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Treading Very Thin Ice: Cheap Grace Redivivus

This may step over the edge into the abyss of controversy...  But, does anyone seriously think, on balance, the majority of large and dynamic American churches face the constant danger of being overly legalistic and narrow?  I have no doubt I can dig up quotes and stories to support that idea.  But, it's obvious that's not representative of where things are heading.

Much closer to reality is the supreme elevation of the qualities of warmth and nonjudgmental acceptance.  Love the sinner has evolved to mean don't actually tell them they are a sinner.  We'll leave that up to God.  And so, a growing number of self-identified Bible-believing churches will not only welcome, but then go on to baptize, and happily serve Communion to unmarried couples living together, sexually active single teens, wiccans, and practicing homosexuals.

How is this framed to fit into Christianity?  Many keep insisting that true grace means these people, who do believe in Jesus, should first be saved and then they will figure out they need to change their lives somewhere down the line.  Justification is offered first and then sanctification will automatically follow some time later.  Forgiveness and inclusion in the church is what we offer.  We are happy to leave the changing part up to the Holy Spirit.  It avoids so many negative labels and awkward moments.  And, as far as attracting people is concerned, it works.  It's a beautiful, affirming, and culturally welcomed version of Christianity that bears little resemblance to what was practiced in the ancient church. 

Of course, this does pose an inescapable scenario.  A person is told they are a Christian and welcomed into the church.  They are a participating part of the church.  And so, at what point in time or in their increasing levels of church participation do we honestly picture someone is going to say, "Okay, John, before we go on, we need to talk about your continued involvement in _____."  Whatever expectations we have for acceptance can hardly be revised or changed later for continued acceptance.  We all know that just isn't going to happen.

It is still true that if you ask many evangelical pastors, "Do you believe practicing homosexuality is a sin?" the majority will probably still say they do.  Now, ask them (or ask ourselves) if they are willing to clearly say that in their Sunday morning sermon at least once this coming year?  I believe a number will say something other than yes.

In a pagan culture, the early church, in addition to asking about belief in Jesus, directly required potential converts publicly acknowledge repentance from sin and renounce the works of the Devil prior to baptizing them.  Leaving out the first word of Acts 2:38 kind of misses the whole point of conversion and replaces it with warm accepting inclusion.  Yes, the apostolic church was made up of people whose past lives included all manner of immoralities, idolatrous lives, violence, and sexual perversions.  But, the idea they would have baptized a person involved in those things without first telling them they needed to stop is absurd.

"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, living and incarnate.”  

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost Of Discipleship


Doug Conley said...

I so much agree, Tom. For some reason, it seems that we feel we have to accept sin for Church growth. In actuality, this type of thinking is only holding sinners' hands into hell.

Todd Lackie said...

This would be akin to a fast food restaurant choosing to sell horse meat to increase profits. When size is the measure of effectiveness, inclusive is always better than exclusive.

Tom Lawson said...

Good thoughts. Todd - I suspect we've both downed a good deal of horse meat in our lives without knowing it and are still here to tell the tale. Mmmm. I think I'm heading out for some sliders....

Anonymous said...

You say, "And so, a growing number of self-identified Bible-believing churches will not only welcome, but then go on to baptize, and happily serve Communion to unmarried couples living together, sexually active single teens, wiccans, and practicing homosexuals."

I wonder if there is any significance in your choice of this "sin list" rather than say...

"...and happily serve Communion to people who fail to love foreigners as much as themselves, people who do not allow their enemies to keep what they steal, non-peacemakers, and people who charge interest to the poor and make a profit selling them food."


Tom Lawson said...

Lucy - you offer an important question and one that troubles many believers today. Systems of oppression are, indeed, an injustice to which the church cannot turn a blind eye. Still, there are some challenges in unpacking those ideas to replace what might be called individual behaviors.

I confess to not being entirely sure how to handle the important matters you bring up in this context. They are important concerns. But, a person involved in cheating on their spouse, however, cannot be asked to simply begin a process of cheating less often. The behavior in any degree is deplorable and someone needs to be told to stop doing it. Simply saying, "Work on this," as if beginning of process of cheating less often would represent repentance does not seem to work.

On the other hand, the failure to love as much as we should cannot be ignored, but it just does not represent the same category of clear choices. I'm not trying to give the typical right-wing response that sexual sins matter and sins of greed and ignoring the plight of poor don't.

Your question opens the door to a number of important issues, including systemic injustice too long ignored and the church existing within a highly sexualized culture. Both categories damage and dehumanize us and those around us. Let me take some time to process a more extended response for a future post.

Thanks for the good question and the concern it suggests you have for the poor.

Anonymous said...

I am not suggesting that we must choose either/or. I think that scripture offers a vast array of sins. I've been reading the Pentateuch lately and keeping a list of evil actions to which the vast majority of evangelicals turn a blind eye (if not outright support). For example:

Leviticus 25:35-37 Help the poor whether they are citizens or foreigners. Do not sell them food at a profit. Do not charge them interest. Do not evict them.

America is a nation built on charging interest--especially higher interest to the poor. This is uneqivocally sin. Structural, repeated, unrepentant sin. There are innumerable "Christians" involved in the charging of interest to the poor (in the form of rental property, rent-to-own "stores", credit cards, bank loans, Check-cashing buisnesses, pawn shops, etc.). Yet in my experience they are often treated as V.I.P. members of churches (precisely because of their ill gotten gains).

Leviticus 24:22 I demand equal justice both for you Israelites and foreigners living among you.

This (and any sense of justice whatsoever) exposes the sinfulness of the American Service-Members' Protection Act of 2002. Drafted by Jesse Helms and Tom Delay and signed into law by George Bush this law explicitly protects Americans who commit war crimes from International prosecution. We are more than happy to prosecute Germans for war crimes at the Hague but we refuse to have our citizens face justice for their actions. [Think of the U.S. soldier who slaughtered innocent Afghans and then burned their bodies.] Likewise, we do not extend even basic constitutional rights to enemy combatants (think Guataunamo Bay). The Lord demands equal justice for citizens and non-citizens. The U.S. sins highhandedly and with widespread support of it "Christian" citizenry and I find it revolting.

It is as if a patient had both a vitamin A and a vitamin B deficiency. For the past forty years their doctor has chided them about vitamin A on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. Taking Vitamin A regularly is nearly a mantra. When he mentioned Vitamin B (if he did so at all) he did so in an exaggerated way that actually encouraged the unhealthy behavior. For example, "Some people collect--I know none of them are in this room--collect huge jars of Vitamin B and then throw them in the trash. I know that none of you would ever do such a wicked thing. I trust your judgment about your own Vitamin B intake." When questioned about his failure to recommend Vitamin B the doctor replied "You must be suggesting that I stop prescribing Vitamin A!?!?!?"

Of course not. The solution is not ignoring sexual sins. The solution is focusing on all sins. Perhaps for a time (until the scales are balanced) it might be good to spend a bit extra emphasis on normally overlooked sins.


Nathan Lawson said...

Ignoring the oft repeated social justice tirade for a moment. I think very few protestant churches that I know would refuse to serve communion to anyone on any grounds. I cannot even think of one church that has issued warnings before communion that have anything to do with sin or behavior of any kind. It's so Far askew at this point I'm not even sure how church would begin the proccess of mentioning Christian character as an important prerequistes for communion without coming across as preaching works salvation. Maybe it isn't our place to guard the table. This entire topic (how open should communion be?) would make an interesting later blog post.

Anonymous said...


Israel also "ignored the oft repeated social justice tirade". Good luck with that plan buddy.