I remember as a new Christian, everything seemed brand new. The possibilities for the Christian life seemed limitless. I couldn’t imagine why everyone wouldn’t want all that the Christian life promised. But before long, I learned that none of that could be taken for granted. I came to see that things like stubbornness, complaining and complacency were present in the church. And I would learn that they were never far from my own heart as well. I’ve spent most of my Christian life trying to understand this gap and what causes it. So, I was glad to read Bryan Chapell’s account of his own journey in this area in his book, “Christ-Centred Preaching.”
Chapell was several years into his first pastorate when he came to the conclusion that many in the church were far from the Lord. That was a discouraging conclusion to come to in a church that was nearly two hundred years old. He described the people like this:
“Many of the families had attended for generations. Some knew their Bibles far better than I, and due to the history of the church, everyone knew very well how Christians should act. Most conscientiously observed a community code of conduct – they were faithful to their spouses, dressed modestly, had respectable occupations, and did not drink to excess or swear in polite company. Outward conformity to accepted Christian conduct was definitely expected and consistently exhibited. Attitudes however were not so exemplary. I could not understand how people who were so knowledgeable about God could be so bitter, so guilt-ridden, so often depressed, so cold to one another, and so intolerant of the faults of newer Christians.”
Over time, he came to realize that he was the one most to blame for the spiritual climate of the church. He had been using shame and fear to motivate people’s obedience towards God. As a result, his teaching secured change in people’s behaviour, but it was all external. There was no gratitude toward God. There was no love for Christ. There was none of the help of God’s Spirit. People were trying to keep all the rules but felt miserable doing so because they weren’t taught to see the grace of God at the heart of the Christian life. He told them that if they changed their behaviour, God would bless them, but otherwise they couldn’t expect to experience His love. As a result, people were struggling to earn God’s acceptance, and God became to them an impossible dictator as a result. He had taught them, in essence, to gauge their holiness by their works and performance and “this meant that there was no better way to confirm their own righteousness than by finding greater faults in others.”
People could listen to his sermons and probably conclude that they were biblical and sound. The commands of the Bible were passionately taught, but he said that he was regularly “forcing people to question, “What action of mine will make me right with God?”” and as a result he was teaching them to become their own saviours. He came to see how wrong this was. “By encouraging people to look to themselves rather than to the cross for freedom from guilt and assurance of love, I was depriving them of hope. … What a cruel God I had painted for them. What a merciful God I had denied them by teaching them that God’s love was dependent on their goodness.”
Almost a dozen years ago now, I experienced a similar awakening to the grace of God. The change began as I learned to see the Bible, not so much as an instruction manual for how to live better, but as a revelation of the glory of God. Instead of reading the pages of Scripture, looking for morals to the stories like Aesop’s Fables, I began to see how God was the hero and focus of every story. Then I began to see how the Bible not only fit together, but ultimately all pointed to the grace of God in Jesus Christ as the ultimate solution to the human condition. It wasn’t that I started ignoring the commands and principles of Scripture. But now I saw the greatness of God inspiring me, the love of God motivating me, and the mercy of God sustaining me. The “have to” attitude began to be replaced by a “want to” mindset.
I regularly feel my inadequacy as a pastor. There are many things I can’t do. And there are many mistakes I’ve made. But if I can look back and say that I’ve tried to build a culture of grace, consistently helping people to see how Jesus is our only hope, I’ll be satisfied that I’ve been faithful to my calling.
Hebrews 13:9 describes it like this:
Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace
May your heart be strengthened by grace as you awake to all He has done for you in Christ!
In awe of Him,