Extending Grace or Just Not Caring?
Messy. Now there is a buzzword that will earn you some evangelical street cred. The currency is authenticity points. It's now okay, no admirable, to share our messiness, to confess some of our failures, and lean on grace. In some ways, this can be celebrated. Finally, it is okay to admit we don't have it all together. I can tell you about my total mom fail this morning as I attempted to send my kids off to school as well equipped students dressed in the armor of God. I can humorously share about my breakfast breakdown, or how I doused my 9-year-old with a rigged spray of fabric softener and water, sending him off damp into 32 degree weather because there was no time to iron, and how I raced through the longer route out of the neighborhood because the bus was in front of us and that just can't happen (won that race, by the way).
We like to throw a messiness bone that actually distracts from the close up examination. And we rely on the required Christian response of grace. It goes: I stink at whatever I am trying to accomplish, Jesus accomplished everything that matters for me, and now I claim that grace in my life. Everyone reading appreciates my transparency, identifies with my struggles, and thankful for the very real grace that has been given to them, extends the same grace to me. We call this humbling ourselves.
The messy that we usually openly share is of the trivial sort. Some of it isn't really sin; it's more like creative survival techniques that fail to meet our ideal standard. But maybe in some of this sharing we have inadvertently cheapened extended grace. We think that since grace is given to us to freely receive, it shouldn't cost us anything to give.
Let me ask you this, what happens when it is your pastor that is messy? Does the same formula work? The recent discussion concerning Pastor Mark Driscoll's grievous sins of plagiarism, using massive amounts of church money to cheat the bestseller's list for his personal benefit, apparent mishandling of elder relationships, among other troubling statements and patterns of behavior, brings up the question, "What kind of messy is acceptable to confess, ask for grace, and move on, and what kind of messy renders their pastorate condemned and in need of the yellow tape?" The thing is, it's easy to extend grace to me when I'm repentant about something many can identify with. It costs you nothing. But extending grace to a person when their sin is betrayal and serious character flaws, well that's some expensive grace to extend. Extending grace in these situations calls for something much more difficult. It calls for love beyond what we are capable of giving.
What is this grace that we extend? What did it cost? First of all, it is God's grace. Extending grace is an act of forgiveness. A repentant sinner wants to make restitution to those they have offended, and extending grace gives this opportunity without holding their sin against them. But as we know, we cannot do anything to restore ourselves before the most important person we have offended, our holy God. God's gift of grace to us is not cheap; it cost the life of his Son. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this so well in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is gracebecause it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought with a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us." (44-45)
When we offer grace, we in essence say that we want to restore fellowship, which involves encouraging and exhorting that person toward holiness. This can be difficult, but we rely on God's expensive grace, and we do that by trusting his Word. I've seen churches do this beautifully when a leader has fallen in sin, and I have seen it handled all wrong. I'm sure many of you have too. Extending grace means we care. We care about the pastor's holiness and we care about the whole bride of Christ that he was entrusted with. If we care, we need to follow God's Word and trust in his provision.
Because God loves his church, he doesn't hesitate to render severe mercy (a term I learned from Sheldon Vanauken's Severe Mercy) for her growth in holiness. James reminds us that not many should become teachers (James 3:1). If we know that our teachers will be judged with greater strictness, extending grace takes the Scripture's warning seriously so that we lovingly provide for repentant pastors to be served under the preached Word.
And if we care about the church, we should not be what Machen called "passive theologians." We must take a stand for truth, not allowing any assault on God's people to continue. Because that's what it is to disobey Scripture and keep a pastor who is not above reproach in office, an assault to Christ's bride, the very people he is to serve. It's easy to avoid this kind of mess and offer cheap grace. But that is unloving for any pastor, elder, advisory board, or lay person to consider.
So when we use other popular catch phrases like "getting our hands dirty," it should mean more than just serving the poor and needy in our community. We have spiritually poor and needy souls in our own congregations. Calling the poor and needy "those out there" is much easier than evaluating ourselves, speaking hard truths, and taking on affliction to avoid further sin in our own congregations. And when we exhort one another to extend grace to a repentant believer, we need to count the cost of that statement if it is to mean anything at all.