STUDY FOUR: THE REIGN OF GRACE FOR CHRISTIANS-IN-COMMUNITY – PART 1: DEVELOPING GUILT-FREE, CONDEMNATION-FREE RELATIONSHIPS
Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2011
In his book What’s so amazing about Grace? [p15] Philip Yancey quotes counsellor David Seamands:
‘Many years ago I was driven to the conclusion that the two major causes of most emotional problems among evangelical Christians are these: the failure to understand, receive, and live out God’s unconditional grace and forgiveness; and the failure to give out that unconditional love, forgiveness, and grace to other people … We read, we hear, we believe a good theology of grace. But that’s not the way we live. The good news of the Gospel of grace has not penetrated the level of our emotions.’
Sadly, there is much evidence that this conclusion is accurate. The failure of Christians to receive the grace of the gospel is longstanding. Many of the New Testament letters were written to preserve the message of grace and to instruct believers to both embrace and express grace. So central and pivotal is grace to the gospel that Paul spoke extremely forcefully of those who preached a gospel or embraced an understanding of the gospel that jettisoned grace:
‘… we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain’ [2 Corinthians 6:1]
‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ … if anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!’ [Galatians 1:6-9]
‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ [Galatians 3:1]
‘You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ’ you have fallen away from grace’ [Galatians 5:4]
This automatic human preference for a performance based relationship with God is expressed in a variety of ways by both Christian and non-Christian sub-cultures all around the world.
Task: Research the following and identify what a person has to do in these sub-cultures to gain and/or maintain acceptance with God and/or with the group.
A. THE MEANING OF GRACE
A.1 Grace is the opposite of merit
When the New Testament teaches that we are saved ‘by grace’ it means that we are not saved by earning, meriting or deserving salvation by what we are or what we have done. In other words, salvation is not based on our performance. It has nothing to do with
• Our being good enough
• Our keeping of God’s law
• Our ‘good’ outweighing our ‘bad’
• What we have done for God
It is totally unrelated to us. And because it is totally unrelated to anything we have been or have done, or are or do, what we are and do today cannot change it any way: if we are ‘good’ or do great things for God today, our salvation doesn’t change. If we are ‘bad’ and dishonour God the way we live today, our salvation doesn’t change. Because it is by grace, not because of anything we are or do. We do not earn it by our goodness; we do not forfeit it by our badness. Grace is essentially gift.
Task: Describe your reaction to the above statements, and their implications.
A.2 Grace means ‘freely given’
Because receiving salvation by ‘grace’ is the opposite of earning, meriting or deserving salvation, it also means that salvation is freely given.
Task: Answer these questions: How does Paul express the ‘freely given’ aspect of salvation in these texts? What is there in the context that makes salvation possible only by grace?
Romans 3:24 [Read 3:19-25]
Ephesians 1:6 [Read 2:1-5]
God, knowing how sinful we really are, also knows that if anyone is to be saved, if anyone is to be restored to a right relationship with himself, it can only be by a free gift. No one merits it. No one deserves it. No one is good enough [See Romans 3:9-20].
A.3 God’s grace [love and mercy] is immeasurable
In our performance mindset we limit grace. But God doesn’t. We think that there is a level of sinfulness which even God cannot forgive. We think that if we do such and such, we will be beyond his power to save us. We think and act as if his grace will run out. We continually view ourselves as outside of his grace because of some sin or failure, as if grace did not apply to this sin or this failure, as if we were still in the dominion of darkness where the law of sin and death and condemnation apply.
But what does the Scripture say?
Task: Check out these texts. How do they describe the grace that God extends to us in Christ?
B. HOW IT SHOULD WORK OUT IN RELATIONSHIPS IN THE BODY OF CHRIST
This is indeed amazing grace. And God commands us that this same grace with which he relates to us should dominate and dictate our choices in our relationships within the body of believers. Such active expression of grace is possible only if we ourselves have really received this grace. If we ourselves are still perceiving our relationship with God on a performance basis, then that is how we will relate to each other.
B.1 Grace forgives others as God has forgiven me
Grace refuses to pay people back for their offences against us. Grace does not bear or implement grudges. This tit-for-tat mentality is outlawed by the Gospel of grace.
Task: Read these verses and answer these questions. How do they differ from the common ‘get them back’ ‘pay them out’ mentality? What makes it difficult to obey these commands?
Grace does not delude itself and say ‘this person has not sinned against me’; rather grace chooses not to take the sin or the offence into account. Grace chooses to follow the example of God and to consider that this real sin or offence has already been paid for in the death of Jesus Christ. Grace considers the offence nailed to the cross of Christ, and therefore grace will not penalize the offender. Grace asks ‘how has God forgiven me?’ and answers ‘for Christ’s sake’ ‘freely’ ‘without limit’ and knows that in this same way must the Christian neighbour be treated.
B.2 Grace acts with mercy and forbearance towards others as God has acted with mercy and forbearance towards me
Similarly the Christian who knows he/she is the recipient of this amazing grace from God will act with mercy and forbearance towards others. As Christians know by experience the extreme patience and compassion of God, a patience and compassion that understands our powerlessness and our destitution. God commands us to bear with the sinfulness and spiritual poverty of others in the same way that he bore with our spiritual poverty and powerlessness.
Task: Answer this question: What do these verses teach about the mercy and forbearance that should characterize our relationships with other Christians?
B.3 Not destroying each other with legalism
When we fail to act with grace towards each other we are acting legalistically towards each other. Either we allow grace to cover the other’s offences, or we hold them accountable for their sins, and, in one way or another, make them pay for their offences. Such legalistic attitudes are destructive at more than one level:
• They effectively destroy the gospel
• They destroy the person against whom they are practised
• They destroy the person who practices them
• They destroy the fellowship between believers
• They destroy the church’s witness to unbelievers
Task: Discuss and answer these questions in relation to the impact of legalism in the Christian community:
Why did Paul publicly rebuke Peter in Antioch? [Galatians 2:11-14]
What was wrong about the Galatians’ practice of observing holy days? [Galatians 4:9-11]
In Galatians 5:7 Paul refers to legalistic Christianity as not ‘obeying the truth’. Why?
What is the source of the legalistic mindset? [Colossians 2:8,20]. Why is it wrong?
In Colossians 2:16-23 Paul lists several reasons to reject legalism. What are they?
Task: Answer this question: In the above references and their context, what requirements were being laid upon Christians as necessary for their acceptance in the Christian community and by God?
C. EXPRESSIONS OF LEGALISM IN THE CHURCH TODAY
Task: Read this conversation which reflects a real conversation from a real church just a few years ago:
Scene: A sound evangelical church
Time: Before the morning service
Cast: Two Christians
C1: [walking in] G’day mate. How’re you going?
C2: Er … actually … to tell the truth … I’m feeling lousy ..
C1: What, are you crook? Maybe you should have stayed home.
C2: Stay home … and not come to church … ? No. I wouldn’t do that. But … it’s not that I’m sick … I’m .. I guess I’m feeling guilty ..
C1: [laughing] You feeling guilty? You! Why mate, what did you do, rob a bank or something! Come off it, you’re exemplary! We all look up to you mate! We use you as our role model!
C2: Me … as a role model? I wish you wouldn’t … you don’t know how I struggle … like today … . Let me tell you … you see, this morning I’ve got to say the prayer for communion … and, look at me … I’m just dressed in my ordinary clothes … jeans … no tie …
C1: What’s wrong with jeans and an open neck shirt?
C2: That’s it. I know that there’s nothing wrong with what I’m wearing, but in the church I used to go to it just wasn’t heard of. All the men at least wore good dress slacks and a shirt and tie if they were doing anything in the service, some of them even a coat, or even a suit. I know it doesn’t matter. But there’s this deep ingrained concept stuck in me that this – this casual dress is not acceptable. It’s really bugging me … I just feel so wrong to be standing up serving the Lord dressed like this.
Now answer these questions:
1. What is wrong with C2’s feeling guilty about his clothes? Give Biblical reasons for your answer
2. What other expression of legalism can you find in C2’s conversation?
3. What could C1 say to C2 to help him overcome these legalistic guilt feelings?
4. In what way can C2’s attitude be seen as a form of self-condemnation?
5. In what way did C2’s feelings stem from his preconceived perceptions and expectations of what a Christian should do?
Legalism, which is the opposite of salvation by grace, is the belief that we are accepted or rejected by God on the basis of our performance of his law. This translates into our interpersonal relationships when we accept or reject others on the basis of their performance of preconceived laws, expectations or perceptions.
[Note: ‘legalism’ does not equal ‘obeying God’s law’, and grace is not about not having to obey God’s law. One can be very careful about obeying God’s law and not be legalistic. In fact, all Christians are expected to obey God’s law. The Bible clearly teaches that for someone to claim to be a Christian and to show no obedience to law are mutually exclusive. Legalism is when keeping God’s law is seen as the cause of salvation and acceptance. The Gospel presents grace as the cause of salvation, and obedience as the essential product of salvation. Thus it is possible to have two people whose lives look identical in terms of obedience, but one is saved and the other is not. The one is saved by grace, and out of that salvation comes obedience. The other is trying to get saved by his obedience, which is an impossibility, because the obedience will never be good enough.]
Legalism atomically produces either pride and self-righteousness, or guilt and condemnation, and creates divisions within the body of Christ. It effectively undoes the justification [declaration of acquittal] pronounced in the gospel and annihilates the peace and joy that Jesus obtained for us. Instead of the freedom from condemnation and the peace with God that Romans 8:1 and 5:1 state are the possession of all believers, and the confidence with which Hebrews 4:16 and 10:19 tell us we can approach God because of Christ our Saviour, our churches are littered with Christians who have no peace and no assurance of their salvation, and who are hampered with guilt and condemnation. Not only this: we condemn and destroy each other with our legalistic perceptions and expectations of what a ‘good Christian’ will do.
Task: Discuss and list examples of legalism in your experience as a Christian. Discuss what difference the application of grace in inter-personal relationships within the church would have made.