Here’s the painful news: hard, distressing but true news which you know anyway. Evangelicals are not thought to be full of grace. The secular media regularly describes us in terms which we hardly recognise but to them are self-evident: hypocrites, shrill, Pharisaical. Fellow Christians have been known to describe us as the Taleban, who don’t know the meaning of God’s kindly welcome.
The frequency of the perception gives us a unique hurdle to our evangelism. We, of all people, are thought to be grace-less and hard, where the people who have gone soft or even abandoned the Reformation doctrine of ‘grace alone’ are thought to be loving, kind and accepting.
1. We need to examine ourselves and see where the caricature is true. Where we have emerged in the national consciousness recently it has been on moral issues (Human embryology, human sexuality and so on). Those are rightly our concern, but we must always ensure when we have the chance that we explain why we are so exercised about them. They matter not because we are morally or culturally in denial; they matter because of what they do to people, and people matter to God and they matter to us, and that is a grace-filled answer.
2. We need to keep together what others want to place as opposites. So we reject the divorce between ‘truth’ and ‘grace’ as if concern for one makes the other diminish. No, Jesus was ‘full of grace and truth’ (Jn. 1:14) , and they were not at war in him. We reject the divorce between a gospel of grace and a call to repentance, as if Jesus merely accepted people as they were and did not call them to change. No, Jesus announced the good news of the Kingdom of God over all nations through him, and insisted that the appropriate response was to repent (Mk. 1:15). We reject the divorce between love and obedience, because Jesus said that if we love him we will obey him, and if we don’t we won’t (Jn. 14:23-24).
3. We need to point out the dangers of misinterpreting grace as a simple, ’Jesus loves you as you are.’ True, the good news does come to people as they are, and Jesus forgives as we are, but that is not a broad enough statement of the gospel to stand alone. The account of the Corinthians’ being won for Christ includes the magnificent description ‘and that is what some of you were’ not ‘that is what some of you are’ (1 Cor. 6:11) Jesus was not born to affirm us in our rebellious lifestyles as we are, but so save us from them, by his grace. So true grace will always include the notes of repentance and faith, which inevitably involves rebuke, challenge and change.
4. We must rid ourselves of the notion that applying the gospel of grace to people’s lifestyle is somehow illegitimate. When we call on people to repent, what are they to repent of? How are they, as Paul says, to ‘prove their repentance by their deeds’ (Acts 26:20)? If we don’t show how grace does impact on lifestyle then we shall be as bad as the false teachers who ‘change the grace of God into a licence for immorality’ (Jude 1:4), or who ask ‘shall we then sin, because we are not under law but under grace? (Rom. 6:15)’
5. So here’s the good news – we do have a gospel of grace, and we are supposed to live that out and hold it out. If we model in ourselves and in our churches that repentance is lifelong, and that our own need of grace is lifelong, then we too will have churches full of testimonies from people who can say, ”And that is what we were too, but God’s grace has even forgiven and transformed us – and if he can do that for me, I’m sure he can do it for you.”