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Grace is not a cheese sandwich

Recently I read an internet discussion on how much "grace" we should preach.  You know, as opposed to preaching the life of the kingdom, the demands of discipleship, missional living, that kind of thing.  One side said they'd like to see more grace, another side said they'd like to see less.

Perhaps you're thinking "I know which side Glen would take."  Don't be so sure.  I think they are falling off either side of the wrong horse.

Let's call one side "the more grace people."  These were keen to argue that none can perform the works of the kingdom without the empowerment of "grace."  The "less grace people" kept saying "Yeah, but, c'mon.  Commands are there.  Loads of them.  Stop sidelining half the Bible!"

And back and forth it went.  The more I read, the more I wondered whether I'd stumbled across some intramural Roman Catholic dispute.  Whatever differences they thought they had, both sides seemed to assume that grace was a substance.  Both spoke of the empowerment and encouragement of 'grace', but the real concern of both parties seemed to be our life of discipleship.  Thus, it was really a discussion about motivational techniques.  Some thought that carrots are better, others reached for the stick.

On this view, "grace" is like the cheese sandwiches which David brought to his brothers at the front line (1 Samuel 17:17-19).  Here grace is an encouragement and empowerment from the christ to go out and fight the good fight.  The christ gives you strength, victory is down to you.

And if that's grace, then naturally, some people think David should make some really tasty sandwiches, top quality pickle, mature cheddar, olive focaccia bread and plenty of it.  Other's say, "Don't stuff the troops, keep 'em lean and mean, teach 'em how to fight!"

Now if that was the dispute then, really, I have no desire to weigh in on the optimum  cheese-sandwich / military-briefing balance.

What I want to declare to both sides is the true meaning of grace.  Grace is not David's sandwiches, grace is David's victory.  Grace is David volunteering to fight for his doubting and disdainful brothers.  Grace is David delivering the killer-blow for troops who would otherwise be slaughtered.  Grace is David himself, the anointed champion, doing everything to win the day.  To put it another way - "grace alone" is just another way of saying "Christ alone".

Once you see that, you, your Champion and the whole battle has been shifted.

Suddenly we've been plucked from the front-lines, our lives in the balance, and now we find ourselves caught up in a victory we could never have won.  Now we're shouting with joy and advancing on the Philistines to plunder them.

And yes, at this point, both sandwiches and briefings come in handy.  But they must be rightly related to David's victory.  Without it, David's sandwiches may as well be poison.

And if anyone thinks they can ignore the victory of our Champion and move straight to the 'battles we must fight' they've completely misunderstood the gospel.  Yet I find that both the sandwich people and the pep-talk-people do this.  Both the "more grace people" and the "less grace people" carry on as though David's victory can simply be assumed and the Christian life boiled down to our attempts at plundering.

The real distinction is not between gracious or legal motivations towards our work.  The real distinction is between Christ's work and our work.   Which battle do we think we're in?  Are we facing down Goliath or are we victors already?  That really is all the difference in the world.

You might say: But Glen, we all know that we're victors through Christ, let's get on and tell people how to plunder.  I say: Really?  We know we're victors through Christ?!  Not even "the more grace people" seem to know it!

5 thoughts on “Grace is not a cheese sandwich

  1. David

    Just to clarify for myself (I might be being a bit dense), are you saying then that the more-grace people are using grace as a thing that basically helps them be better Christians, and that in so doing they are still not looking to Christ? In this, then, they are caught within a gospel of self-improvement equally as much as the less-grace people.

    Sorry if I've misunderstood you, I got a little distracted with all the talk about top quality mature cheese.

  2. Glen

    Exactly right, yes. Sorry I spent more time in analogy than reality.

    But yes, people can big up grace to the max and still have lost their grip on Christ alone / grace alone. Roman Catholic theology is a prominent example of this - but it's by no means the only one.

  3. David

    It really is a complete turnaround to how we usually think. It's easy to imagine that to get close to Christ we need to change our lives (behaviour, motivations, etc), and to do this we need his grace and/or discipline. But that must be the wrong way round, in that, from what you're saying it sounds like any changes that come about are a consequence to our being captivated by him, and should never be the reason why we turn to him. Otherwise we are in danger of using him as a method or tool of self-improvement. The point then is not to use either Christ or this grace-stuff to better ourselves, but to simply sit at his feet like Mary adoringly.

    I suppose one reason why we think like this is because it renders all our works ineffectual, good or bad, leaving us passive before him. We want to be able to say to ourselves that we have got better, even if we acknowledge the role of grace in that as a top up to our improved self-discipline.

    The problem though is that this seems to sail pretty close to an antinomian position, which of course reveals a complete lack of trust that the Holy Spirit can work in us through love.

    I think also that while people still see their sinful nature in terms of doing bad things or having bad intentions then it will be very hard to break out of this pattern of using Christ/grace for the self-improvement that you described. Rather, I think, we should see the deeper problem of our sin more in terms of an incapacity to believe, to trust, or to cling to Christ in faith which is a gift from God anyway. What do you think?

  4. Glen

    Hi David,

    Yes, even "sitting at His feet" is a consequence of the gospel (not the gospel itself). Even adoring devotion is a *result* of gospel grace, not the gospel itself. Note how in 1 Sam 17 the troops shout and advance to plunder - there's emotion and action. But *both* are responses to the victory already won.

    Before Mary sits at Jesus' feet in Luke 10, we read about the Good Samaritan. There we were - left-for-dead without hope in the Levites or Priests, but saved by the Beautiful Stranger alone. Once we've grasped this, of course "do likewise" is a proper response. But also "sitting at Jesus' feet" is appropriate too.

    Therefore it's not a case of activism (do likewise) versus adoration (sit at Christ's feet). We don't have a /policy/ on whether external or internal acts of devotion are better responses to the gospel (more on this in my repost this afternoon). What we're prioritising is not pietism over practicalities - we're prioritising Christ and His work.

    I'm challenged more and more that I need to "do the gospel" to people in my preaching and pastoring. Slay self-righteousness then raise people up in Christ alone. Give them nothing else to cling to but Jesus. It's not so much that they're empowered or encouraged to live Christ's life, they're *free* to live Christ's life.

    From that overflow I think we start to get healthy adoration and healthy activism - and I'm all for both, but in their right place.

    And yes - defining the problem of sin is critical. In Paul "the flesh" is so often people's trust in 'goodness' not their performance of 'badness'! Jesus in John 16:9 and Paul in Romans 14:23 give us a profound definition of sin: unbelief!

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