[T]hey gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you — see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.
– 2 Corinthians 8:5-8
Film director Mike Nichols talks in a recent interview about fleeing Nazi Germany as a child. German Jews were not allowed to leave the country, but Nichols’s family had Russian papers so they exploited the loophole. His father, a doctor, had gone ahead and begun a medical practice in New York City. When the rest of the family arrived, Nichols says he was struck by the Jewish businesses proliferating. He was surprised to see a sign for a delicatessen, in Hebrew. “They can do that here?” he remembers asking his dad.
When people come into our churches with no church background or, like so many, with a painful church background, they are typically on guard. Their teeth are clenched, their eyes are scanning, their breath is held — perhaps not physically, but in their psyche. They are taking much more in than just the musical style and the sermon’s listenability. Those things matter a lot, but they aren’t usually dealbreakers.
I remind myself and my church often that a message of grace may attract people, but a culture of grace will keep them. They want to know — we want to know, the Lord wants to know — that what is being preached has sunk down through the hardness of our skulls and entered the bloodstream. That we are not puffed up with our spiritual knowledge but humbled by it and animated by it. Have we taken the message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ and taken it to heart?
And when they catch glimpses, the surprise is telling. Is it too good to be true? As more people testify to the kindness of God in their lives, drop the pretense of righteousness by moral turpitude, as sins are confessed and greeted with love, as pastors and laymen alike humble themselves and serve and exemplify with their hands and eyes what they preach with their mouths, the aroma of freedom wafts through the place. Messy people own their stuff. “They can do that here?” Sinners repent into the safety of the gospel. “They can do that here?” People have the freedom to question leaders, disagree with the pastor, hold opposing views with each other without distrust or rancor. “They can do that here?”
A culture of grace oxygenates the air. Watch people stand a little taller, breathe more deeply, feel free to be more themselves. My friend Ray Ortlund says, “I’ve never met a man who felt too forgiven, too free.” Grace is that kind of welcome. It’s the run-to-the-prodigal-while-he’s-still-far-off kind of welcome. It’s “The Inhabitants of Highways and Hedges are Welcome” kind of welcome. It’s the “come to Me, all you who are tired and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” kind of welcome. It’s the space to be broken kind of welcome. It’s the “we love you as you are, but we love you too much to want you to stay there” kind of welcome.
This scares people who believe God has delegated his sovereignty to them. But it honors the gospel of Jesus, in whom there is no condemnation and through whom we are being built together — as we welcome each other — as a place of welcome for the Spirit of the living God. In the kingdom to which the church is meant to bear witness, people flourish and become at the same time more like their real selves and more like Jesus Christ. Paul in the passage above is urging generosity in giving; let this be but one application of the generosity of grace.