If I Get To Define Grace We Are All in Trouble
I had an encounter not long ago in which I affirmed the disciplinary action a school took against a student. I wrote my comments in a blog post and made them public. I engaged in numerous conversations with multiple people that did not share my perspective. One comment that was made multiple times was “The school should have shown the student some grace.”
I challenged that statement by asking two questions:
1. How do you know the school did not show any grace?
2. Who gets to define grace?
Christians are big on grace. We like grace. And why shouldn’t we, “it is by grace we are saved.” The subject gets a little murkier when we seek to define grace for others. Defining saving grace is easy because the Bible has already done it for us. It is the gift of God shown to each of us that, combined with faith, allows a person to be born again. Defining grace for other people, or, more specifically, what grace should look like in the lives of other people, that’s a very different matter.
Trvin Wax has written an article I wish I could get everyone to read. You would be well served by taking a few minutes to read and understand what he is discussing in “Welcome Everyone, Affirm No One.” In the article Trevin makes this statement:
“In a culture that thrives on self-affirmation and self-determination, “showing grace” now means accepting someone else’s definition of their own righteousness. Our age of expressive individualism leads us to find meaning in the identities we’ve constructed for ourselves, and then to expect (no, demand!) that others affirm our self-construction and give us their blessing.”
This is a powerful statement on the state of Christianity in America that is inwardly focused and touts our own righteousness. This can be seen clearly when our definition of grace (or justice, or mercy) is not met and we quickly condemn others for not living up to our standard of grace. Rather than exercise the ability to think biblically about a situation and determine if the actions carried out met biblical qualifications and employed biblical guidelines, we react emotionally and accuse others of not showing grace.
Let’s be clear, grace does not excuse our behavior. Actions have consequences. It is entirely possible (and appropriate) to be subject to consequences for our actions while also being shown grace. Any definition of grace that is devoid of consequences is not grace at all, it is license, and the Bible clearly warns against license. (Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 2:16) This may seem foreign to a culture that believes everyone is “basically good” and deserves a second (third, fourth) chance. Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that people don’t deserve second chances. I am saying that those subsequent chances are not at the expense of consequences. A society without consequences descends into chaos; this goes for the church as well.
Frankly, I don’t want to be part of a “community” that refuses to hold me accountable for my sins. The more I learn and grown in my theological understanding of Scripture the more I see that true grace-driven community values accountability. God designed us to need a community that knows how sinful we are, loves us anyways, but refuses to ignore our sin; all while constantly calling us to greater holiness. I can’t grow in my personal holiness when I’m repeatedly told how awesome I am but never being held accountable for my sin. I’m just not interested in Pep-Rally Jesus.
When we seek to define grace and demand that others adhere to our definition of grace we become the legalist we really don’t like. We are setting a standard for everyone else that is defined by our own theological conscience and demanding everyone else abide by it. It is the very definition of legalism. Furthermore, this undermines the ability of others to act in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s leading as they work together in a spirit of cooperation to carry out the functions of their office (elder, deacon, principal, etc.).
In some ways, American Christians have bought into the false teaching that it’s important to feed their self-worth. We’ve become so caught up in making sure we love ourselves, and making sure everyone else does too, that we’ve created our own personal idol out of our self-worth. We end up projecting our idea of grace onto the church, often becoming frustrated when the church doesn’t “show grace” the way we think it should. But as Trevin Wax explains, the church has no business affirming us or our ideas of anything:
“The last thing we need is a club of self-righteous people who pat themselves on the back for meeting their own standards of righteousness. We don’t affirm anyone for being straight, gay, or any other label that may be popular in an age of individualism. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and this “falling short” happens in thousands of ways. Self-affirmation is the gospel of the American culture; we are idolaters when we make it the gospel of the Christian church. The church exists not to affirm ourselves, but to adore the King who loved us and gave himself for us when there was nothing good in us to affirm. The more we affirm ourselves, the less we adore the King for his grace.”
Grace is amazing. It’s amazing because it saved a wretch like me. I know I’m a wretch in need of grace because the Bible makes that perfectly clear. The Bible also makes clear that I’m no one; and that there is nothing worthy of salvation in me. Affirming me and my ideas of grace (or mercy, justice) is a worthless exercise. I don’t need the church to help prop up my idols. I need the church to tear them down and point me to Jesus and His idea of grace (and mercy and justice).