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When Grace Hurts the Church

I didn’t always believe the doctrines of grace. As a college student I argued vehemently against the notion that God takes the initiative in our salvation. It stank of totalitarianism to me. It seemed, well, un-American.

My viewpoint eventually changed, and I can still remember the moment I understood God to be absolutely sovereign in redemption. I was walking to work while reading a book of sermons in the Gospel of John. (I’m not sure how I did this without tripping over the curb and running into oncoming traffic.) After pouring over the chapter on Jesus’s response to Nicodemus in John 3, everything clicked: without the Spirit of God, I’d be spiritually blind; without the new birth, I’d be spiritually dead. The jaw of my heart fell out of my chest and crashed onto the sidewalk. I didn’t know Calvin from Coolidge, but for the first time I grasped what it meant to be saved to the praise of his glorious grace (Eph. 1:3–14).

Years later, I’d be labeled “young, restless, Reformed.”

Sadly, I’m not so young anymore. I pastor a church that increasingly embraces the truth of God’s sovereign grace. Most members I serve would have a hard time defining what it means to be Reformed, but they love God, love the gospel, and long to see their unbelieving friends saved. They witness, pray, and humble me with their zeal for the Lord.

Churches Are Not Monolithic 

But the people in my church aren’t monolithic in their view of the doctrines of grace. Our statement of faith doesn’t require allegiance to all the “five points.” Some come, in part, because they love talking about God’s sovereignty. Others simply love the fact that the Word is valued, and the people are friendly. Still others are unsettled by the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility; they affirm both, but struggle.

I’ve witnessed conflict when those who heartily embrace divine sovereignty encounter those who wrestle with it. This may take the form of a brother wondering if an emphasis on grace has robbed us of evangelistic fervor. Sometimes it looks like a sister crying because someone criticized her old church for being too “man-centered.”

Have you seen similar dynamics in your church? If so, it’s helpful to remember that when it comes to God’s sovereignty in salvation, most of us fit into one of three categories:

1. The Natives

Natives grew up steeped in conversations about sovereign grace. When their Sunday school teacher asked them why God allows suffering in the world, they answered, “For his glory!” Natives are more comfortable listening to The Briefing or Ask Pastor John than NPR. Some natives assume the doctrine of divine sovereignty much the way they accept the doctrines of the Trinity and sanctification; it’s simply what the Bible teaches. Natives have a hard time understanding why people struggle with election or predestination. My kids are natives to divine sovereignty. It’s been part of the warp and woof of their lives since birth.

2. The Converts

Converts remember the day they came to understand the doctrines of grace (see above!). They can speak of that moment almost like a second conversion. They regret how they once gave themselves some credit for their salvation. Converts may even feel bitterness toward previous churches or pastors who hid from Romans 9 and Ephesians 2 the way a mouse hides from a lion and tiger. Converts are skeptical of church programs and marketing and anything that seems like it could appeal to the flesh. They worry a focus on human responsibility will eclipse the precious truth of God’s sovereignty. They lament the shallow theology of so many churches and don’t hesitate to end emails with a sola Deo gloria tagline.

3. The Novices

Novices are new to the idea of God’s sovereignty in salvation, and they worry it leads to a fatalistic view of the Christian life. They wonder if embracing divine initiative will cause them to take their foot off the gas pedal of Christian obedience. They’ve been told the doctrines of grace stifle evangelism and good works. They struggle to grasp how churches that did so much good for them could have neglected something so important as sovereign grace. In congregations full of natives and converts, novices can feel like second-class citizens. They need help working through the implications of God’s sovereignty, but they rarely ask for it, fearful they’ll appear out-of-step with their family of faith.

Humble Encouragement 

Does any of this sound familiar? Have you seen conflict in your church arise as these three groups strive to serve King Jesus together? If so, what’s the way forward? How can our churches be places where sound theology is cherished yet where there’s freedom to wrestle with Scripture? How can we rejoice in the doctrines of grace without frustrating our brothers and sisters who have serious concerns?

Perhaps the place to start is to identify if you’re a native, a convert, or a novice. Once you’ve done that, please take the following words as a humble encouragement to see our churches grow together in unity, grace, and godliness.

  • To the natives: Be thankful God opened your eyes long ago to the depth of his love for you. Never take good teaching for granted. God providentially placed you in a family or church that taught the whole counsel of God, gripped even the difficult doctrines, and believed a sound life depended on sound doctrine. What a blessing! However, it’s easy to take such a background for granted. Some natives grow up assuming the doctrines of grace without ever studying for themselves. If that’s you, it’s probably time to return to the Word and make sure you see divine sovereignty in the text and not simply in your favorite author.
  • To the converts: Be careful, gentle, and patient with those around you. Recognize not everyone finds the waters of divine sovereignty so warm and refreshing as you do. The novices in your church can feel like they’re drowning in an ocean of theology deeper than they ever imagined. You might help them by explaining where you once struggled with these truths, too. Not only that, be gracious when speaking about other churches or leaders who embrace the gospel even if not as robustly as they should.
  • To the novices: Be open to teachings of the Bible with which you might be uncomfortable. Let Scripture shape you. Remember that even the hard doctrines are for your good. Show compassion for the converts in your midst. Try to appreciate that God used the doctrine of his sovereignty to give them a joy in the Lord they’d never known before. Consider there are far worse things than to be than zealous for God’s Word.

Call for Patient Love

I suppose at this stage in my life I’m somewhere between a convert and a native. Though I grew up in a non-Christian home, and though the first few years of my Christian life were spent in a church with thin teaching, I’ve affirmed the doctrines of grace for many years now. I can say the words of Joseph Hart are sweeter to me now then they’ve ever been:

Let not conscience make you linger,

Nor of fitness fondly dream;

All the fitness he requireth

Is to feel your need of him.

I long for the members of the church I serve to feel their need for Christ, too. I want them to understand that no work on their part—no decision, no prayer, no walk down the aisle—was the decisive factor in their salvation. God did it, and he did it all! I’m convinced their Christian life will be richer, deeper, and healthier when they grasp that God gets 100 percent of the credit for their salvation.

And yet I still remember, in college and beyond, questioning, doubting, and even being angry at the thought that God chose me simply because he loved me. It bothered me that he didn’t choose everyone. As a young Christian my problems with God’s ultimate sovereignty in salvation were ill-founded, but they were real and needed to be addressed patiently and with love.

Whether you’re a native, a novice, or a convert, I pray you’ll remember there are others around you—even in your own church—who would be helped not only by your love, but by your understanding and sympathy.

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