Love, Grace, and Reproof

canstockphoto24129146Whenever I write or speak about grace, forgiveness, and the dangers of judgmentalism I invariably get some pushback from some who think that I’m going easy on sin.

Some of this is from people who seem to genuinely feel that grace itself is too easy on sin. I think this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of grace and forgiveness. Instead of walking away from sin and sinners, grace and forgiveness require us to engage with sin and sinners, not in order to punish them but to be truly reconciled with them.

That takes a whole lot more courage than to either walk away or to lash out in vengeful anger.

Some of the pushback, however, is from those who genuinely struggle with the biblical emphasis on grace and the commands to forgive one another, and Paul’s instructions regarding church discipline and confronting sin within the church.

It would be nice if I could give you a formula that told you with great precision when to forget the other guy’s speck and work on the log in your own eye, and when to deal with the other guy’s speck—or log, as the case may be.

(Except perhaps to caution us that we tend to see our logs as specks and the other guy’s specks as logs.)

But life resists formulas. (Which is to be the subject of another blog. Read it here.) What is appropriate in one situation isn’t necessarily appropriate in another. In life as in literature, context always rules.

When you read documents from the early centuries of Christianity you learn that Christians had a reputation for extraordinary love.

The third century North African Christian writer Tertullian claimed that the pagans were so astonished by Christian deeds that they exclaimed, “See how they love each other!”

The following century the emperor Julian, in speaking against the Christians, wrote that “the impious Galileans (as he called Christians) support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us.”

In the third century a fellow bishop wrote to Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, about a pagan actor who converted to Christianity. He could no longer in good conscience continue his acting career because pagan plays not only glorified paganism but also encouraged immorality, particularly toward young boys. This left him, however, with no means to support himself.

Cyprian replied that if he couldn’t find any other employment the church should support him, and if they couldn’t they should send him to Carthage where he would be given food and clothing.

Within this context of loving community, dealing with another brother’s sin will most likely be received gracefully, as a genuine effort to help him in his followship of Jesus.

I wish I could say that Christians in this country have the same reputation for love and good works, but apparently it just isn’t so.

Particularly for Evangelicals.

Even more particularly for Baptists.

In survey after survey going back more than ten years, people view Baptists negatively, and it’s not because of we have a tendency to love too lavishly. They view us as judgmental and hypocritical, lacking compassion and empathy, among other things. I wish I could say that this reputation is unearned, but all too often it’s not.

The thing is, we know this, which is why new Baptist churches almost never use the word “Baptist” in their name.

In such a context I’m wary of people’s desire to confront other people’s sin, invoking church discipline and the need for a “pure” church.

Jesus spoke out against sin, but along with injustice the sins he spoke out against the most were judgmentalism and hypocrisy.

That we’ve come to have a reputation for these very things ought to cause us to examine our practices and the motivations behind those practices.

If grace comes with the risk of appearing to be indulgent toward sin and sinners, that’s a risk I’m willing to take, for that’s what Jesus was accused of. (See Matthew 11:19)

And his is the kind of company I like to keep.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Colecanstock

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