Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. Romans 11:22
God’s Grace is Simple
Some people think of God only as wrathful and judgmental; others as infinitely loving and gracious. Indeed, these are the stereotypical extremes between which the pendulum of Church culture and practice swings, as from age to age and culture to culture, the Church does its best to preach and to embody the good news of God’s restorative love. Both extremes, while they have an element of truth, if taken by themselves are of course inadequate views of God—not perhaps heretical untruths, but lamentable and limiting sub-truths nevertheless. The whole truth is that God is Holy and Loving, Just and Forgiving.
Sometimes, because of the limitations of our understanding, we characterise God’s attributes as if they are in tension with each other. We might say for example, God is love, but since he is also a God of justice, he cannot co-exist with sin. And yet, as theologians remind us, God is simple—that is to say he is not composed of parts. What God is, he is entirely. In other words, though we may at times be, God is not confused. The various aspects of his nature are not in tension. That is (at least partly) why, I believe, the verse above invites us to consider both God’s kindness and his severity. We cannot properly understand one without the other. God’s grace then, is not merely an operation of his kindness, but rather it is an operation of God himself. It must flow therefore from his kindness and his severity, from love and from holiness, from compassion and justice.
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, or the big Marshmallow in the sky?
Over the last couple of decades there has been a (sorely needed) revival of interest in and emphasis on God’s grace throughout much of the Church. In part, I believe this has resulted from an increasing realization of just how broken the world is, and how the church has all too often prioritized conformity to a norm over genuine empathy and compassion. We badly needed a grace revival. Nevertheless, it is all too easy for a badly needed theological corrective to become and over-correction. To return to the analogy of the pendulum, I wonder if we are not beginning to swing ‘past the middle’ on this issue. If so, it is certainly not in our teaching of the historic truth of sola gratia (grace alone), but rather in our narrow definition of what God’s grace entails.
I can already hear the objection. “Surely its not possible to overemphasise God’s grace.” True enough. And yet the Scripture with which I began this post invites us to consider both the kindness, and the severity of God. If our proclamation of the gospel emphasises one of these elements at the expense of the other, it may well function as a prophetic message in a particular cultural situation where imbalance already exists, even though it is not the ‘whole truth.’ Jonathan Edwards’ now infamous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is a great example of this. Edwards preached God’s wrath to a church that was complacent, proud, and dangerously apathetic, in order to provoke a response of repentance. We may well judge Edwards’ sermon (or its title—in my experience, most people who criticise it have never read it) from the perspective of a different cultural situation, as being lopsided, mean-spirited and judgmental. Edwards, it seems, considers only the severity of God, rather than also his kindness. His message is incomplete, but, I would argue, necessarily so. If an imbalance is to become balanced, it requires a counter balance.
In just the same way, however, the ‘grace message’ of today is in danger of considering the kindness of God only, at the expense of his severity. And while this message may perhaps function (or rather, may perhaps have functioned) as a necessary counter-balance in churches and cultures that are overly legalistic, it must be said that the contemporary Church, by and large, is currently somewhere near the opposite extreme. Furthermore, our western culture, into which this Church is called to be a prophetic voice; a culture whose central virtue is tolerance; could not be much further from the legalistic extreme that would legitimate a cheap-grace counterbalance. We need to be aware that a counter balance, if incorrectly placed may cause us to overbalance.
Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more
My point is that if we define God’s grace as equivalent only to his kindness, rather than flowing from his character, then we limit the operation of grace, which, in its fullest manifestation, both forgives and heals the sinner. The two sides of God’s grace are perhaps most clearly and simply seen in the response of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” To respond to sinners with the second part of this saying only—go and sin no more—is clearly legalism, but to omit the second part is only license. True Grace responds with both parts.
It is vitally important that we teach the whole truth about God’s character and hence about his grace. This does not require ‘toning down’ the preaching about grace that has become so popular, but rather beefing it up. Surely if the truth sets us free, then the whole truth will set us completely free. For this reason, I have decided to do a ‘mini-series’ of blog posts on grace over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.