What Grace Isn't

Sean Lucas
I consider myself a "grace boy." That is, all the debates that have been on-going in Presbyterian and Reformed circles over sanctification over the past few years, I side with those who emphasize the indicative (who we are by virtue of our union with Christ) fueling the imperative (what we are to do, empowered by such grace). Our church's tagline is "grace transforms"; when I had a chance to preach at General Assembly in 2012, I preached on "grace transforming everything"; when I had a chance to write about the heartbeat of my ministry for Tabletalk, I chose the same theme; I've even written a booklet called "What is Grace?"

So, I think my bona fides are pretty good when it comes to the importance of grace for sanctification. However, I always have a concern that people misunderstand how grace actually works out when you face messy, difficult, or challenging situations.

I'll never forget being in a meeting with Bryan Chapell and many others. The topic was how grace works out in an organization and Bryan was asked directly about poorly performing employees and how grace relates to them. After noting that a grace-centered organization would work first to try to help the employee--whether through offering skills assistance, or mentoring, or even a new position within the organization--he then said something like this, "But it is not gracious to the employee or to the organization to keep them if they will not improve their performance." I've thought a lot about that through the years, both in trying to lead institutions and congregations. There are times when grace isn't grace when it tolerates poor performance in the workplace or sinful behavior in the congregation.

Especially when it comes to churches, there is a misconception about all of this. We think that grace means that we become allergic to imperatives, that discipline is legalistic, that there should be no consequences for the forgiven. But biblically speaking, none of that is true. Because we are united to Christ, we are transformed to live differently in obedience to Christ's commands, responding to Christ's grace. Because we sometimes fail, God in his grace uses discipline to bring about our repentance. And sometimes, God's grace means that the pathway to repentance and forgiveness involves painful consequences.

And so, it is necessary for those of us who love grace and who see ourselves as "grace boys" to try to make careful distinctions in order to protect the grace of Jesus that we love and preach. We need to say that it isn't grace not to hold one another accountable and to seek thorough-going repentance. Failing to hold each other accountable is not grace; it's lazy self-protection. We don't want to get involved; we want someone else to handle it. Or we will be involved in the beginning, but we don't want to do the hard work of every other week meetings for a year to seek another man's repentance. But it is actually gracious to the individual and to the church to seek repentance and to hold each other accountable.

It isn't grace to say by one's actions that sin isn't deadly or that sin is easily dealt with. What makes grace amazing is that God through Jesus shows favor and steadfast love to sinners who have willingly drunk the poison, who have loved their bondage, and who wanted no part of the light. And yet, God in Christ reaches down and rescues us. But at what cost! The death of the one and only Son! How deadly my sin and sinning is! And even after our Spirit-wrought union with Christ, how deadly sin still is! How often I reach for the chalice to drink the poison that Jesus already drunk for me! To act as though sin is a light matter, easily dealt with by a public apology or by a few months out of the ministry, is to do great damage to the Gospel of grace we claim to love.

It isn't grace to say by one's actions that repentance is easy or doesn't involve consequences.
Repentance is a Gospel grace; it often involves a process of restoration that can take months. We demonstrate the fruits of repentance by a "long obedience in the same direction" as we rebuild trust. And especially for leaders in Christ's church who have committed public sins, that process more times than not involves stepping out of (paid or unpaid, ordained or non-ordained) ministry, stepping off the stage, being quiet and submitting to the church's elders as a church member. If we can't set aside the ministry as part of our repentance, then we don't really understand either grace or repentance. Doing ministry is not the same thing as loving Jesus (see Luke 10:38-42).

It isn't grace not to exercise meaningful church discipline or to find loopholes around that church discipline. Too many of our churches don't exercise meaningful church discipline because, frankly, it is hard and messy; people don't want to cooperate; it "doesn't seem to accomplish anything"; and above all, it doesn't seem gracious to involve ourselves in other people's mess. But not exercising meaningful church discipline is not gracious to the individual--because then they think sin doesn't have real consequences--nor is it gracious to the church--because then the church's members think that their sin is nobody's business and really is okay in the end. Likewise, finding loopholes around church discipline--whether by leaving one church or another or by some other way--demonstrates a heart that fails to grasp that God disciplines sons and daughters. In other words, grace and steadfast love grounds discipline; hatred avoids discipline.

Those of us who love grace-motivated sanctification need to make these distinctions winsomely and courteously, especially in these days when so much happens to drag the Gospel into disrepute. We have to do this because we know that this grace is amazing, that it cost so much, and that it alone can fuel our holiness and our joy.