It seems to me that one of the biggest problems in Christianity today is that there are so many Christians who just don’t “get” grace. They don’t understand this very basic concept upon which so many other doctrines rely. For instance, if you don’t understand the grace of God, how can you really understand justification, sanctification or salvation?
One of the biggest obstacles to true faith is the failure by many Christ followers to understand the grace of God and apply it to their own lives and the lives of others. Simply put: if we don’t “get” grace, we don’t “get” Jesus. This failure can lead entire churches to misrepresent the gospel and fail in their witness. Normally, a grace failure might manifest itself in one of several ways:
1. Failure to be graceful to other people. This leads to perceptions of Christians as either angry people with an axe to grind or “holier than thou” folks who are too good for the unconverted. We who have been forgiven much sometimes like to throw our brothers and sisters into debtor’s prison for failure to pay us what they owe us, figuratively speaking. (See Mt 18) We come across as judgmental, full of condemnation. “You sinners!,” we say. By doing so we show the world that we simply judge people by their acts and fail to see in them the potential for repentance and transformation. Now this will be seen in some circles as a generalization. What Christ followers need to have is the discernment to understand when strong words to address sin are called for and when behavior is overlooked for the sake of a future relationship. Early Christ followers lived in a society that was full of biblically prohibited practices. They didn’t spend their days walking the streets and markets shaking their fingers at people. Instead, they changed their lives to conform with their new faith and their counter cultural lives was a witness that drew many away from the world and into Christ following. There are occasions when we are called to make a stand and address governments and societies and individuals about their actions, but those times seem to be fewer and farther between than our opportunities to simply show the light of Christ in our life.
2. Failure to apply grace to our own lives. This leads to Christians who are truly neither meek nor humble but who seem always to be down on themselves and unable to accept that they are good enough in Christ for God to use for his purposes in this life. They are slow to believe in the miraculous power of God at work in the world around them and their life doesn’t bear testimony to the joy of a changed life, but of the misery of being stuck in an endless struggle with sin. They are also quick to judge those who live in the joy of Jesus as being, ironically, too full of themselves. Having themselves never experienced the joy of grace, they are quick to condemn those who live in this grace.
3. Failure to apply grace within the church. The church as an institution also needs to be forgiven, also requires patience, and needs to be treated gracefully and to treat others gracefully as well. The church is expected to be the place where judgment doesn’t greet the sinner who wants to be changed, but where repentance and amendment of life can truly happen. Naturally, the church must also speak against sin and urge its membership on to transformation and encourage them in their Christ following. Naturally, the church must hold it’s members to account that they live out the gospel together and individually. And naturally there is a time and a place for the church to discipline members whose lives harm the body or the witness. But both Jesus and Paul remind us that over everything, put on love. Discipline is to be the exception, grace the rule.