Friday, July 13, 2012

Grace is our Teacher

The word grace is almost the quintessential Christian word. For those who have come to know Jesus grace is everything. In the church there is a strong message that we are saved by grace alone and in many ways this is one of the most beautiful aspects of the gospel. After all this is the gospel which tells us that God has looked on us who were His enemies and reached out His hand of compassion and mercy and brought us close. This is a radically stunning and compelling message. A message that softens hard hearts and inspires worship and thankfulness. The concept of grace should be at the very heart of our Christian faith.

However, I wonder if we as humans struggle to comprehend exactly what this grace is and what it means for our lives and our faith. Unfortunately when concepts like grace are spoken about regularly it is incredibly easy for us to develop a colloquial meaning based on the way it is used in the church rather than a meaning based on how it is used in the Scriptures. By and large the colloquial meaning of grace which has dominated our culture is the image of a "get out of Hell free card" whereby God forgives us without demanding anything of us.  It is often phrased like "nothing you could say or do can make Him love you less", now while there is a hint of truth here it is phrased in such a way that makes grace a once off gift you receive at conversion that guarantees your salvation regardless of what you say or do.

The problem is that the fruit of our adoption of this colloquial definition is that people have come in contact with the message of grace but have experienced little or no change in their lives. There is no real victory over sin, there is no desire for holiness and there is no thirst for righteousness. If this is the case we have to question what people are being saved to through this message of "grace"? It seems that many think they are saved to a "safety zone" in which their thoughts, words or actions are not counted against them. They think they have something like "diplomatic immunity" and their lives can never be questioned.
About 75 years ago Bonhoeffer famously wrote the following,
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” 
His main point being that cheap grace, or the colloquial definition of grace in our churches today, is actually a human invention and thus it has no connection whatsoever to the grace that God Himself bestows. It has a hint of godliness but no real power to change us. We might think of our concept of grace as a "safety zone" but in actual fact it is a "God-free zone" where we give ourselves the freedom to ignore the discipleship call of God with seemingly no consequences.

We need to have our colloquial definition of grace blown to pieces and we need to let the Scriptures light the fuse... Scriptures like Titus 2:11-14,
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Here grace is not a safety zone but a teacher. A teacher that God employs in order to train us to turn away from our godlessness and to live with self-control and godliness. So often our colloquial understanding of grace emphasises the freedom God gives from final punishment for our sin (a truth that we need to uphold), but this passage emphasises that grace also sets us free from the power of sin here and now. Jesus did not give His life for us to remain unchanged but to purify us for Himself, to transform us into a people who are zealous for good works.

This is not some legalistic demand where God will not accept you unless you are squeaky clean or promise to be more holy... This is a recognition that the grace of God is not some puny one dimensional safety zone... it is a robust teacher that trains us and shapes us. Grace is so much bigger and more powerful than our pathetic colloquial definition. Grace is the means by which God conforms us into the disciples He longs for us to be. He longs for this both for His glory and our benefit, because a life lived under the training of grace, where our sin is actually confronted and demolished, is far more wondrous and fulfilling than remaining in the prison of our sin all the while kidding ourselves that we will get out for free in the end.

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