Monday, June 16, 2014

Why Grace Isn't So Amazing Anymore

The word, grace, pops up quite a lot in church these days, doesn't it? We often hear about the need to act with grace toward others to help foster healthy relationships. And, it's become common to say things like: "I need to show [insert name here] some grace." Perhaps one of the more comical usages of the term, grace, would be "EGR"—an abbreviation for extra grace required, which is apparently Christianese for dealing with "a person in church whose ongoing spiritual and emotional needs frustrate the efforts of others to interact with that person or minister to that person." I'm pretty sure a lot of us can relate!

Comical as this may be, it actually points up a real problem: when we use the term, grace, we often do so in a way that isn't really consistent with how it's used in Scripture. It's a good thing that we're talking about grace more often. But, the things is, we've developed a tendency to over-use the term without giving much thought to what it actually means. And as a result, we end up trivializing it and obscuring the powerful meaning behind it. In other words, grace doesn't seem so amazing anymore.

Having used the term quite liberally over the years myself, I've recently been pondering, what does it really mean to "show grace" to someone, anyway?

Interestingly, in the New Testament, the word gracecharis—is not as often used to describe the way in which we should treat others as it is mentioned in direct relation to the gospel. In other words, grace isn't presented nearly so much as something we do, as something we have received. This is because grace isn't self-generated, it is God-given. And so, grace itself points us to the gospel of Christ because He is its source and His work on the Cross is its purest expression. In fact, the Apostle Paul used the terms "gospel" and "grace" interchangeably (Gal 1:6). And he made it clear that grace is at the very heart of the gospel when he wrote, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Eph 2:8-9).

But worryingly, it seems that, of late, the idea of "showing grace" is being applied in a way that actually marginalizes the gospel message. Over time, grace has taken on new meaning among Christians, diverging from Scripture, to describe a purely human action or behavior rather than an unmerited gift from God. As Robert Girdlestone puts it, "We have gradually come to speak of grace as an inherent quality in man, just as we talk of gifts; whereas it is in reality the communication of Divine goodness by the inworking of the Spirit, and through the medium of Him who is ‘full of grace and truth.’”[1]

Furthermore, when we talk about grace these days, it seems like we're less often referring to salvation from sin and more often to tolerance of sin. It seems that "showing grace" is increasingly confused with overlookingeven enablingsin in our culture, sin in others...and by extension, sin in ourselves (which is perhaps the underlying reason for why this application has become so popular). "Showing grace," it seems, has morphed into a tendency to brush sin under the rug in an effort to smooth things over and keep the peace. In other words, it is a biblical principle that is misapplied when it is motivated by a desire to please people rather than God. Acts of "grace" that are of this world, will mirror the patterns of this world. And "grace" doesn't so often mingle with truth in this context.

But because authentic grace comes from God, and is not of this world, it is counter-cultural. And as a result, grace will be undervalued in a worldly culture. To authentically show grace to others isn't always going to be the popular thing to do because it will ultimately point them to Christ and away from themselves. Showing grace, then, will not always please people. 

The prevailing culture of political correctness and moral relativism that dominates our society at large has seeped into our churches (just as culture tends to do!). And because of this, it's becoming less and less socially acceptable to call sin, "sin," and to differentiate between right and wrong, even in the Christian community. We're so often told, these days, that acknowledging the existence of sin and distinguishing right from wrong is to be judgmental or to be a guilt-tripper.

But distinguishing right from wrong as a Christian isn't about feeling guilty, or guilt-tripping others; it's about God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of othersFor why would we ever seek God's forgiveness and His righteousness, if we haven't confronted the reality of our own sinful nature? And how can we forgive someone for something that we haven't recognized as wrong in the first place? 

In other words, it's not about being judgmental; it's about being discerning. It's not about accusing others, record-keeping, or burdening ourselves with a lot of emotional baggage; it's about simply acknowledging that we are sinners and humbly, joyfully standing in God's grace, knowing that when we are weak, He is strong. And it's about encouraging others with the same good news.

...But it's only good news if we realize our need for a Savior.

So, what then is it to "show grace"? If grace is unmerited favor, showing grace to others is loving, forgiving, and blessing them when they don't deserve it, because this what Christ did for us. The purest, most powerful example of being loved and blessed when we don't deserve it, is Christ's death for us on the Cross. Think about that for a second: we don't deserve it...Why don't we deserve God's grace to us? Because we are sinners. Yet while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). He didn't die for us because we had done pretty well that week with our devotions or shown kindness to others that day. His grace to us was unearned, unconditional, and unmatched. Even if we accomplished some monumental life's work for His glory, we still wouldn't deserve His grace.

In fact, if we believe the bible, we know that what we actually deserve is eternal separation from God. But it's not so popular to talk about such inconvenient truths these days, is it? In a culture that believes we deserve to be happy, we deserve to be loved, we deserve the very best life has to offer, there is no real room for grace. If we inherently deserve all these good things, the very nature of grace is nullified. And if we deserve to be saved, then what is grace? As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, "if [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Rom 11:6).

It is true that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8), but at the same time love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor 13:5). To truly love one another is not to gloss over sin, it is to encourage one another with the truth that we are justified in Christ and our sins have been washed away. And by speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Christ (Eph 4:16). Failing to acknowledge the truth about how sinful we are, is to downplay the surpassing power of the gospel of grace.

Grace, then, must go hand-in-hand with truth, or it's no longer grace. The other day, Kevin De Young tweeted: "We need to be grace people and truth people. Not half grace and half truth. But full on with both all the time." And in the gospel of John, we read that "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth … From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (Jn 1:14, 16-17). Grace is synonymous with the truth of the gospel.

While our culture will encourage us to be proud of ourselves, to promote ourselves, and to seek worldly status, pride is actually our biggest hurdle to salvation by grace. The bible counters that we need to let go of our pride. To brush sin under the rug is prideful because it tries to elevate the self to a holier status that it deserves. And enabling sin is not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:14).

Living in God's grace, then, involves neither ignoring sin nor sinking in sin; Paul made this clear when he said, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" (Rom 6:1-2). And if we are to die to sin, we have to recognize what it is before we can walk away from it. Standing in grace is to reject self-righteousness and embrace our righteousness in Christ, for it is in Christ that there is no condemnation (Rom 8:10). Standing in grace is to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2)—this is the crux of the gospel.

Peter tells us that we should use our gifts to serve others as faithful stewards of God's grace (1 Peter 4:10). Authentically showing grace to others is an outworking of God's grace to us and will be inherently self-sacrificial, unconditional, and unearned, just as modeled by Christ. It isn't motivated by self-gain or people pleasing. 

The bottom line is this: Christ is what makes grace so amazing. Let's not forget to make Him central when we act with grace towards others.

Robert Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1871), p. 179.

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