It Didn’t Work for Me (Part 1)
For some years now, Christian leaders have been sounding the alarm about young people who grew up in the church but have abandoned Christianity. Regardless of the actual statistics, this is a real and distressing problem. It’s also complicated. Each person’s experience is unique, and a variety of factors are at work when someone walks away from the faith.
Whatever the case, we need to figure out the best way to minister to those who have moved or are moving in this direction. Of course, a listening ear and a compassionate spirit are always in order and can go a long way in helping others. But what theological truth should we share? What counsel should we give? For instance, how should we respond when someone tells us, “I tried Christianity, but it didn’t work for me”?
I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t want to oversimplify matters. But in a short series of posts I want to wrestle with this question and suggest some possible answers. Here I’ll consider one possibility: people may think Christianity didn’t “work” for them because they misunderstand what the grace of God means.
INCOMPLETE DESCRIPTIONS OF GRACE
Anyone who has spent time in a gospel-preaching church should be able to explain that grace is essentially a gift, the undeserved favor of God. Perhaps they could say more strongly that it is God’s favor despite the fact that we deserve his wrath. They may also be able to express how we come to receive this favor: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
These are all accurate statements, but they don’t indicate what it is that God’s grace gives us as a gift, what it is that he favors us with, what the riches are that Christ procured for us.
Perhaps most commonly, people would explain that God graces us with forgiveness of sin and justification. And they would be correct. See, for example, the use of the word grace (Greek charis) in Romans 3:24 and Ephesians 1:7. Though we deserve his everlasting punishment, the Lord has gifted believers with an unassailable standing of righteousness before him. “Grace, ’tis a charming sound” indeed!*
“Grace” probably also brings to mind broader ideas of divine blessing—God meeting our needs and generally helping us through life. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give (Greek charizomai) us all things?” (Rom 8:32). Yet even a statement like this needs explanation. “All things” isn’t a blank check for whatever we could possibly desire in life. In the context it refers to all things necessary to our eternal security and ultimate glorification (vv. 28-30). This example reflects the point that our understanding of God’s grace may be skewed and inappropriately self-oriented.
BROADENING THE DESCRIPTION
How else does the Bible describe God’s grace and what it gives us? Here are some passages on grace that may not immediately come to mind but that must shape our view of the subject:
- Romans 5:20–6:23—Grace rules us. Another way of saying this is that grace makes us slaves of righteous living instead of sinful living.
- Romans 12:6-8—Grace equips us with spiritual gifts so that we can serve the church.
- 1 Corinthians 15:10—Grace enables us to work hard for the cause of Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 8:1–9:15—Grace inspires and empowers us to sacrifice our resources to meet the needs of others.
- 2 Corinthians 12:8-10—Grace doesn’t necessarily take away our weaknesses and burdens. Instead it enables us to endure despite them.
- Ephesians 4:29—We receive God’s grace through the edifying speech of fellow believers.
- Titus 2:11-14—In the present, grace trains us to renounce sinful desires and live Godward lives that reflect his character, in response to his past and future grace.
How do these passages relate to someone who claims Christianity didn’t work for him? For one, did the individual think that God’s grace would decrease his earthly pressures and problems? Perhaps he anticipated that the Lord would remove his desire for sin, or at least minimize it to the extent that obedience would happen with hardly a struggle. Maybe he just wanted his relationship with God to feel more “organic”—or at least not so much like work. In extreme cases, a person might be expecting to feel a surge of almost magical divine energy.
APPLYING THE THEOLOGY
The biblical depiction of grace is more complex than this, and it pictures a grace that is often more subtle. Consider some concrete ways to get this across to the despairing:
- Were you ever convicted of sin and brought to repentance, renewal, and steps of obedience? That’s what the grace of God does for Christians.
- Did a fellow church member ever serve you practically, with the result that you were encouraged to hang in there during a difficult season or simply to keep following Christ for another week? That’s what the grace of God does for Christians.
- Did you yourself ever make a sacrifice in order to minister to someone? That’s what the grace of God does for Christians.
- Did you ever feel weak but were strengthened to carry on that day when you cried out to the Lord for help? That’s what the grace of God does for Christians.
- Did you ever find the gospel appealing, so much that it motivated you to do something hard for the glory of Christ? That’s what the grace of God does for Christians.
Believers can readily relate to such experiences. Our challenge, however, is that God typically dispenses the blessings of sanctifying, persevering grace in a gradual way, in the midst of a life that is filled with spiritual conflict and that includes some measure of difficulty and even defeat. Like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, however, we long for a sustained mountaintop.
That day will come, praise the Lord! But, to change and adapt the allusion, “It is not this day! This day we fight!”** This day we fight for holiness to characterize our lives more fully. We fight for more effective service to God and others. We fight for joy in Jesus Christ. And such fighting constitutes a large part of what the grace of God looks like and feels like in this age.
I’ll expand on these themes in later posts, but I’ll let Peter finish this one. The apostle looks back on his entire first letter, which is a stirring challenge to believers to persevere for Christ despite pressure and persecution from the world. And here’s how he sums it up:
I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it. (1 Pet 5:12)
“Exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God.” So grace involves imperatives as well as indicatives. “Stand firm in it.” So this multi-faceted divine grace is to be embraced as essential to New Testament Christianity.
*Philip Doddridge, “Grace, ‘Tis a Charming Sound”
**The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Photo credit: Nathan Cowley, pexels.com