Grace is scandalous. When a group lives in connection with each other, showing a commitment to self-sacrificial love and care for one another, it’s shocking for those watching. Coming alongside the suffering, providing for needs, welcoming people into a loving community, praying passionately, and celebrating joyfully—this is what it looks like when the grace of God takes root in a local church family.
As Ray Ortlund said, gospel doctrine + gospel culture = the power of God. The gospel of God’s grace produces a gracious people. The culture of every church should be a shining light showing off the beauty and wonder of God’s grace.
But why doesn’t it always go that way? There are too many examples of people and churches who proclaim the lofty heights of the doctrines of the gospel but are harsh, argumentative, controlling, and overall, graceless. It can happen to any one of us and to any of our churches.
What Goes Wrong
Every church will fight against the following tendencies. When we see them, we must aggressively snuff them out.
1. Zeal for truth becomes theological elitism.
There is nothing uglier than the doctrines of grace becoming a hammer rather than a pillow. Biblical and systematic theological reflection is good; it makes our hearts resonate with God’s truth and beauty. But if you believe reformed theology (the doctrines of grace), the result cannot and must not be arrogance or elitism. After all, reformed theology tells us that we have nothing to offer and no ground for arrogance.
Many of us talk about open and closed-hand doctrines, but do we actually have open hands, or do we tend to elevate secondary or even tertiary doctrines to become a litmus test for orthodoxy? As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Preaching the intricacies of our theological system rather than the expansiveness of the gospel cultivates elitism.
2. Zeal for holiness becomes legalistic moralism.
This is not a new problem, especially for young or inexperienced leaders. The weight of bearing responsibility before God for his people (Heb. 13:17) can crush us if we forget God’s grace extends to leaders, too. Anxiety and fear can turn into trying to control other people’s sanctification. It never works. Don’t forget that God’s grace and kindness lead us to repentance, and the Spirit exposes our sin. Preaching law rather than grace leads to moralism.
3. Zeal for community and connectedness becomes tribalism.
Every group tends to turn inward, to self-preservation and self-promotion, because our idolatry drives us toward safety and significance. So we surround ourselves with people like us and value our church family for its communal safety. When that happens, we become fattened consumers of grace rather than conduits extending it to the world.
It’s a temptation in our local churches, in our denominations, and even in our church-planting network. Acts 29 churches join Jesus on his mission; we do not have exclusive rights on his church. Preaching our communities as the only outworking of the gospel leads to tribalism.
4. Zeal for missional engagement becomes institutional preservation.
One particular danger in church planting is preaching the uniqueness of our church over and against other churches—as if we’ve unlocked the key to how it’s really supposed to be done. The early stages of planting are filled with vision and excitement. But down-the-road member needs, budgets, and debates about the church’s vision become overwhelming.
The transition toward being an established church rather than a new plant can suck the joy and life out of ministry, and neglecting to root our people in a commitment to the importance of all faithful local churches will create institutional pride. A proud and joyless ministry will be a graceless ministry. Preaching our church’s uniqueness in mission rather than the expansiveness of Jesus’s mission will lead to institutionalism.
5. Zeal to lead God’s people becomes a desire to control them.
You’re on dangerous ground if your church becomes a means to extend your influence. The church is a trust given by Jesus and its leaders will answer to him in the end. Jesus had hard warnings for leaders when he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46). The Shepherd whose voice leads the church is Jesus and only Jesus. Preaching our own authority leads to abuse.
Do we really believe the doctrines of grace? If we believe in total depravity, we’ll never be surprised when people sin; instead, we’ll celebrate glimmers of grace. If we believe in unconditional election, we’ll avoid even subtly believing we can earn or add to our standing before God by our good morals or right positions. Believing in limited atonement (or particular redemption) makes theological snobbery impossible. If we believe in irresistible grace, then we have the ultimate motivation to be conduits of grace as the Spirit of God breathes new life into dead souls. And if we believe in the perseverance of the saints, we can rest from our need to control and trust that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
Cultivating a culture of grace takes constant refocusing and reminding, as we continually reform ourselves and our churches to more fully align with and reflect the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as we will never slide into holiness, we will never slide into grace.
Written by: Bill Riedel