What does it mean to have a ministry atmosphere that is “full of grace” (John 1:14)?
There was a reason why all the sinners ran to Jesus on a regular basis (Luke 15:1-2). Though they knew He was against their sin—he never watered down the law’s demands—they wanted to be around Him because they knew the reason why He was against their sin—because He was for their flourishing! If we want to be His ambassadors, therefore, several commitments must characterize us, our ministries, and our message:
Respecting and valuing all people. People must sense us relating to them on the basis of their God-given dignity, not on the basis of their shortcomings. If we are not careful, we can easily fall into the trap of diminishing the worth of a human being by thinking first of the ways they need to be fixed versus valuing them as bearers of the divine image, made for glory.
The following quote from CS Lewis offers helpful perspective:
It is maybe possible to think too much of your own potential glory hereafter. But it is impossible to think too often or too deeply about that of your neighbors. The weight of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back. So heavy a weight it is that only humility can carry it. It’s a serious thing to live in a society of immortals. To remember that millions of years from now, the dullest and most uninteresting person you meet may one day be an incredible creature, who if you saw him now you would be strongly tempted to worship…All day long we are in some degrees helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is therefore in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the proper amount of awe and circumspection that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations, these are mortal, and their life is to our life as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals with whom we joke, work, marry, snub and exploit…your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. (CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory)
A biblical view of sin. Treating people with dignity does not imply a reluctance to challenge sin. If we are going to love people as Jesus does, we will be committed to their flourishing, which means we will deeply desire that they be obedient to God! So, the question is not, “Will we challenge sin?” but rather “How will we challenge sin, and with what motivation will we challenge it?” We must be on God’s agenda here—He is so vehemently opposed to sin both for His own glory and (how easily we can forget) very much for the person. God’s desire is that we live by His design, which is life to us,
A grace-filled posture toward sinners like ourselves. Whenever we challenge sin of any kind, our motivation must be because we care so deeply for those, like ourselves, who sin. Otherwise, we shouldn’t say anything at all about sin. You are no doubt familiar with the group from Topeka, Kansas who picketed the funeral (!) of Mathew Sheppard (the young gay man who was beaten to death by some of his peers) with signs that read “God hates fags” and “Thank God for AIDS,” among other horrible, evil things. This example is certainly extreme. However, there are going to be seeds in our own hearts that are prone to look down on those to whom we feel superior. It is an evil thing to desire or celebrate someone’s harm instead of his/her well-being. As Jesus stood over Jerusalem (who had rejected His love), He wept for them. Do people, especially people who are “not like us,” sense this kind of love from us? Jesus did much more than merely tolerate sinful people in His midst. He cherished them, and pursued their hearts that they might become free indeed. We have no option but to do the same.
We must keep first things first.
This essentially means two things:
Jesus, and nothing else, must be our “main thing” at all times. Our main emphasis must always be on the Person and work of Christ. Even Paul the Apostle decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). Therefore…
Everything else takes a back seat to Jesus. Often we will equate “outreach” to converting others to the norms of our particular tribe (our political views, our theological tradition, our dress code, our ethics, our parenting philosophy, etc.) instead of converting them to a love and adoration of Jesus. But the norms of our tribe must always be secondary to, and in many cases discarded because of, a greater vision for people to see Jesus and know Him for who He really is. Additionally, in all things we must lead with the grace of God versus with the law of God. When we require people to “get their act together” before we give them access to Jesus and His grace, we fail to follow the methods of the Lord, who welcomed and “graced” people before He called them to change (Luke 7:36-50, Luke 15:1-2, John 8:1-11, etc.). A cosmetic, outside-in, second-things-first approach to change contradicts the inside-out, first-things-first approach of the Bible.
Consider the following quote from Rev. Timothy Keller:
We (need to) be careful with the order in which we communicate the parts of the faith. Pushing moral behaviors before we lift up Christ is religion. The church today is calling people to God with a tone of voice that seems to confirm their worst fears. Religion has always been outside-in—”if I behave out here in all these ways, then I will have God’s blessing and love inside.” But the Gospel is inside-out—”If I know the blessing and grace of God inside, then I can behave out here in all these ways.” A woman who had been attending our church for several months came to see me. “Do you think abortion is wrong?” she asked. I said that I did. “I’m coming now to see that maybe there is something wrong with it,” she replied, “now that I have become a Christian here and have started studying the faith in the classes.” As we spoke, I discovered that she was an Ivy League graduate, a lawyer, a long-time Manhattan resident, and an active member of the ACLU. She volunteered that she had experienced three abortions. “I want you to know,” she said, “that if I had seen any literature or reference to the ‘pro-life’ movement, I would not have stayed through the first service. But I did stay, and I found faith in Christ. If abortion is wrong, you should certainly speak out against it, but I’m glad about the order in which you do it.” This woman had had her faith incubated into birth in our Sunday services. In worship, we center on the question “what is truth?” and the one who had the audacity to say, “I am the truth.” That is the big issue for postmodern people, and it’s hard to swallow. Nothing is more subversive and prophetic than to say Truth has become a real person…We, of all people, ought to understand and agree with fears about religion, for Jesus Himself warned us to be wary of it, and not to mistake a call for moral virtue for the good news of God’s salvation provided in Christ. (Timothy Keller, Religion-less Spirituality)
In cultivating a “full of grace” ministry atmosphere, we must carefully consider how we are presenting Christ to people who are either not Christian or somewhere along the journey of overcoming sin (that’s all of us, isn’t it?). The following chart is given as an aid for preparing our community to be in line with the Gospel of grace. Obviously, we want to lean against both the religious grid and the secular grid, and saturate everything we think, say, and do from the perspective of the Gospel grid.
Different models of ministry and the “hurdles” people feel they must overcome in order to become “insiders:”
This is part 2 of a series of articles by Scott Sauls.
Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls
Editor’s Note: Scott was a member of our WDA Campus Ministry (Next Generation Ministry) while at Furman University. We are excited to see our alumni continuing to carry a vision for discipleship!