I once had an elder tell me, “I know that we’re saved by grace, but you have to run the church with a little law.” I thought of that statement again today as I told my freshman Bible class about what Paul means by grace.
I know what this elder was driving at. Grace is all mercy, he’s thinking, and its obligational force is correspondingly low. Why come on Sunday nights when you’re saved by grace? Grace is a way to feel good about yourself, but not a way to get things done. Ironically, I think this is pretty close to the view of grace that Paul is resisting in Romans.
For Paul, grace is more than God’s “unmerited favor.” In Romans 5, grace is a God-offered “dominion,” a realm of power, an ecosystem, that produces a different kind of life than the “dominion of sin and death.” Grace is not simply permissiveness. Nor is it only overlooking things so that your status can be changed. Rather, it is the gift of God to belong to a different ordering of life–or as Paul says in Romans 6, it’s the opportunity to “walk in newness of life.”
So, grace has some shape to it. It has a power source that delivers, that gets things done, in relation to the Kingdom of God. The book of Titus describes grace as a disciplinarian or teacher (2:11-12). Grace may not produce the same things or in the same way as the law does, but grace does things. It orders life a certain way under a different dominion or power. In fact, because the law of sin and death is distorting and disfiguring, I would say that grace should be more productive in getting things done because it is rooted in life-giving sources–Spirit, faith, hope, love.
So, I told my students today that grace for them would not be to overlook their poor performance on the last exam (and it was truly horrible). Grace would be to empower them to become different kinds of students–better students. Grace, for instance, might focus on their learning rather than on my instruction. Grace would be to create an environment for human flourishing (which means we would never meet at 8:00 am).
And of course, this made me realize that both my teaching and my ministry efforts tend to conform more to the way law would order life than the way that grace might. That though I disagreed with the elder’s statement, sadly, the principalities and powers of this world still have some sway over my imagination.
So, my hope is not “to fall away from grace,” and to know better how grace might infuse my work with productive life.