When the "buts" rule.
If the Gospel is true, then my hoping in it should be enough. But from the church at large I often get the strong sense that it's not. Though I don't live a lifestyle which would invoke church discipline - not even close - I often feel that I'm not Christian enough for those around me. Oh how I long to be able to say, "We are saved by grace alone, not by works" without the person I'm speaking to immediately saying, "Well, yes, but...."
I know the "but". I don't deny that Christ changes His people. Of course He changes people. He's changed me, but apparently not into what others seem to expect or want.
It's an odd thing, how that little "but" changes the whole emphasis, shifts the whole focus. In fact, the statement following a "but" often reveals what is really of main importance to the objector. I remember in my early days as a "Calvinist", when I still attended what most Reformed folks would consider an "Arminian" church, there were many times when I would find myself in a friendly group discussion about God's saving work in someone's life, when someone would pipe in, "But they have to choose!" Sometimes the statement was so ridiculously apropos of nothing that conversation would screech to a halt, everyone wondering what on earth brought on the outburst. But even when the statement was more appropriate to the context there was still this sense that someone had spoken something so obvious and so fundamental as to detract from the whole point, as if one showed up at the Kentucky Derby and exclaimed, "Look, horses!" Well...yes...there are horses at the Derby. And just as horses are intrinsic to horse racing, the choice to follow Christ is a natural part, a necessary product of being a new creature in Christ. I'm not denying that a choice will be made (in fact a lifetime of choices will be made), it's just that the choice is not the point. The work of God in us to will and to do according to His good purpose is the point. Our choice is the product of that. But, the person with that mindset has revealed something about his perspective. For that person, their choice is the big thing. Their choice to follow Christ is the focus, and to them the continued choosing to follow Him is the heart of the Christian life.
In Reformed circles, on the other hand, I see a different "but" at work. When I say a person is saved by faith alone, in Christ alone apart from the works of the law; when I say the law is obsolete or that Christians are not under the law, I nearly invariably find myself amended with, "But there has to be a change of life" or "but Christ makes us able to do the law". (I will refrain from dickering over what might be implied by that last statement and simply take it to be another way of saying the first.) To this I would respond, as with the first "but", "well...yes...of course." A changed life is a necessary by-product of God's working in us to will and to do according to His good purpose. But our change is not the point. My point is the method our salvation, not the outcome. And as with the other "but", the strong drive to interject reveals something of an emphasis. This "but", like the other, shifts the emphasis back onto man's works. Grace, rather than being admired for it's own beauty, is quickly swept aside, as if it were too risky to look at, too dangerous to be reveled in. It amazes me how threatened we feel by grace, how quick we are to get back to what we are more comfortable with, what is measurable, the externals - our works. As quickly as we can we want the focus away from Christ and His completed work on our behalf, and back onto ourselves and our performance.
So we all have our "buts". None of us is perfect in either our doctrine or the weight we place on particular doctrines. "Arminians" have a problem with the tendency to view works as a means of maintaining their salvation, fearing that when they sin they might lose it. Calvinists have their own disturbing tendency to view works as the proof of their salvation, fearing that sin is proof they never were saved in the first place. The end outcome of either can be a desperate urge to focus not on Christ and His work on our behalf, but on our works - our lifestyles. Our lifestyles keep us saved, on the one hand, or prove we are saved on the other. As with obsessive lovers, the object of our passion shifts from the lover to keeping the lover. We lose the joy of the relationship in the perverse fear of losing it, or finding out it never meant anything in the first place.
Now, I do not deny that there are some who will abuse grace, thinking it a license to sin. This is, after all, the kind of person the apostle Paul, and James, had in mind when they issued such warnings. What I am suggesting is that we save such admonishment for those situations, that we allow grace to reign preeminent in our thoughts and lives. Among active, committed Christians we should think better of each other than to assume that anyone basking in grace is secretly seeking an opportunity to sin. No one who truly loves and values God's grace - no sinner who has ever really experienced what it is to receive God's unmerited favor through the sacrifice of Christ, will treat grace in such a cavalier manner. "God forbid!" is the response of a transformed heart to the suggestion that we should revel in sin so that grace may abound.
We are all sinners. Even those of us who have come to Christ and learned what a hateful enemy sin is continue to sin and to need God's grace to cover us. Let's bathe ourselves and one another in the grace of God, not the law. Let us be ministers of life to one another, not death. For it is "God who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Cor. 3:6)