After Church – On Christian Doctrines as Weapons

Christian Grace

Any church that will not accept that it consists of sinful men and women, and exists for them, implicitly rejects the gospel of grace.

Brennan Manning

If there’s any concept central to the ideas inherent within Christianity, you may want to reconsider if it isn’t “grace”. It is the grease that makes the engine work, the air for the tires, and perhaps a pair of wonderfully comfortable seats with built-in heating (or, in my case, cold air because cars always feel too hot for my tastes). The most common definition, passed down for generations at this points, can be summed in a few words: to receive something with unmerited favor. In other words, God gives us grace regarding the issues of sin within the human race without due recompense because he paid it himself.

Still, contrast this with God’s need for justice and you see a different side of the picture. Often we forget this because, well, grace appears the more wonderful and likely. It feels applicable, contrasting to the Law, as it’s often capitalized (for reasons I’m still trying to discern, but alas) as a force of doom and gloom. However, Scripture does not diminish the Law; it places it in contrast to God’s grace, as in John 1:

14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John *testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” 16 For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him

But why was this grace given? For what purpose? If you don’t know what that grace was given for, it’s difficult to appreciate that favor in any real sense. If you do not know that you, as a human being, will sin against God and crucify Christ again every day, what does that grace mean? Grace given for grace’s sake makes no sense. Thus, we usually explain it by virtue of God being love incarnate (1 John 4:8 makes that pretty clear). If you don’t have the Law, then you do not need grace; if you have grace, then you still need a Law that adheres to it.

Christians, of course, struggle to make sense of this apparently paradox in a number of ways. On the one end, we can easily focus so heavily on grace that everything becomes right, good, and awesome in its own right, even things clearly declared as sin. In a political sense applicable to an American audience, we can call this the failing of more liberal, left-leaning denominations. The other hand shows us the more well-known predilection towards “legalism”, which tends to emphasize the Law and God’s holiness as the end-all, be-all of the Gospel. In either case, a group takes their particular preference in the Gospel and runs with it. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up in a rationalist, logical, philosophical, and wholly Westernized culture still obsessed with the ideology of Plato and Aristotle.

In fact, what’s interesting comes from Christianity’s attackers making claims for both sides! On the one hand, Hell’s far too pessimistic (cue the legalist); on the other hand, Heaven and a “new earth” constitute false hopes for a future where everything’s set right (cue the proponents of grace). Christians act too meekly and pacifist in times of war, and they’re too aggressive and too vehement in their calls for justice in times of peace. So it goes.

Unfortunately, the recent trend consists of Christians attacking other Christians. When one mentions grace towards one who preaches falsely, another mentions that said person’s teachings could lead to further problems if not backed by solid doctrine. However, grace far too often gets used as a pass for fellow Christians. In effect, doctrines become weapons for the purpose of bludgeoning others; still, it’s hard to aim the blade correctly when you’ve got a plank in your eye. One Christian or another suddenly gives up the ghost due to a lack of context in the situation and it “ends”.

I wish we could talk about these issues like adults, but social media doesn’t allow for in-depth discussion of issues. 140 characters just isn’t enough to make points clear without descending into clear misunderstanding by, say, thousands of other people. Especially if you deal with famous people – don’t expect to get a one-on-one session even with a fellow Christian in that vein. I just hate to see the obvious reduction – shouldn’t it worry us that there’s always two sides to an issue? Shouldn’t these kinds of discussions NOT find their basis on their preferences, but on the Word of God instead?

Yet I find, many times, that we simply refuse to allow for two seemingly essential concepts to exist simultaneously, even when they feel diametrically opposed. One of them must win at all costs, and we’ll argue to the death for it, even if we misrepresent Christ, the Bible, Christianity, and the whole faith. Personal agendas come into play, as well as experience, and skew the playing field. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, if this blog seems any indication, but the goal’s to find myself in a place where the apparent paradox between grace and justice exists. Clearly, it does in the Bible if the multifarious situations reveal anything. Paul says it in Romans 5 a lot more eloquently than myself, with nary a five dollar word:

12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. 20 The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

To put it simply: the resolution of these concepts and ideas wasn’t an issue for the Biblical writers. What God said became the case; to summarize what God said presented no issue to the religious believer at all, other than pointing to the inexhaustible mysteries of the Creator. The Law exists, and that’s pretty clear from Paul; but grace also exists, and that is good. That does not mean the Law’s eliminated, but it has been fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-18).

It seems so obvious, yet we do not think so. In a way, we keep complaining that the whole thing doesn’t fit quite right, at least in our minds. It is interesting how a fallen creature continually debates with his/her Creator on these issues, even after accepting them as the case. Perhaps our debates, both within and without, point out one thing: we contradict each other on our own criticisms and find things wrong for exactly the same reason that some find them right. How strange, you might say! But paradox is at the heart of it, and to deny it means to use doctrine as a weapon, not as a source of hope, joy, and community. To end with the word of Chesterton:

There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation. Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation… would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.