have any power to speak to another about their sin. And, then, the root of any confrontation must be the gospel of grace.
I’ll conclude with some thoughts from the clearest passage on confrontation of sinners–Matthew 18. For years, though knowing this passage quite well, I have missed the heart of what Christ is teaching here. What do you do with the brother who continues in sin despite appropriate confrontation? He’s abusing God’s grace, right? What’s the answer? What’s the last resort?
“Treat him as an unbeliever.”
That means we point fingers, shun, and cut him off, right? If you have any experience in conservative churches, that is EXACTLY what is taught. That’s because many churches have never understood how to treat unbelievers. But how did Christ treat unbelievers in the gospels? How does God treat unbelievers throughout the narrative of Scripture? He pursues them. With the gospel. The end result of church discipline is that we determine we don’t need to instruct this person on adultery or gossip or lying. We need to pursue them with the gospel. We need to return love for hatred. We need to give unconditionally. We need to be merciful to them in the way that God has been to us that they would come to Him and receive His free grace. And when they start grumbling after the parting of the Red Sea, we return with grace and mercy.
The cure to Israel’s problem was more gospel–more undeserved kindness in contrast to the audacity of their forgetfulness after the Red Sea. God doesn’t curse them. He blesses them. Abundantly (with 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees–see Exodus 15:27).
I don’t believe we can abuse God’s grace. Or maybe I believe that the abuse of God’s grace is all that ever happens. And that’s what, after all, makes it grace. And what I’m advocating here, at least according to Scripture, doesn’t result in more and more sin–for it is the very recognition of God’s longsuffering with our abuses of His grace and His subsequent mercy toward us that is the thing that roots out our sin and transforms us into His image.
To quote my pastor, in the midst of the hardships of discipleship, the thing that must consistently be speaking loudest and clearest to us through the cacophony of life is the gospel. Day in, day out. The only hope for not continuing in sin that grace may abound is really getting the good news of God’s grace to us personally in the first place.