I am monthly (or weekly or daily) confronted with people and ministries that have appointed themselves watchdogs for the abuse of God’s grace. Sometimes, it’s legalistic people scoping out long hair or pants on women. Othertimes, it’s legalistic people scoping out mean people who take issue with long hair or pants on women. In other words, both sides of the aisle are pretty good at appointing themselves watchdogs. 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 (discussed in part 1 and part 2 of this series), can we abuse God’s grace, and what do we do with those who continue in sin?
1) What is grace?
When a friend recently asked me how I would define grace, I was at a loss to come up with words that didn’t sound trite and shallow despite all the study I’ve done and posts I’ve written. So I answered them with pictures from Scripture.
Jesus washing Judas’ feet
Joseph embracing his brothers
Our pastor recently preached on a little piece of Exodus 15. 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.
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.
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?
Biblical grace as the Bible uses the term 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 it is more accurate to say that 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.
In case you need some very practical guidelines for applying all this (as I do), I’ll end with practical thoughts from Scripture on applying grace in conflict.
First, I submit that it’s impossible to demonstrate grace in any other situation. Grace assumes sin—you have a legitimate right to extract payment from this person for their debt against you. Otherwise, it’s not grace–you’re just being nice.
2 Timothy 2:24-26 24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
From this passage, I get 4 thoughts on grace in conflict.
1) Grace understands the truth of someone’s condition—they are ensnared by Satan and DECEIVED. They really don’t see things the way you do. (you understand this person’s condition because you have a good understanding of your own. You too have been at times ensnared by Satan. You too, in the right situation, are capable of some pretty heinous acts. When you understand the truth of this person’s (and your own) position, you can move from bitterness to compassion. You can weep for them.
2) Grace is in it for the long haul—it patiently endures evil. Biblical grace doesn’t cop out. It doesn’t give up on people. Because you understand your own hardness of heart. You know your own propensity toward stopping your ears against truth and following your own way. What was it that wooed you to repentance? Did someone faithfully pursue you despite your resistance to them? Did Christ?
3) Grace corrects (so the truth is not subverted or glossed over) but it corrects gently (with strength well under God’s control). This reminds me of I Peter 4:8, “love covers a multitude of sins.” The Bible repeats this principle in the Old and New Testament. What does it mean to cover sins in love? It almost sounds like we are ignoring sin and not dealing with it altogether. Here is the phrase that I use to help me distinguish between the two.
“Love doesn’t sweep sin under the carpet, but it keeps others out of the room until it can be cleaned up.”
4) Grace’s goal is not self-acquittal or vindication or that people would come to see things your way. Grace’s goal is repentance with God that leads to knowledge of the truth.
There is grace, and then there is everything else. And everything else leads to death. If you don’t get grace, you don’t get the gospel. If you don’t exhibit grace to others, it’s evidence you don’t understand it for yourself. If grace doesn’t dominate your relationship to God and your obligation to others, your religion will suck the life out of you and others around you. Grace is meaningless without truth. But truth will kill you without grace. The worst thing we can do in conflict is engage in it when we don’t understand grace for ourselves. But once we really understand God’s undeserved favor to ourselves, then we can minister grace to others who have sinned against us in whatever way we can with the prayer that God would draw them to repentance and the knowledge of the truth.