Here is part 7 of an 8-part essay by Dr. Gary Deddo titled “The Christian life and our participation in Christ’s continuing ministry.” To read other parts, click on a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8. For all 8 parts combined in one article, click here.
Recap of part 6
In part 6 we looked at how we ought to preach, teach and counsel others to participate in their union with Christ. The danger here is that we would highlight the commandments, simply telling people to do things for God because he said so. This leads to misrepresenting the character of God and to legalism, a wrong relationship with God. We always need to bring about the obedience of faith by showing the foundations for any call to obedience. And that foundation is built up from all the indicatives of grace that always form the basis of the obligations of grace. This time we’ll explore more of the antidote to legalism and the real meaning of grace.
For every act of desired obedience, we must present and focus on the character of God manifest in Christ that corresponds to that imperative. That is because all obedience that gives glory to God must arise out of faith, hope and love for who God really is, both in himself and towards us. The apostle Paul says both at the beginning and the ending of Romans that his whole ministry is to bring about the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). He explains that any obedience that does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
We often think that legalism is the problem of someone who is committed to consistent obedience who needs to be corrected by allowing for their inconsistent obedience! But really, legalism is obedience that does not arise out of faith, hope and love in the character of the gracious Lawgiver. Legalism is obedience without faith. James Torrance often reminded his students of Calvin’s concern to avoid legal repentance (repentance without trust in the gospel of grace), focusing instead on evangelical repentance (repentance in light of the grace and forgiveness of God that is offered to sinners out of God’s sheer goodness, righteousness and mercy).
It is a grave mistake to merely preach the commandments by addressing the will of the Christian and calling for volitional conformity to the standards of God. Concentration on the requirements of God or even the ideals of God may tempt hearers to a faithless obedience. It is even more dangerous to misrepresent the character of God by speaking as if God had two sides to his character, as if God was two-faced or double minded, first offering grace and then switching to a concern for moral and spiritual conformity to his will and threatening the withdrawal of his grace. Preaching this way communicates that although we are first saved by grace, we are really sanctified by works. It says the Christian life may have begun by grace but is essentially lived out in a conditional and contractual relationship with God. Under such guidance many, I think, see their lives under a great impossible burden.
I’ve known of some who wanted to be non-believers again so they could become Christians all over, experiencing afresh the grace of God. But such admonishment, undoubtedly concerned for faithful and consistent lives, obscures the truth and actuality of Christ’s gracious and unconditioned continuing ministry and our union with him. It regards Christ as at a distance, sending us out to do for him what he is unwilling or unable to do himself, becoming somehow dependent upon us. We end up communicating that, at least subsequent to our conversion, God can no longer be more faithful than we are!
Preaching the commandments apart from the promises of the unconditional and unconditioned grace of God is like putting people in a windowless room with the door shut and the lights off and telling them, “On the count of three start enjoying the sunset!” Few have such imaginative powers! But if we could take someone to the top of Sentinel Dome on the 3000-foot-high western-facing ridge of Yosemite Valley, just at sunset, all we would need to do is declare, “Watch!” and their joy would be irrepressible.
So in preaching, only the glory and the character of God can draw out of us a faith that leads to a faithful obedience. Otherwise, our sacrificial endeavors are most often driven not by faith, hope and love, but by guilt, fear and anxiety as we are thrown back upon ourselves and our own five loaves and two fishes while standing in front of 5,000 hungry souls. Only the presentation of the heart and character of God fully revealed in Jesus Christ can bring us to the point of faithful obedience. This is why all our preaching and teaching must take as its staring point the question of who this God is, not the questions of what should we do or how should we do it. However, this is often not the starting point for preaching, teaching and counseling in connection with living the Christian life. I think that contributes to the weaknesses of our churches and burnout in the Christian life and ministry. It will also erode any of the new initiatives intended to renew the church mentioned at the beginning of this essay.
Too much grace?
There is one further concern that I have seen James Torrance respond to on numerous occasions. Some professional theologians, pastors and laypersons fear that we can preach too much grace. They would counsel that we have to somehow counterbalance grace so as to prevent people from taking advantage of grace. But what are we going to preach and teach to substitute for and counterbalance what is perceived as over-generous grace? Will we offer some new means for us to condition God into being gracious? Or preach a stingy God or a God dependent on us? A God who cannot be more faithful than we are? If so, we will end up misrepresenting the true God of the Bible for all our good intentions to get people “doing things” for God.
Grace means no exceptions
The problem with such a project is that it assumes a very inaccurate view of grace. If it were somehow possible to preach too much grace, then it isn’t really grace that’s being preached! I think that our understanding of grace is unfortunately often quite insufficient. This is in large part due to the general, cultural understanding of grace. Grace is often taken to mean making an exception to the rule. So we have “grace periods,” and we say someone is gracious when they let us off the hook of responsibility. The grace of forgiveness can be taken to mean diminishing the seriousness of sin or pretending it never happened. But we cannot take our cues from these misguided understandings.
Following in the pathway of Torrance’s understanding, I contend that real grace makes absolutely no exceptions. If it did make exceptions, it would not be gracious! Grace provides everything needed, and by the Spirit transforms our hearts and minds to be more and more like Christ’s. Grace accepts us where we are as we repent and takes us to where he is going so we may be with him forever. Grace is God’s commitment to get us, in the end, where we belong, even at God’s own cost.
As James Torrance used to point out, the unconditional grace of God means the unconditional obligations of grace. But these are the obligations of being in a gracious relationship with God through Christ, not the conditions to get God to be gracious towards us. Presuming upon grace (as if it were some kind of commodity that God doles out) is not the same as living in and receiving grace. Living in fellowship and communion with God, in union with Christ, means going where he goes and doing what he’s doing, not going where he does not go and doing the kinds of things he is not doing or involved in. The obligations of grace are spelled out as imperatives, as commands, in the New Testament. Living according to these commands is the way we continue to receive daily God’s grace.
Saying we have God’s grace and thinking there are no obligations at all, is saying there is grace but I don’t have to receive grace. Disobedience is not receiving grace and not living in our fellowship and communion with Christ. Disobedience presumes upon grace, and so amounts to actually rejecting grace!