In a State of (Confused) Grace

Grace is one of the most powerful and evocative words in Christian lingo, but if you ask Christians to define it properly most of them will scratch their heads. Very likely, they’ll try to use it in a sentence. In my experience, three types of use emerge.

The first (and most evangelical) is to speak of grace as forgiveness. We see this in prayers that begin with the words, “Our Gracious Heavenly Father;” we see it when people claim, “If it weren’t for grace, I wouldn’t be here.” It’s present when others reflect that “there but for the grace of God go I.” In each of these phrases, grace means something like forgiveness. We pray to the God who is forgiving, we acknowledge that if it weren’t for forgiveness we wouldn’t be here, and we claim that without the experience of forgiveness we might be a lot more rotten. Grace is forgiveness.


The second (and most Catholic) is to speak of grace as a state of sinlessness. We use grace this way when we hear about someone being “in a state of grace.” Mary, addressed by Gabriel, is called “full of grace,” and Catholic theology typically interprets this to mean that she possessed a special sinless state (which made it possible for her to carry the Christ child). Formally, sacramental theology holds that the performance of the sacraments (eucharist, baptism, etc.) are visible signs of invisible grace. The performance of baptism removes the stain of original sin (restoring the infant to a state of grace); the regular performance of the eucharist restores the person to union with Christ and the state of grace that is consonant with that union. Grace is sinlessness.

A third (and more universal) way to speak of grace is to evoke a kind of goodness, generosity, elegance, or noblesse. Perhaps you’ve heard someone exclaim, after experiencing some unexpected good, “Well, that’s a grace!” Or perhaps you’ve seen an excellent dancer and remarked, “What grace!” You may have heard someone describe another person as a gracious host, or a house as a gracious house. The word ‘grace’ in each case evokes this sense. Interestingly, the word noblesse originally referred to nobility from a foreign country—in this respect, the grace of Christian persons is the representation of their foreign (heavenly) manners and sensibilities. Such a person embodies a goodness, a generosity, and an elegance that is otherworldly, therefore gracious.

Amy Adams as "Julie Powell" in Columbia Pictures' Julie & Julia.

There is enough variety between these three conceptions of grace to suggest that none of the three captures the essential heart of whatever ‘grace’ means. Sinlessness, forgiveness, and noblesse are similar, but not the same thing. So, what definition of grace gets at the heart of grace, without excluding these other interpretations?

A classic, Protestant, Sunday School definition of grace can be found in the following acronym: Grace is God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. I must admit that I’ve always found this definition somehow lacking. First of all, it is difficult to conceive. What are the riches? Are they all at Christ’s expense? Was no grace possible before Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead? It also seems conceptually cumbersome to plug it into scripture that utilizes the word grace. Consider the opening prayer: “Our [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] Heavenly Father.” This now seems strange and redundant. Or, to speak of a host, “He’s a very [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense] host.” This seems to render excessively theological the duties of hospitality. The most sensible exchange, perhaps ironically for Protestants, would be Gabriel’s: “Hail Mary, full of [God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense].” On this reading Mary, somehow, receives the merits of salvation prior to Christ’s death and resurrection.

A friend of mine alerted me to another common definition of grace—this time in contrast to mercy. It goes like this:

–> Mercy is not getting what we do deserve.

–> Grace is getting something we don’t deserve.

gavel_2To a degree, this is fair enough—on account of God’s mercy, humans in Christ are not punished for their sins. On account of God’s grace, humans in Christ receive an unmerited salvation. (Grace as “unmerited favour” is another classic definition of the term.) But I want to observe that these definitions rely quite heavily on their situation within a law court. Mercy and Grace are given tactile meaning by means of their interpretation with exclusive respect to sin and forgiveness. Is there no grace where there is no sin? If graciousness is an attribute of God, does our lack of sin limit His capacity to express that attribute? If mercy is an attribute of God, does it depend on sinners—on human failure—to activate? The law court appears to rely too heavily on a temporary human state to provide a suitable basis for our definition of grace (and of mercy as well).

In the New Testament, of course, the word we translate grace is charis, and its definition is ‘favour’—and yet it is favour in a very specific sense of social exchange. In the patronage system of the ancient world, to receive the favour of a superior often meant the reception of a gift, in exchange for which the recipient would render service. The link between the two concepts is further enshrined in the relationship between the words “charis” and “charismata”—the first is favour, the second is the explicit gifts given in favour (explicitly in the New Testament, the gifts of the Spirit). We still retain a semblance of these meanings when we remember that the Latin translation of charis becomes gratis, from which we derive our words grace, gratitude (thankfulness for a gift), gratuity (a gift given in exchange for service), and gratuitous (a gift exceeding what is required or expected). Gifts, and gift giving, in relationships with obligations, are at the heart of the meaning of the word grace. In view of this, a passage such as Ephesians 2:8 may take on some interesting nuance: “For by grace (charis) you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift (doron) of God.” God, in patron relationship with His people, offers them favour in the form of a specific gift. We get salvation, God gets something in return.

Viking Gold_

Famously, ancient tribes would trade gold for service. You can read about it in Beowulf, and then remember that Christian covenants aren’t all that different…

I am convinced that the primary frame for understanding the nature of grace is not the law court, but covenant. John Levenson has written compellingly in his book The Love of God about the nature of Hebrew (and ancient near eastern) covenants, how they make explicit the terms and conditions of relationship between suzerain lord and vassal. The Lord offers certain benefits to the vassal—protection, companionship, financial benefits, and in exchange it is quite common for the vassal to promise love in return. In a covenant context, God offers His people gifts (charis, charismata), and the people offer God love and service in return.

This situation seems to make a great deal of sense out of the New Testament account of God’s grace and the human response to that grace. God, in Christ, has established a new covenant with the people of the earth. God will be our God, and we will be His people. He, showing the favour of a liege lord to His people, gifts us with forgiveness (so that we can stay in His presence), with his Spirit (so that we can be equipped for His service), with new hearts (so that we can fulfill the covenant stipulations), and He effects all of this through the gift of Himself through the Son (Who makes all this possible). In a covenant frame, grace is the favour and gifting of God which, being received by His covenant people, demands a response of covenant love and obedience.


Grace, then, is favours/gifts from God which demand love and obedience. It follows that all things have the potential to be grace, if they are received rightly. Life itself, as a gift from God, is a grace the acknowledgement of which demands new love and obedience. Every instantiation of beauty, received as grace, is an apprehension of something which demands love and obedience. And, if we are to take Job as our guide, in an astonishing way every experience of horror—so received as if from God—can also be interpreted as a demand for love and obedience (“Shall we accept good from His hand, and not ill?” Job 2:10). Furthermore, a covenant frame for grace can contain all of our common understandings of grace—within the covenant, of course forgiveness is a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); sinlessness is also a mode of grace (demanding love and obedience); and noblesse is a mode of grace (the witness of which also demands our love, obedience, and imitation).

Fuzzy definitions make fuzzy Christians. A good definition of grace should equip us to better fulfill our obligations as recipients of God’s favours. And, if we believe that all of life is a gift, then to live rightly in response to it is to embody the very nature of grace—covenant people receiving gifts and returning love, obedience, and gratitude.

To Carry the Weaker Brother–Romans 14 and 15 in Focus

If you like cops and robbers movies, and you like the Asian variety, then this is a winner. Not for the faint of heart, however.

If you like cops and robbers movies, and you like the Asian variety, then this is a winner. Not for the faint of heart, however.

“For if on account of food your brother is grieved, no longer according to love do you live. Not by means of your food shall you destroy another on whose behalf Christ died. Do not therefore blaspheme your good.” Romans 14:15-16

A friend and I share interest in international film—in particular, Asian crime dramas. When he sees one he thinks I’ll like, he passes me the info. When I see one I think he’ll like, I pass him the info. It’s a convenient arrangement. However, whenever I consider recommending a film for him I always attend especially to any sexual content. I am not particularly troubled by it, but I know that it troubles him. Therefore I don’t recommend films to him that I perceive have content he doesn’t want to see. In certain cases where I judge the film to be worth viewing in spite of its content, I make sure to warn him specifically.

This situation came to mind the other day while I was watching—you guessed it—an Asian crime drama. But it struck me as significant because, for the past months, I have been engaging in a close study of the book of Romans. I’ve been translating it, making notes from the Greek, and attempting to summarize Paul’s arguments in my own words. Near the end of Paul’s letter he speaks about members of the Church with weaker faith—specifically about taking care not to make a weaker brother stumble. As I reflected on my arrangement with my friend—Paul’s words fresh in my mind—it occurred to me that our dispositions relative to the content of cinema have precisely nothing to do with the “weaker brother” principle from Scripture.

For as long as I can remember the “weaker brother” passages from Romans 14 and 15 have been used in this way. There are certain ‘worldly’ activities which some Christians can continue to engage in, from which other members of the Church must refrain. Some Christians can watch movies, others cannot. Some Christians can drink alcohol, others cannot. Some Christians can gamble, or work on Sundays, while others cannot. “Freedom in Christ,” under this logic, is the freedom of some Christians to engage in specific behaviours that would be sin to other Christians.

I think this is completely wrong, and it is wrong for a variety of reasons.

Strength and WeaknessFirst, it is wrong because I don’t believe that my friend’s ‘inability’ to view sexual content reflects weakness of faith on his part. It might, quite the contrary, reflect a deeper appreciation of holiness, in which case it would not be that my faith is strong and I am free, but rather that my faith is weak and I lack the maturity that he has. Aside from that (distinct) possibility, I don’t conclude that my ‘ability’ to view a variety of cinematic content reflects particular strength of faith on my part. It might be a gift, or it might be a call (since I am able to review content for others without the same adverse effects), or it might, upon deeper spiritual reflection, actually turn out to be a vice which needs correction. Either way, I take no notion about my own strength from this situation.

Second, it is wrong in light of Romans 15:1, which says: “Now we who are powerful ought to endure the weaknesses of the powerless and not to please ourselves.” Note that Paul commands us to “endure” the weaknesses of the powerless, but that word “endure” also means “carry” or “bear.” It is not only that the strong are asked to put up with the weak, but that the strong are commanded to carry the weak. It is almost as if we are Israel once again in the wilderness—do we abandon the infirm because they are slow? By no means! We endure/carry them along with us. Now as I’ve already observed, it is common when we talk about the “weaker brother” to speak of specific areas of sin which are debated in culture—entertainment choices, alcohol consumption, trips to Vegas, sexuality, working on the Sabbath. The common application of the “weaker brother” principle—especially when I was a young legalist—was for the ‘weak’ to use it to try and limit, or at least section away, the so-called ‘freedom’ of others. The goal was to preserve a centre of holiness and at the same time explain the moral outliers. But given the command of Romans 15:1 we are left with a troubling, unanswered question: if these brothers and sisters who can engage in these activities are, by definition, the “stronger brothers,” how is their strength serving to benefit the fellowship? In what sense is it possible for me to enjoy many kinds of cinema and drink alcohol while fulfilling this command? How is my ‘freedom’ a show of spiritual strength that enables me to benefit my brother who is weak in his faith?

Mushrooms: Delicious to some, hateful to others.

Mushrooms: Delicious to some, hateful to others.

By extension from this, at no moment have I ever felt that I am ‘accommodating’ or needing to ‘bear’ my brother in faith because of his ‘weakness.’ At the very minimum, our arrangement is a manifestation of courtesy. More likely, it is simple consideration—I want to honor both him and his conscience. More specifically, because I regard him as a brother and know his preferences, why would I knowingly present him with something that he has expressed concern about? Knowing that he dislikes mushrooms, why would I offer him mushroom soup? Knowing he has a date with his wife, why would I pressure him to join me at the pub?

A third reason why this application of the “weaker brother” principle is wrong because I do not believe that the particular aspects of conduct to which we apply the “weaker brother” principle are reflections of ‘freedom in Christ.’ My ability to watch movies is not really about freedom in Christ, nor for that matter is my ability to drink alcohol. One of my former pastors is a recovered alcoholic—am I to assume, under our common interpretation of this passage, that his continued inability to consume alcohol reflects a weakness in his faith? That if he had more ‘freedom in Christ’ he would be strengthened to drink alcohol again? Far from it!

Go ahead and shout it in your head. I know you want to.

Go ahead and shout it in your head. I know you want to.

The root of this confusion stems from our false definition of freedom. We presume that ‘freedom’ means freedom from something—freedom from laws, from strictures, from limitations. But freedom, in the Scriptural sense, is always freedom for something. We are not released from the Law in order to do as we please, we are released in order that we can perform that function for which the Law existed in the first place (that is, love of God and neighbor). I am free from food laws not because the food laws don’t matter, but because God abolished the food laws as a way to prepare the way for one new people no longer divided by food.

This gets us quite close, in fact, to what Paul is really on about in Romans 12-15. The trouble that occasions the letter to the Romans is this new people, called the Church, who are composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul is at pains to give grounds for existence to both groups—to the Jews to explain how the Gentiles are the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan, to the Gentiles to explain their newfound heritage in the traditions of Israel. One group is not prioritized over the other; what is prioritized is the reality and new life of the Church.

Delicious, delicious lawbreaking.

Delicious, delicious lawbreaking.

In Romans 1-11 Paul writes his argument for this new people of God. In Romans 12-15 he offers specific commands on how to live this new life together. He speaks about love, about love as the fulfillment of the law, and about relations with one another. At the end of his argument, in 14 and 15, Paul speaks about food. Now let us be clear: when Paul is speaking about food in these passages, what he has in mind is the Jewish food laws. These laws were longstanding traditions of the Israelite people which Jesus had specifically removed. Paul is keenly aware of Jesus’ commands (which is why, I suspect, he is comfortable publicly labelling some members of the church ‘weak’ and others ‘strong’—don’t forget that the letter would have been read aloud originally!). In 14:13 Paul even quotes Jesus when he said that it was not what goes in a man which makes him unclean, but what comes out of a man (Mark 7:14-16). Jesus’ point in that passage was to show that it is the inner condition of a man which makes him clean, not his ritualistic activities. The other occasion when Jesus declared all foods clean was in his vision to Peter on the rooftop (Acts 10). On that occasion, the declaration that “all foods are clean” was made in preparation for Cornelius’s arrival. In other words, all foods are clean as a way to prepare for the new people of God, composed of Jews and Gentiles. Paul is aware of these things—he even (Galatians 2) once went toe-to-toe with Peter about it.

But there is a curious phrase in the second half of Romans 14:14. It says this: “I know and I have been persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing unclean is through a man, except such a thing as he reasons to be unclean, in that thing it is unclean.” In the first part of the sentence Paul quotes Jesus, in the second part he seems to contradict Jesus. Why does Paul elevate the conscience above the word of Christ? Are not the brothers stronger in faith—those obeying the command of Jesus fully—performing Jesus’ will, while the weaker brothers are disobeying?

The answer to this lies in the purpose for which Jesus abolished the food laws. Simply put, Jesus removes them to prepare the way for God’s new people, the Church—one that would be characterized by inward and not ritual holiness, and one that would include all, and not ethnically particular, people. The food laws are removed so that the Church can exist. The freedom from the food laws is really freedom for us to be the Church. And perhaps now Paul’s logic becomes clear: if an issue of food destroys the faith of a brother for whom Christ died—that is, if our genuine freedom in Christ has become an obstacle to fulfilling the very purpose for which Christ came and died—then it is better to limit ourselves. In this way, the strength of those with stronger faith carries along the weakness of those who lack power. We who are strong limit ourselves so that we can walk together with our weaker brethren.

To put this clearly, freedom from the food laws is given so that we can be one new people, the Church. But if food divides us still, then we aren’t fulfilling the intention of either the law or the freedom. This is why Paul rebukes the Church—because in their eating they were dividing God’s holy people.

Hey, Man! It's my freedom in Christ!

Hey, Man! It’s my freedom in Christ!

In view of all this, to take the “weaker brother” passages and use them as a crib for sin seems to me grossly inappropriate. The Church is not divided into two classes of people—the weak and strong of faith—along a boundary line defined by particular sins in culture. It is inappropriate to use these passages to attempt to manage sin in community. And maybe that’s the real bait and switch that I don’t like. Paul isn’t talking about sin, as if some people can get hammered while others have to be sober, or as if some people can sleep around while others have to remain celibate. No, he’s speaking about a highly unique aspect of community life and giving advice on how to maintain the greater fellowship despite these challenging differences. He is teaching us how to live together under the new unity of God’s people by the command of love. He’s using this principle of accommodation to defend the purpose of freedom; that is, the community of the Church.

But there’s one further irony to our abuse of this passage. Paul gives a command to those stronger in faith to help those weaker. Today, those ‘weaker’ in faith typically use this passage to manipulate the ‘stronger.’ There is no accommodation or strengthening at work, only limitation. In return—and I have witnessed this many times firsthand—those ‘stronger’ ones appeal to their freedom with an air of rebelliousness. They drink, watch what they wish, curse, and sleep around with an air of smug superiority, while they are not, in truth, any stronger in faith. They are merely using the Scriptures as a pretext to sin.

How, then, are we then to interpret this passage? After all, there is not a class of believers in the Church today who, because of unified heritage and tradition, have a special struggle with certain aspects of our freedom in Christ. But perhaps by rephrasing the question we can find some clarity. Where, we can ask, are the stumbling blocks that genuinely threaten the weakened faith of the Church? What are the places where we who are strong in faith are called to “carry along” those brothers and sisters most likely to stumble?

It's one of these stones that gets tied around your neck. Yikes!

It’s one of these stones that gets tied around your neck. Yikes!

Framed that way, I think we get some real clarity, because Paul’s use of the stone of stumbling imagery is another reference to Jesus’ teaching. Specifically, it references our Lord’s command to place no stone of stumbling before any of his “little ones,” and pronouncement of woes upon anyone who did (Mt 18:6, et al). We have been warned, in other words, in the strictest of terms, to cause no loss of faith among the members of the Church. Paul, expanding upon Jesus’ explicit teaching, commands us to take stock of our own strengths and consider how to employ them for the service of the Church—to carry one another along this journey. The principle to which he appeals throughout the passage (14:1-3, 15:7) is to ‘accommodate’ or ‘take along’ one another in the same way that Christ, our Lord, has accommodated or taken us along. Christ converted his strength into service for the Saints, so also we must convert our strengths into service for one another.

With these two pieces in place, we are prepared to apply the passage. Where do we stumble today? Where is faith weak in the church today? Where am I, especially, as a minister of the Gospel called to use strength to benefit the weak of faith? I think there are three areas of particular weakness today; first, the Church today is weak in identity (Who am I?); second, it is weak in integrity (Can I trust you?); third, it is weak in reasons to believe (Can I trust God?). These are the stumbling stones which threaten to undo our fellowship, and to which we must train the faithful to be strong for the service of others.

Ned FlandersThe issues of identity stem from our interaction with culture. Despite our best efforts culture has been more successful in defining Christian identity than Christians have. Cinema, entertainment, news, and opinion all collide to create a Christian identity that is a bizarre caricature of real faith. If you are a Christian according to culture you are someone who believes despite evidence, believes in the face of contrary evidence, are defined by hatred, are legalistic, are attempting to push a foreign agenda on an unwilling world, are unkind, are stupid, are naïve, are backwards, are ‘medieval,’ and are complicit with abuses financial, sexual, familial, and cultural. Is it any wonder that members of the Church struggle with their identity? Are they called to defend abusers? Make excuses? Apologize? What of new believers? How do we rightly bring them into fellowship that appears, to all outward views, to be so colloquial?

But more even than the false caricature generated by the world, the issue of identity pulses through the Church. Brothers and sisters are eager to know who they are, why they are here, and what God wants for them. Into their hearts the world has sown vast seeds of doubt about identity—sexual, familial, cultural, racial, economic. Never have we been more confused about who we are. Never have we more needed ministry that reveals to us who God is. The strength of those strong in faith must be the strength of those who know God and know themselves—and I suggest to you particularly, in this age of malformed identity, that it will be knowledge of the Father which is the tonic for our confusion. I say this because Jesus’ own identity is grounded in the will and knowledge of the Father. Our strength must be strength that is similarly grounded in God our Father.

I was going to choose an image of failure, but chose Pope Francis instead to remind you that 'success' is more common than we recognize.

I was going to choose an image of failure, but chose Pope Francis instead to remind you that ‘success’ is more common than we recognize.

Integrity is the second stumbling stone, and quite frankly this is because nothing has done more to discredit the belief of the Church than the behaviour of some of the clergy. The scales aren’t fair, of course. For every clergyman who has fallen from grace another five have served faithfully. It is just that our failures shine more memorably than successes. Still, the people of the Church need clergy they can trust, and that means clergy who are committed to the faith, who are committed to holiness, and who are committed to service. The work of seminaries, whatever else they perform, will be meaningless unless men of character and self-sacrifice are trained to serve the Church with their God-given strengths.

Lastly, the Church is weak in reasons to believe. Doubt and confusion are at epidemic levels. These doubts are sourced in both lack of good teaching and false definitions of faith. In the first place, it is my conviction that the story of Jesus ratifies itself, but we have appealed to other sources, accommodating culture rather than the truth. We have spoken self-help sermons, and through our inattention to the gospel message paved the way for the empty wash of moral therapeutic deism. We reason that belief matters less than feeling, and try to make people feel a certain way in order to keep them in faith. We forget that there is no substitute for the story of Jesus, and that the claims of Christ are claims upon our souls, and not merely our emotions.

Not only this, but ‘experts’ and ‘authorities’ regularly work actively to discredit the Christian faith—many of them from positions that claim to be inside the faith itself. J.B. Phillips, who translated the New Testament into plain language, was angered that modern scholars were undermining faith through their cavalier and irreverent approach to knowledge. He wrote: “But I say quite bluntly that some of the intellectuals… who write so cleverly and devastatingly about the Christian faith appear to have no personal knowledge of the living God. They lack awe, they lack humility, and they lack the responsibility which every Christian owes to his weaker brother” (Ring of Truth, 20). Woe to the teacher who teaches doubt! Woe to the professor who professes matters which weaken faith!

In this vein there is a category of ‘Christian’ bloggers and writers who in the name of inquiry have done more damage to the faith of the Church than any fallen pastor or any goofball boondock fellowship. In the spirit of free inquiry these thinkers equivocate truth, they misrepresent Scripture, and through and through they prove that they are voices not for faith but for culture. They are all the more dangerous because they believe, and present themselves, as the new face of Christianity, as the face of Christianity that can weather the storm of culture by cutting loose our anchors. I say, without naming names, that they have violated the people of God, and the spirit of Romans 12-15, and that their faith is the destruction of faith.

Against these trends, ministers of the gospel must offer reasons to believe—not false reasons, not emotional reasons, but reasons which are grounded in the truth of the Christian story and the work of the Spirit in the Church and in history. Our strength of belief must itself be a boon for the weak-kneed faith of today’s Church. And this must not be belief that is blind and closed-eyed to the world, but belief that is grounded in the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. On these three things we live or die.

(NB: There is a Part 2 to this post which clarifies several further points in a Q&A format. Click this link to reach it.)