Mrs. C has a problem. She is dissatisfied with her church.
I know because she told me so.
It’s not a bad church, really. It’s rather small, in a small town; but Mrs. C has lots of friends there. She’s well respected, and her husband is on the board. Her pastor preaches challenging, Biblical sermons. The church is doctrinally orthodox, evangelical, and contemporary. It ought to be a good place to worship and grow. So what’s the problem?
Mrs. C is dissatisfied because, she feels, her church isn’t deep enough. Not that the sermons aren’t detailed enough, or intellectual enough, or challenging enough—to her, that’s not the depth that’s lacking. It’s something more subtle, and it leaves her dry in her spirit. It’s a lack of grace.
“We teach a mishmash, a hodge-podge,” is the way she put it. “Either God is real and he has done what he says, or the whole thing is a farce. Either God has changed me or he hasn’t. But I don’t get that in the preaching.”
I understand what she means. The way I put it (and she agreed) is that we bullet-point grace but then we detail works. We say God has saved us by the work of his Son—by the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord of Glory. But we tell people that they have to do a whole list of things, and the work of the Son gets left out.
It isn’t exactly legalism. No one is saying that we have to perform sacrifices and circumcise our sons and keep a kosher table to be saved (that’s what Paul was dealing with when he took on the legalists in the church). But it is something more subtle. The aim is the right aim: to live a Christlike life, in intimacy with God, in fellowship with one another, as servants of God and of each other. What’s missing is not the what but the how. That’s the depth, the grace, that Mrs. C says is missing in her well-meaning pastor’s sermons.
It would be one thing, I said, if your pastor taught the “shalts” and “shalt nots” and said something like this: “We do these things because we are not the same, because we have been sanctified and belong to God, because he has transformed us and put his Spirit into us. We do these things because of whom God has made us to be—a people filled with the Spirit of God. We do these things out of the power of that Spirit.” Yes, she agreed. But that’s not what he’s saying. It becomes: Do, and do, and do. But any doing that doesn’t draw out of Christ Jesus becomes draining. It isn’t the abundant life God promises; it’s an impossible effort that drains me. “Either God has done everything, or God has done nothing,” Mrs. C says. That’s the grace she’s looking for: the grace of a God who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It’s a grace that leads me into rest, not into burnout. It’s a grace that leads to joy at what God has done, not despair at what I can’t measure up to.
Grace and holiness are meant to go hand-in-hand; that’s why Paul told Titus that grace is “training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present world” (Titus 2:11 ESV). You can’t have holiness if you haven’t got grace. Holiness without grace isn’t legalism; but it’s just as futile as legalism, and even less satisfying.
I know Mrs. C’s pastor would be surprised if she were to bare her heart to him as she did to me. The truth is that I think there are a lot of pastors like him. I think our evangelical churches are full of Mrs. Cs desperately waiting to hear a sermon that tells them they are not who they think they are—that they are more than the sum of their failures—that the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead is also in them. Because new life stripped of grace is empty.