“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:4-10 NIV).
The Culture of Grace
I heard a Vicar (Pastor) from the Anglican church tell a story recently about his encounters with a young man off the streets that we will call, Paul. The vicar’s wife, who was a good judge of character, agreed that they should help the young man and so they put him up for a few days until they could find a more permanent place for him. He ended up staying for a number of months and became a part of the family. When the Vicar and his wife went on a short vacation, they left Paul in charge. Paul invited another friend from the streets over who ended up stealing the wife’s jewelry (hierlooms from her mother with more sentimental value than anything else). Paul claimed he was innocent but he still shouldn’t have invited his friend over when no one else was at home. A lapse in judgment.
Paul was asked to move out but the Vicar and his wife decided to put him up in a small cottage that they owned and he stayed there for over a year but never paid his rent (although he had gotten a job). Thousands of pounds were lost but, more importantly, the relationship was suffering great abuse. Finally, they had to evict him (messy and loud and embarrassing with police involvement) and he disappeared for a while.
Some time later, Paul contacted them again, desperate to find a place to stay. He was now married and his wife was pregnant but they were living in a car and had no place to go. The Vicar and his wife were learning the lessons of forgiveness, over and over again. They decided to help him one last time and allowed him to move back into the cottage. He finally settled down into a job and was able to sustain his wife and new baby and pay the rent as well. All is well that ends well.
But I have to say that I am shocked. I am not sure I would have let this homeless man stay in my spare bedroom in the first place. And after having stole from me, he would have been escorted off of the premises immediately and told never to come back. And then to let him NOT pay rent for a year or more, and then give him the house back when he just made some woman pregnant, well, that’s going too far. I mean…..what does Jesus expect us to do. The story turned out more or less alright but these people could have been murdered in their sleep.
You see, this isn’t just a story of forgiveness, over and over again. It is a story of grace. You and I are like Paul and the Vicar and his wife are like God. We screw up over and over again, coming back and asking for help but ready to take advantage, steal the family jewels, take what we want, all at a moment’s notice and we do it over and over again. The wonder of it all is the grace that is shown to us anyway. Just like in church.
That grace is the context for forgiveness. That grace is relational. Why did the Vicar and his wife have that grace for Paul even though he sinned against them over and over again? First of all, because they were being obedient to God and were willing to share the grace that they themselves had received. But I believe that it also has to do with the fact that for months Paul lived with them, they got to know him, he became part of the family, they had a relationship, and a relationship is always about grace. Accepting people for who they are and helping them to become all they can be. Like children. Like brothers and sisters. Like family.
Grace is the context of forgiveness. And confession. And repentance. And reconciliation.
The question is whether or not the church has a culture of grace or a culture of shame, rooted in judgment and accusation and unfulfilled expectations. Sad to say, most are rooted in shame, and grace only shows up by accident once in a while.
Shame based relationships and families (and even churches and organizations) are far more common than we like to admit. And it is devastating for the gospel. It is not healthy and reflects a misunderstanding of what ministry is all about. When it is prevalent in the church, it brings about spiritual abuse and the abuse of power by the leadership.
There are some common characteristics of shame based systems such as actual words spoken to shame people (Something is wrong with you. You aren’t a very good Christian. Why can’t you be more like….). Exclusion (rather than inclusion) from groups and/or leadership based on whether someone likes you, or trusts you, or agrees with your take on some particular doctrine. Unspoken rules and special code language to govern proper behavior which only those in the know are aware of (the rest have to guess). Politics is the name of the game. Rules are more important than people. Positions are more important than spiritual gifts. Everything is good and great (How was your day? Good. How have you been? Great.).
Board members are told to keep everything confidential and not talk about anything from a Board meeting with anybody else in the church. Not just relational issues, everything. Don’t talk about the future of the church. Don’t talk about new ideas or a better way of doing something. Just don’t talk. In churches, as in all relationships, communication is key. The lack of communication is just an attempt to control the relationship, the people, the church.
But the biggest one is a preoccupation with fault and blame (which is very different from confession of sin in the context of grace). Once you find out who is to blame, that person can be shamed into not doing that behaviour again.
All of this is a serious misunderstanding of the gospel and yet it is so common that we get used to it and hardly blink an eye when we become part of that system of shame. This is spiritual warfare and it must be resisted and changed into a culture of grace through preaching, testimony, application in real life and a lot of prayer.
This change is the major work of ministry of the Pastor and the leaders of the church and it must start with them. If there is no culture of grace at the leadership level, the church will never make the transition and will always tend to fall back into the culture of shame as their default position.
Strange, isn’t it? That we who are the redeemed of the Lord, would fall into the trap of believing that our love and acceptance by God (and others) was somehow earned on the basis of our behaviour and performance? It is pure legalism and moralism. It has nothing to do with the gospel. Tomorrow we will go into more detail about the relationship between justification and sanctification and getting that right, but, for now, we need to recognize our spiritual blindness to the ways of God especially at the leadership level.
Think about it for a moment. Even when we were first saved, what came first, the confession of sin and repentance or the grace of God that offered forgiveness? Be careful. It isn’t a trick question but it also isn’t so obvious as you might think. Many people will say (and rightly so) that forgiveness comes AFTER we confess and repent. But that is only half true. The grace of God has to penetrate into our lives and first of all convict us of our guilt with regards to sin (which is the work of the Holy Spirit) but with that conviction comes the offer of grace at the same time. If we did not believe that forgiveness was a possibility, why would we confess? We may still feel guilty but we wouldn’t say anything about it to anybody.
Confession is only possible if there is conviction of sin and an offer of grace.
I have to believe that forgiveness is possible because of the cross of Christ and that a new relationship with God has been offered to me. In order to appropriate that offer of grace, I must believe in my heart and confess with my mouth but it starts with the context of grace.
This is as true in discipleship as it is in evangelism. Without a context of grace, why would anyone confess their sins. Nobody is interested in getting shamed, being humiliated, being blamed. We do that to ourselves enough already. But for some reason, many churches have a grace-based concept of evangelism but a performance-based concept of sanctification. Some have elevated this to the level of a “theology of holiness” that is simply a misunderstanding of the gospel (in my opinion). In that kind of theological system, you can even lose your salvation if your performance or your conscious sin is of a certain type. My heart breaks for the people who submit themselves to that kind of church leadership.
Culture trumps strategy every time. It doesn’t matter what programs, what strategies, what preaching topics you choose if your church culture is not a culture of grace. And that doesn’t just mean a “No Condemnation” culture where sin is ignored. It means a “Way of the Cross” culture where sin is confessed, repented of, forgiven and true reconciliation accomplished bringing with it a deep spiritual unity that ushers in the anointing of God on the entire ministry of the church.
A final word on the first step on the Way of the Cross. Confession. It isn’t just a confession of sins. It is also a confession of faith. They are two sides of the same coin. If you do not have a confession of faith in the grace shown through Christ to you, personally, so that you believe and trust in what is offered – a new relationship in Christ, then why in the world would you confess your sins?
The confession of faith is rooted in grace and the confession of sin is rooted in grace. It is all grace. Grace expects honesty. Grace (undeserved favor) expects repentance and a change in direction. Love always does. Love wants love in return. And to love God in return means to start with being honest (like all relationships) and continue with real change (like all relationships). Why are we surprised? Why do we make this into something esoteric and other-worldly? It’s just love and we understand the basics of love, don’t we?
But in the context of our relationship with God, we have our flesh (old ways of thinking, acting, believing without God) and the flesh of others (often systematized into rules and policies even in the church) that the Bible calls the “world.” And don’t forget the Devil and his “schemes” that works very hard indeed to keep us blind to these fundamental truths.
Above all things, he will try to keep the leadership of the church bound up in chains of shame and guilt and fear because if they ever get it figured out and start to risk the dangers of putting it into practice, the Lord will bless them with a culture of grace that will release the power of forgiveness and reconciliation in such a way as to entirely transform the church into a powerhouse of signs and miracles and transformed lives.
And that, the Devil cannot allow to happen even though all the resources of heaven are at our disposal to make it happen. The difference is that the Devil can prey on our weaknesses whereas leaders must pray in our weaknesses for God’s strength. The first is easy and automatic. The second takes effort and training and collaboration and prayer and spiritual battle. There is no other way than the Way of the Cross. Jesus showed us the Way in the Garden of Gethsemane. He chose obedience over fellowship and we must do the same.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God…..
Lord, I have to admit that I have some of these elements of a shame based upbringing still in my system. I know it affects my walk with you and my involvement in the church. Cleanse me, O Lord and make me whole. Help me to create a culture of grace so that we can confess our sins with one another without fear of shame and humiliation. Lord, I choose to obey you and follow you no matter where you lead. I want to seek Jerusalem and find that spiritual unity that you promised us and so receive your anointing. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.