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.
Mark, this post really moved me. Thank you. (Sniff, sniff.)
“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.”
Can you give an example of how this might change the way you do things?
Kathy, I gave one example in the post. If I focus on my teaching, rather than student learning, I’m asking them to conform to me rather than creating for them an empowered learning environment. In ministry, I think those times when I make being an ideal church the goal rather than creating an environment for human flourishing that I put the law to work rather than grace. In other words, the success of the church as an institution (a self-imposed law or standard) governs my intentions and aims more than creating an environment which promotes faith, hope, and love.
Sorry for being a little dense. That is just still a little too theoretical for me. I get the idea, but I have a hard time making the rubber meet the road with it sometimes. I really work on this with my kids but I fail more often than I succeed, I think. I appreciate Jennifer’s example below of how that looks in her classroom.
I think part of my problem is that I often operate from an attitude of scarcity instead of a mentality of “enough” and then I feel like a slave to law instead of empowered by grace. Working on that.
In my experience with grace versus law, grace convicts the heart where law convicts the mind. A hard heart will resist being reshaped by grace, but when the heart is soft, grace is transformational. It becomes about wanting to do things differently than having to do things differently.
I have experienced this as well and find the Holy Spirit is clear and capable of transformation of our hearts which includes our minds in that process. I am so thankful for the Gospel.
for a long time, I have held the view that grace and mercy are two sides of the same coin; that mercy is not receiving what we deserve, and that grace is receiving what we don’t deserve. Both are evidences of God’s love for us, and both are elements of our experience of salvation. Thanks for your thoughts.
“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ …
[Costly grace] is costly, because it calls us to discipleship; it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs people their lives; it is grace because it thereby makes them live. It is costly because it condemns sin; it is grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it cost God the life of God’s son – and because nothing can be cheap to us which is costly to God.”
– some old German dude…
Thanks Mark. We think the Law is more powerful because imposing it reflects our control rather than God’s. Grace that is powerful demands that we wait upon the move of God and waiting is something we are friendly toward.
Mark – I found this very helpful — I hope you won’t mind if I adapt it for use in a bulletin article
That’s fine with me
And this is why the first great commission is to go and learn what God meant when he said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” If you skip this commission and go straight to the next one about making disciples, then they will end up as children of hell warped and distorted by the law of sin and death.
interesting stuff! I just want to add that I tried in my college class this year having the students write to me little journal assignments. I offered no points for this or gave them any certain amount I required. All I did was read them and make a thoughtful comment, maybe a sentence or two that was personal. It was wonderful to see how at first they only wrote a line or two, but after a couple of sessions they began to write me entire pages, and share deep things…was I required to do this? No but the pay of with these kids was huge because they were hungry for this kind of grace. Just my two cents:)