The most well-known hymn in America, “Amazing Grace,” by the former slaveholder John Newton, contains a line that many people stumble over.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!

The hymn may be popular, but the sentiment is not. Few Americans consider themselves “wretches” of moral repugnance and debasement. We like to think of ourselves as basically good, with a few flaws; not fundamentally bad, with few virtues to save us.

Some Christians believe it would be good to remove unnecessary offense by downplaying human sinfulness, but such a move severs the root of what makes grace so powerful. It is precisely because we’re bad, not good, that God’s love in sending his Son to die for our sins is so significant.

The trouble is, grace is unimaginable in a world where everyone believes grace is deserved. And when grace is transformed into entitlement, the definitions change, for both those inside and outside the church.

New Definition of ‘Showing Grace’

In a culture that thrives on self-affirmation and self-determination, “showing grace” now means accepting someone else’s definition of their own righteousness. Our age of expressive individualism leads us to find meaning in the identities we’ve constructed for ourselves, and then to expect (no, demand!) that others affirm our self-construction and give us their blessing.

Welcoming vs. Affirming?

Apply this idea to sexuality, and it’s no wonder that churches now get asked if they are “welcoming and affirming,” meaning, Do you welcome LGBTQ people and affirm their sexuality?

Churches that hold to the historic teaching that sex is “a one-flesh union” within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman respond by splitting up that phrase. They say they welcome all people, but do not affirm sexual practices outside that union. The result is an updated way of saying “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

But LGBTQ advocates say it’s impossible to split up that phrase. Unless you affirm people’s sexual self-identification, you cannot truly welcome them because, by default, you have denied their dignity as individuals. So, caught in the trap between “welcoming and affirming,” many Christians are content to be neither, and an unwelcoming posture becomes a mark of “faithfulness” to the truth.

The Dilemma

What is the crux of the problem here? It’s the expectation that the church would be in the business of affirming anyone at all.

The Bible teaches that God’s righteousness cuts us all down to size. If a church were to close its doors to sinners, it would be empty. And if a church were to empty itself of only some kinds of sinners, it would soon be full only of self-righteousness. Better then for the church to close its doors entirely.

But the remedy for self-righteousness is not to make “showing grace” the acceptance of someone else’s self-definition. After all, God showed grace to us by rejecting our own view of our innate goodness. Repentance includes agreeing with God regarding our sinful state, which means we accept his definition of ourselves.

Welcome All, Affirm None

Where does this leave the church? We welcome everyone and affirm no one.

That’s right. We don’t even affirm ourselves. The last thing we need is a club of self-righteous people who pat themselves on the back for meeting their own standards of righteousness. We don’t affirm anyone for being straight, gay, or any other label that may be popular in an age of individualism. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and this “falling short” happens in thousands of ways.

Self-affirmation is the gospel of the American culture; we are idolaters when we make it the gospel of the Christian church. The church exists not to affirm ourselves, but to adore the King who loved us and gave himself for us when there was nothing good in us to affirm. The more we affirm ourselves, the less we adore the King for his grace.

It is a mark of a Pharisee to want the church to affirm us as we are, and whether Pharisaical religion infects us through legalism or license, through “respectable, churchy sins” or sexual immorality, it still kills. We cannot cordon off areas of our life and demand that God respect our individuality, whether in regards to sexual behavior, or how we spend our money, or how we engage others, or how we forgive.

God of Welcoming Love

It is because God loves us that he welcomes us. It is because God loves us that he refuses to affirm us in our sins. Because he longs for us to find joy in him, he will ruthlessly oppose self-righteous self-definitions, whether our pride shows up in a Sunday school roll or a city parade.

The cross levels us all, but in that dirt of our despair comes deliverance. The Father runs to the prodigal. He entreats the older brother to come inside. He doesn’t affirm the prodigal in the pigsty or the older brother in his pasture of pomposity, but he does open his arms to both his sons. And that’s why, just like our Father, the church should welcome everyone and affirm no one.