Yesterday’s post which included references by me about making whips and going off on a youth ministry conference for rushing a publicly fallen megachurch pastor (and his wife) onto their stage is the petri dish for today’s post. So you may want to click the link above and give it a quick read-through so this one will make more sense.
Does Grace ever say “no”? After all, grace is a gift, right? Gifts are kind of like a giant “yes” to someone. I could imagine that interlocuter at various points of my post yesterday raising its hand to say “objection.” And rather than ignoring that persistent throat-clearing happening on the other side of the room, I’ve decided to face this objection head-on. Can grace ever say “no”? Specifically, I can think of several examples in Scripture where this happens (we’ll get there at the end.) But first I want to take on this “false” grace that exists in the evangelical corporate culture*, that rears its ugly, boil-filled head every time someone within that culture makes a major “boo-boo” as they call it.
Let’s compare two systems, shall we? Let’s call them System A and System B for clarity’s sake. Which of these sounds more gracious?
System A says that recovery from sin happens quickly and full restoration of position and privilege should follow. System B says that sin is not conquered in a moment or in 3 months of intensive therapy but that sanctification is a “long obedience in the same direction”, an outworking of our new identity in Christ over the long haul by the Spirit of God.
System A says that the way to make things right involves a person becoming successful again after a setback. System B says that the way to make things right involves a person throwing themselves helplessly at the feet of the Crucified and Risen Christ.
System A says that God’s glory in tragic sin is only shown by future numerical results and publicity. System B says that God’s glory in tragic sin is only shown by our dependence upon the results of Christ’s atoning work.
System A says that your skills as a pastor define you and therefore you have to go back into the pastorate to be used of God. System B says that your adopted status as a child of God in Christ now defines you, whether you work at Starbucks or at First Baptist Church, Big City.
System A says that grace can be received from the people you didn’t hurt, a new church or the general public’s favor. System B says that grace can only be a gift when it is undeserved, and therefore must be sought from those directly hurt. Fleeing to a new scene is not considered true grace.
System A says that you have something to offer people and must remain a teacher. System B says that you must be needy, including needing to be taught by others.
System A says that your family is worth sacrificing again to regain the limelight. System B says that you need to put them ahead of your career.
System A says that you are worthless if you don’t rise above your circumstances. System B says that you are worth the cost of Jesus to God because of His love.
System A says that you need to speak to a crowd of people to have community. System B says that you need to listen to a small amount of people who know you really well and ask tough (not canned) questions to find true community.
System A says that if you can’t get the broken pieces back together, we’ll give you a shot. System B says only the love of God over a lifetime can restore the damage of our sin and that everything will not be made wonderful just yet.
System A wants to use you for their profit. System B says that God seeks to graciously profit you for his use.
System A ignores those who have been hurt by your sin by publicly acting like everything’s ok when it’s not. System B says you can just leave your gift here, useless for the time being, and first go and seek reconciliation from those you have hurt.
System A needs you to increase. System B says you must decrease so He might increase.
So which one sounds more gracious?
Now, admittedly, there’s an option C as well which says there’s no hope or path or grace to be found once the sin has crested the flood level, so to speak. But we’re not dealing with that. System A is the evangelical corporate culture and quite honestly, from the descriptions above, it lies about Christ and the Gospel.
The truth is that grace says no sometimes. In Luke 15, a story which probably would be first on people’s lists of a Bible story where “grace” is pictured beautifully, there’s a major moment in the story when grace says no. We might miss it because there are a lot of things that grace says yes to. The Father in the story, God, receives back the sinful son. He is grace. He says a lot of yes’s: Yes, you can return. Yes, I love you and will greet you with hugs and kisses. Yes, you are my child again. Yes, I rejoice in your return. Yes, I will party in the joy I find having you returned from the dead to me.
But he does say no to one thing. Remember the prodigal’s little speech he works up on his journey home to dad? Dad, I’ve messed up. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired sons. At least that’s what he wants to say. In 15:21, the son probably still selling of the unclean pigs he shared lunch with finds himself in the tearful embrace of his Father. He goes through the speech again but is cut off before he finishes. Grace says no. The Father will have none of this hired hand business. (He doesn’t even let him get the words out.) The son is not going to earn his keep. The son is not going to labor for his lunch. He is going to be given it. Flat-out given. Yes, he was lost and found, dead and alive again. The Father makes no pretense that His son didn’t just disappear or squander his inheritance. But He is gracious. He will not let this son atone for his guilt. He will not let him pay for his sins. He gives grace. The one thing grace always says no to is our inherent idea that we can earn back our worth, that we can labor for God’s love. The problem with System A, the evangelical corporate culture, is that in the name of grace, it does precisely the opposite. In that world, grace is not a gift, it’s a stock option. The grace given isn’t free or undeserved; it’s leverage for a future pay-off (whether monetary or numerical success or influence). And that makes it not grace at all. Grace that never says no is not grace. We need to be told no to our works-based identity and self-righteousness constantly or we will never experience grace.
*I say this rather than “evangelicalism” because many evangelicals, whether pastors or laypeople, have no real relationship with this business that we call the American church. They’re not the bookstore/conference/television circuit that exploits the successful and the failed to make a quick buck. They’re not the society that says “If you make a major mistake, but are really passionate as a leader, we can find room for you to step back in.” As a thought, just imagine if the typical radio preachers fell into some of the sins that televangelists often do, would there be a market for them any longer? Would they get 3 months of re-runs and return after all is forgotten? Probably not.