God’s Fearsome Grace (June 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Randall J. Harris
June, 1993

16There is a perception frequently shared with me that many of us have a certain fear of the doctrine of grace. While undoubtedly overstated, upon reflection I have concluded that there is some truth to this observation. But it may come as a surprise to some to learn that I think this apprehension is at least partially well-founded.

This legitimate fear is articulated by Deitrich Bonhoeffer in his book, The Cost of Discipleship: “CHEAP GRACE is the deadly enemy of our Church…. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline; Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ….”

Bonhoeffer’s description of “cheap grace” is particularly striking since it was written over 50 years ago in Germany rather than in American churches of the 1990s. But we shouldn’t be surprised that in every time and place there is always a lurking threat that a misunderstanding of grace may lead away from the demands of discipleship.

The apostle Paul himself was aware of the possible misinterpretation of his teaching: “What then are we to day? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:1-2).

This is not a matter to be taken lightly. The teaching of grace separated from the call to discipleship leads to distortions in doctrine and life of which neither Jesus nor Paul would approve.

However, giving all due respect to the legitimate concerns expressed above, I am convinced that there is a reticence about grace that represents genuine theological problems. All of these problems are rooted in a failure to trust God’s love and mercy as the source of transformation and salvation. I will briefly point out three such problems:

1) Control. We sometimes find it hard to believe God’s grace will transform people’s hearts, and, without having faith in that process we may feel the need to help God along by exercising control over their behavior. This, in turn, leads us to a practical theology which at a theoretical level we would never espouse. Let me illustrate:

I know of no one who contends that Wednesday night services are an indispensable part of one’s service to God. But once having made the decision to have such services, we are not at all sure God will create the desire of heart for everyone to participate. So we come to depict this as a mandatory part of right standing before God. Having entered into this cycle we then fear what will happen to our attendance, contribution, and programs if our people are given the idea that certain matters are not compulsory for salvation. By this procedure, we show that we do not trust God’s love and grace to lead us into richer, fuller service than guilt-producing authoritarianism ever could.

2) Human Nature. A good deal of our uneasiness about grace may reflect a mistaken understanding of the doctrine of human nature. In American society which emphasizes achievement and independence, we are led to believe that through hard work we can accomplish anything. This is sometimes not so subtly brought over to the spiritual realm. To know that before God, when all of my achievement in behalf of the kingdom are added up, the sum total is that of an unprofitable servant, I am filled with dread in the face of God’s relentless holiness.

In the study of historical theology, I have come to see over and over again that there is a close correlation between the doctrines of grace and human nature. The most profound views of God’s grace are consistently associated with the lowest views of human nature. A higher estimate of human ability invariably leads to less dependence on grace.

We may be reluctant to affirm God’s grace in the deepest sense because of what it says about us. We are not sure we want to stand before God with the real sinners (prostitutes, thieves, murderers, etc.). Although we do not directly state it, we still want, at least partially, to stand before God based on our own righteousness and then let his grace make up what is lacking. Might our apparent disagreements about grace really be disagreements about human nature?

3) Relationship. But surely the most profound aspect of our reluctance about grace is our fear of the “blank check” as opposed to the carefully spelled-out contract. In the eloquence of Michel Quoists’s Prayers,
I am afraid of saying “Yes,” Lord
Where will you take me?
I am afraid of drawing the longer straw,
I am afraid of signing my name to an unread agreement,
I am afraid of the “yes” that entails other “yeses.”

The demands of law may be heavy, but they are predictable. But what of love’s demands? In our relationship with our families we give far beyond our legal responsibilities. When our approach to God becomes relational and based in the relentless divine love that cherishes even the unlovable sinner, there is no limit on where we may be led. And that can be unsettling or even terrifying.

God’s relentless love that pursues us and then demands our all can be a fearsome thing. To be so indebted to God that nothing can repay it strikes us with awe. How shall we respond? Hear Quoist again:
Lord, I am afraid of your demands, but who can resist you?
That your kingdom may come and not mine,
That your will may be done and not mine,
Help me to say “Yes.”
Wineskins Magazine

Randall J. Harris

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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