Five Problems With Grace

I know, I know. 

If there is anything sacred in the American church today, especially among younger, post-evangelical, and charismatic Christians, it would be the concept of grace.

While the neo-Calvinists certainly talk about grace – doctrines of grace, irresistible grace, saving grace, common grace, etc. – they are often not so gracious, you know, to people who don’t agree with them about homosexuality and hell (the latter being the place where those who don’t fit their idea of grace end up). Their perspective is obviously problematic. But that’s not what I’m addressing here.

Because there’s a problem with the other teaching about grace too. The younger, post-evangelical, and charismatic Christians who insist on grace as THE definition of the faith, the sine qua non of all good theology, and the only really truly true gospel, are prone to a kind of immaturity and superficiality in their grace-talk. They are also prone to a kind of dogmatism about grace that smacks of de-contextualized approaches to Scripture and un-nuanced perspectives on reality.

I know, I know. Grace is sacred. And let’s be honest – there are worse things than to err on the side of superficial grace. But here are five problems with this perspective, for better or worse:

1. This grace promotes denial. At the core, this kind of grace functions as a cover for sin, brokenness, and dysfunction. It’s a modern expression of Luther’s old parable about grace as the snow covering the dunghill of our sin. As younger, post-evangelical, and charismatic Christians have become more and more hyped about grace, the old Protestant dichotomy between grace and works/law has been turned up to 11. And while acceptance and love seem to be at the forefront, in reality there is a failure to come to terms with the deep dysfunctions, wounds, and identity questions that lead a person to emotional and spiritual maturity. In short, this grace promotes denial.

2. This grace is self-centered (not world-centered). For the most part, individualism dominates this view of grace/gospel. It’s about my sin being totally paid for by Jesus on the cross! I don’t have to think about it anymore! I used to be that old person who was guilty and hurt, but now I’m new and free! Not only is this process a classic example of habitual denial (which also leads to other forms of dishonesty/inauthenticity) but it is also myopic and self-centered. It’s about me, me, me. And really, it’s about protecting the immature false self, the image of me that is about ego and putting my best foot forward and carving out a public identity. It is not about the world and accepting the world as it is and facing the world with a deeper empathy and compassion.

3. This grace insulates prosperity theology. Especially in the charismatic manifestation, the new wave of grace teaching insulates a more subtle version of the prosperity gospel. Rather than the sketchy, slick, transactional methods of the old televangelists, the new generation talks about the grace and favor of God on your life that will result in blessing and abundance! With the implication that this blessing and abundance is uniquely available at our church, following our leaders, giving money to our thing. Furthermore, the lavish, flashy celebrity lifestyle of the leaders sets the tone for what the people aspire to, as it is proof of the grace and favor of God on someone’s life. Finally, superficial acts of loving and serving others are held up as proof of integrity, while the deeper systemic gap between rich and poor is only being perpetuated by the prosperity teaching.

4. This grace minimizes abuse. One of the hardest personal lessons I’ve learned as a survivor of cultish emotional abuse is that grace can be one of the most powerful shields for abusive behavior. Why are you so judgmental? Can’t you just forgive and show grace? God shows grace and totally accepts us no matter what because of Jesus! Etc. Among younger, post-evangelical, and charismatic Christians there is a tendency to glorify grace and forgiveness to the degree that basic safety and healthy boundaries are literally non-existent. And if you insist on safety and boundaries, you are shamed as not understanding the true and total grace of God. (Typically those shaming you have not come to terms with their own crap and simply perpetuate this self-justification by projecting things onto you.)

5. This grace is not what Jesus taught. To be sure, Jesus taught and embodied the grace of God. But he didn’t teach the grace message that is often dogmatically pushed by the younger, post-evangelical, and charismatic Christian set. Really, he didn’t. Intrinsic to Jesus’s teaching is a kind of acceptance-with-total-honesty. It is only in the midst of coming to the light before God, fully exposing oneself and one’s dysfunction, wounds, and identity, that one can be healed. The popular grace teaching presents barriers to honesty and promotes quick, superficial conversion and change that seem “miraculous” while glossing over the much deeper pathologies at play. But honesty is the air grace breathes. By preaching repentance, go and sin no more, take up your cross, etc., Jesus was asking us to reveal ourselves, put off the false self, and enter true life. Of course, this comes with total forgiveness and freedom. And of course, this means a life of real, honest, and humble pursuit of deep change.

We should also keep in mind that Paul’s pitting of grace against works was much less about some individualistic thing where my sin must be covered and I can’t contribute to my own salvation, and much more about the ending of religious insider-ism by welcoming the Gentiles, the unclean, the marginalized into the covenant. This is a truly gracious thing for sinners and outsiders like you and me! But while bringing an end to ideological exclusion, it yet calls for a much deeper honesty and reflection about what it means to be made truly human in the Messiah, Jesus.

So what do you think?

Is there a problem with grace?

I’d love to hear your response to this!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is an Author, Preacher, and Content Creator who writes and curates here at The Apocalypse Review. You can also catch him at his author blog, zhoag.com.

  • Brandon Eloy

    Interesting ideas man. In mentioning that the message of grace is “myopic and self-centered,” how can the Church account for people that need to know the gospel but are too self-centered in their own lives that they may not hear the more corporate and overarching theme of grace? I don’t know if that question is readable haha

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Yeah I hear you. I think there is an individual dimension – it’s just not individualISTIC, if you know what I mean. It’s about the world, setting things right, bringing healing on that corporate/creational scale. My repentance and receiving of grace is something that matters for the world and is a part of the healing of the world.

  • Brandon Eloy

    Yeah I agree. Your individual experience of grace is PART of a larger picture, not the whole picture.

  • Rick

    Thanks, Zach. Intriguing thoughts. I’m still trying to find the fulcrum between the need (I’m resisting, but with extreme difficultly, using the word “requirement”) for personal salvation and Jesus’ invitation to participate in the restoration in all of groaning creation. Certainly I don’t want to be veered off course by myopic tendencies, but neither do I wish to minimize the holiness of God which I have no access to apart from the grace you call to task. The answer, I surmise, lies beyond black and white, as you claim.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    Nice post Zack. The five aspects you identify of understanding grace today are indeed problematic. I especially like your emphasis that grace is not just about ‘me’; it is about reconciliation with others–a sharing of grace in the world.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    right – i tend to think of it in terms of a FIRST corporate/creational, THEN individual. that’s how we avoid individualISM.

  • http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/ Robert Martin

    VERY nice…

    something also that my brother and pastor Franklin pointed out recently is that the “charis” that is referenced so frequently as “grace” in the NT is not a passive thing… it’s a powerful thing… it fills us, it is “grace” that brings the gifts of the spirit… it is “grace” that is that power that enables our transformation. “Charis” is so much more than just a merciful forgiveness… it is the very thing that makes the Christian Way possible…

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    totally!

  • tsgIII

    Robert Martin looks like a religionless Christian. zhoag looks like a monk who’s been shut off from spirits and Sherwood’s forest.

  • http://juanctorres.wordpress.com/ Juan Carlos Torres

    #2 is particularly troubling to me. I see it and hear it all the time. We have been forgiven. This is amazing. But at some point we need to go back to discipleship (hopefully in a more gracious-theologically-nuanced way). We can be forgiven and be a complete mess. God doesn’t want this for us. All this reminds me of the Vampire Christianity Dallas Willard used to criticize.

  • Map Forward

    When I read the gospels, I see Jesus assessing each individual situation and making the right decision. Because he was fully Divine as well as human and knew people’s hearts. So shockingly he would dispense grace as needed or be severe when unexpected. So I have a hard time taking a non personal stand on this. Some people need grace over and over again their whole lives. Maybe the answer is that we shouldn’t worry about it unless we know people well? I know that’s a cop out but I can’t think of a better answer.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I’m not saying that anyone *doesn’t* need grace (like, all the time!) but rather that we should understand it as Jesus taught & embodied it (I.e, not as denial).

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Yes. Good call on Willard.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    okie dokie.

  • Peter TeWinkle

    It seems to me that the lost concept or at least the one that is most misunderstood is covenant. It seems that all of God’s covenants begin with a gracious promise, one not earned or deserved. Likewise, the required response to enter the covenant is only faith or, more accurately, to trust the promise. But it doesn’t end there. All of the covenants, including the new one, are held together by an action (i.e. building an ark, leaving family, obeying the law, or love).

  • Al Cruise

    Grace is only Grace when it produces a humble gratitude in the recipient that leads on that path of real honest change.

  • jtheory

    I think you made a good point back during the whole “broken deeply broken” discussion that American Christianity has a “belovedness” problem. Which is something I sorta mentioned in my post recently “I Don’t Want To Be Holy Anymore”. It’s the idea of a grace shoved down your throat, and you better change. Whereas true grace sees us, loves us, comes and meets us where we are weak, and gives us the strength to become stronger in that area.

    Grace doesn’t leave us where we are, but it does love us no matter where we are.

    I think people will begin to find the ability to focus on grace like you talk here when we start fixing that belovedness problem.

  • Map Forward

    I hear what you are saying. What I was trying to say is that certain people may only be able to move forward in faith by keeping the balance tilted toward grace. They may be immature and grow out of of it or they may be so hurt or fragile they just need to focus on that. I’m ok with having it all about cheap or misunderstood grace for them, if it keeps them on the side of God.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    yeah, thanks for reminding me of that. essentially, it’s the belovedness that invites the honesty. and that’s where the grace is too. denial only perpetuates the bondage and dysfunction.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    pete i’m with you as a covenant theologian – i even have covenant tattooed on my arm! that’s the whole context for rescue in Christ, and though it is surely a gift/grace, it is not without the choice to be baptized into the family and seek to be formed into the image of Christ.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    perhaps. but the dangers of abuse/misuse are there.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    Excellent, Zach. I think you got the balance just right. Especially love this line: “Honesty is the air grace breathes”.

  • Charis Varnadore

    I really wanted to share how I came to adopt he pen name of “Charis” some decades ago, but each time I am about to finish the post, I lose the website… Peace and Grace to you all… Charis

  • http://www.fordswords.net/ Ford1968

    Really great thoughts. I particularly like numbers 1 and 4. #1 because it shows how cheap grace can be harmful to ourselves and others (Snap, do I sound like a Calvinist?). #4 becuase it shows that “loveing neighbor and enemy” is not the same thing as enabling abuse or injustice.

  • sharon peters

    i think i survived multiple times from exposure to christian cults emotional abuse by grace. i think it was just god’s personal touch and healing that showed grace in recuing me. i don’t know for sure.
    my not knowing didn’t stop him from protecting me
    and clueing me in, or showing me where to look for
    information about the pattern of spiritual abuse.

    i don’t know if God shows grace and totally accepts us no matter what because of Jesus. that sentence leaves out so much when you just put it out there for ppl to trip over.
    what is grace?
    what is god’s ‘total’ acceptance?
    why ‘b/c of jesus’?
    i think god showed me a way that it is possible to have basic safety and healthy boundaries and forgive my abusers.
    maybe god directed me to a christian writer/psycologist;
    robert grant,
    who said yes/but it is dangerous to trust abusers if they haven’t changed.
    i need the grace of God to help me discern when those shaming me have not come to terms with their own crap and simply perpetuate this self-justification by projecting things onto me.
    that behavior is classic spiritual abuse.

  • http://henryimler.com/ Henry Imler

    Link for a recap of Willard’s Vampire Xianity?

  • http://juanctorres.wordpress.com/ Juan Carlos Torres

    Spirit of the Disciplines, ch1 I think. I lost my copy of the book. I just quoted from memory. Excellent book!

  • Nimblewill

    Grace is and always will be a call to crawl out of the muck of self. His kindness leads us to repentance……………a change of mind. Once my mind is changed to the mind of Christ I can then understand what Paul meant when he said that Christ in me is the hope of Glory. Grace promotes acceptance of myself and others in spite of the dung heap we are in but it doesn’t accept the dung.


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