A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, August 08, 2011

God's Grace is Not Equivalent to Getting a Suntan

The Wesley Center Online defines the heart of Wesleyanism:
Wesleyanism or Wesleyan theology is the system of Christian theology of Methodism taught by John Wesley. At its heart, the theology of John Wesley stressed the life of Christian holiness: to love God with all one's heart, mind, soul and strength and to love one's neighbour as oneself. Wesley's teaching also stressed experiential religion and moral responsibility.
My observations over the years is that the church in the West, including we Methodists, have been all too often guilty of preaching, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, cheap grace, and neglecting what John Wesley referred to as perfecting grace. We are guilty of embracing a passive grace where God does it all and the only response on our part is to accept it without consideration of the consequences such grace should have on our lives.

I often compare such passive grace to going to the beach to get a suntan. We lay there on the sand doing absolutely nothing while the sun just beats down upon us giving us its light and heat, while we slowly undergo an epidermal roasting. The only thing we may do in response to our receiving of the sun's "benefits" is to flip over every now and then on our back side.

But God does not lavish his grace upon us so that we may only soak up God's forgiveness in order to continue to live as if its business as usual. Divine grace is what we need from God in order to be transformed, to be changed, to be re-formed after the image of God incarnated for us in Jesus Christ. God indeed accepts us as we are, but God does not intend to leave us as we are.

We must not use the grace of God as an excuse, as license even, to live as if we are unredeemed. The untenable dichotomy we have drawn between faith and works has often distorted the discussion of God's grace. As Bonhoeffer said many years ago, "The one who believes obeys. The one who does not obey cannot believe." We must also rid ourselves forever of the other untenable distinction between personal holiness and social holiness. To draw such a distinction and to emphasize one at the expense of the other is to misunderstand what John Wesley meant by holiness. Holiness is at one and the same time personal and social. We cannot have one without the other.

We must always remember that God's grace is what propels us and sustains us on the exciting and wonderful journey of discipleship; It is not a boring notion that simply reinforces the false belief that God could care less about our bad behavior and the neglect of those in need.


Mitchell said...

Allan - If the useless vanity of a suntan is a bad "passive" example, then how about the passivity of regularly sitting still for chemo or radiation to fight a debilitating disease like cancer - or the life-long need for dialysis for renal failure.

Like dialysis and chemo, God's grace in word and sacrament restores some ability simply to live and function in the world.

Some Wesleyans are impatient with the weekly, year-in-year-out rhythm of word and sacrament. Nothing seems to happen. Just going to going to church, living with your family and working at your vocation isn't enough, I hear.

At its heart, though, I'm not sure that holy living is anything extraordinary. Whatever else holy living might be, it is living fully in God's creation as God intended. Loving God and neighbor don't just happen in extraordinary feats of spiritual bravery, which is what some Wesleyans seem to value most.

Family relationships, ordinary human labor, the enjoyment of beauty and humor in God's creation: these things are aspects of holy living, but few Wesleyans give them much emphasis. You have to turn to Luther or Calvin to find much in the way of a positive theology of secular life.

What appears passive may in fact be the long, slow, sometimes incomplete healing process of sinners basking in the grace of word and sacrament.

Bruce said...

Mitchell and Allan,
Another sad dichotomy would be to think that one or the other of you two is correct to the exclusion of the other. Both comments ring true in my heart. Transformation is both slow and immediate. Grace is both now and always coming to us in new ways. Thank you both for timely words that speak beyond the intellect.

preacherman said...

Great post.
I enjoy your blog.

Bruce said...

One aspect of faith that we can easily leave out is the eschatology we find in the scripture. Theology often fails to address Christian expectation and hope. Wesley is right to expect and want transformation. That is the witness of scripture. It is not sensational to live life better, due to grace, sacrament and word. It is not a brave adventure to experience a long slow healing/transfomation of love. But it is profound and powerful.