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!