I read John Piper’s book Future Grace some years back when it was still new. Through that book and through my various ruminations on the subject, I came to understand why having people implore me to “have grace for them” irked me at times. Some people (not everyone, of course), request grace as a means of keeping a relationship running smoothly without having to change or stop an offensive behaviour. But that’s not what grace is all about. Certainly a significant component of the grace of God is the removal of our guilt. Forgiveness, or as the evangelicals like to put it, “God’s unmerited favour.” Guilt be damned — by grace.
But grace is more than that. “Grace” is a power word… it’s the agent in which resides not merely the antidote to sin, but the power not to continue in it. This is what Piper called “living by faith in future grace” — we trust that God’s grace will save us from future sin, not just deal with our past.
This is where our understanding of grace went awry, and perhaps it’s what has led us to be less comfortable with habitual sin. By not hearing of the sin until it becomes a matter of history, our understanding of grace as antidote remains intact. We can look at the sin and say that the person is forgiven, and it’s in the past. In fact, we have the notion that anyone who continues to sin must not really be repentant… otherwise they’d stop. In some circles, if it were up to us, we would withhold forgiving grace from those who haven’t yet stopped sinning. Basically this is like having to get cleaned up to take a shower. It extends to those outside the camp as well, to non-believers. This kind of thinking works its way around like leaven through the dough (to quote a phrase) so that we eventually start wanting those outside the church to start conforming to our established norms of sinless behaviour. A friend of mine likes to refer to this practice as “cleaning the fish before you catch them.”
Last week I wrote about our discomfort with sin in the present, and some good discussion followed which pulled my thoughts on that matter into the subject of grace.
The push to change and the silent pressure not to confess sins or struggles creates guilt. We take on the pressure of holding a secret, and expend our energies on maintaining the charade. Meanwhile, the guilt abounds and eats away at us, sapping from us the power to change. When secrecy is felt to be a necessity, guilt is compounded, and shame is heaped on top of it.
On the other hand, a welcoming and supportive environment in which it’s alright to confess our sins and struggles enables us to find others who can empathize, express forgiveness, and aid us in our effort to change. Instead of guilt, we feel the warmth of grace giving us the power to change. No guilt, no shame, no rejection, no chastisement for not measuring up. But a group like that would be very much at risk of the accusation of being a “friend of sinners.”