Why do calls for Christians to unconditionally love people scare us to death? When you see a church sign that says, “All people welcomed in love” does it concern you that they may have “become comfortable with the world”? When someone posts on Facebook that Christians should be careful to show grace not judgement, there always seems to be “that guy” who feels compelled to share an imprecatory Psalm, or quote Jesus out of context as he uses strong language to chastise religious leaders. Ironic.
It seems to make some Christians nervous to talk about grace and love. As a Christian, I struggle at times with the same inner thoughts. You may be feeling that same stuggle right now as you read this. You have the urge to add a caveat to the call to love. “But what about sin!” I completely agree that we ought to preach against sin. Sin, and the idolatry of self is at the heart of what separates us from God. We cannot be true to God and His Word without standing up against the things that separate people from Him, and calling people to holiness. My caution however, is that we ought to be doing so out of convictional kindness, not fear or prejudice.
The truth is that God’s love is beyond us. His mercy and grace come from a divine nature that our fallen nature is opposed to. Discipleship is about casting off that fallen nature and embracing the divine. It stretches us and challenges us to become more like God. Discipleship involves embracing God’s standards for love and moving beyond our old prejudices. What is more, the process of sanctification involves struggling with worldly notions of fairness, our fear, and paranoia. Here are three categories that we must strive to overcome as we try to love like Jesus, without getting too nervous about it.
Category 1: There are individuals in our churches who have let a worldly notion of fairness contaminate their view of love and grace. For those in this category, it seems offensive to offer the extraordinary grace of God to unrepentant sinners. It is a struggle to get the words out. “They haven’t shown that they deserve it. They don’t even want it!” the cry goes. In one way it does seem outrageous to offer God’s unconditional love to those who are in full rebellion against Him. But that is not the way of the Kingdom. God’s love IS outrageous, and it is NOT fair; not by this world’s standards anyway. Jesus loves according to a Kingdom standard that is completely foreign to this world, and that is a reality which we simply need to come to terms with. God is God and he is sovereign. It is His heaven and he will welcome into it those He sees fit. He need not have our approval. Matthew 16 records a relevant lesson from The Parable of the Workers. A man who owns a vineyard hires workers for an agreeable wage throughout the day. At the end of the work day, each worker receives the wage for which they were hired. Those who worked all day are outraged when they find that the ones hired late in the day receive the same rate of pay as they do. They begin to grumble against the owner. (12) “These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” At this, the owner of the vineyard replies, “(13)… ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
How quickly we begin to feel entitled to this divine love, which we no more deserve than the ones from whom we begrudge it. We must not be threatened by the generous grace of Jesus. We must not begrudge it, or withhold the promise of it to those who we deem not worthy. If God treated us fairly in the way we understand “fairness”, we ourselves would be doomed. Those who dwell in the shadow of the cross live in constant awareness of their own desperate need for grace. When we stray from the cross we get judgmental.
Category 2: Then there are those in our churches who are obsessed with the slippery slope. This is a tricky one, because there are slippery slopes which should be avoided. The road to compromise is real, and we must guard against it. We must encourage and challenge each other to stay true to the Word of God. Jesus displayed for us the perfect example of loving those who were lost while calling them out of their sin. This is no easy example to follow. Too often Christian groups stray from the example of convictional kindness, and fully embrace the sin along with the sinner. It’s hard relational work to care for a person who finds their identity in a sinful lifestyle that openly rebels against the Creator. But that is our task. The gospel calls people to find their identity in Christ and his sacrificial love for us. It speaks not only to our fallen condition, but more profoundly to our worth in the eyes of God. And the truth of our worth in God’s eyes is a testimony to His generous love, not any achievement on our part. When we yield our hearts fully to Christ, his agape love becomes the norm for how we behave. Agape love is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love that flows from a grateful heart, which has been transformed by Christ. Caution against the slippery slope is warranted and appropriate when observed with faith and courage.
On the other hand, we can respond inappropriately with fear to the threat of the slippery slope. We fear that we will not be able to maintain that balance of convictional kindness. We fear that we will wake up one day and be over-run by the world. We fear that if we get too close with sinners that our neat and tidy Christian lives will become tainted. In response to this fear we become closed off and harsh. We become obsessed with rules and standards of dress and behavior that are the constructs of men, not God. Instead of caring for the heart of the broken, we safeguard ourselves against their brokenness, and in so doing we faithlessly abandon God’s missionary call on our lives. Paranoia is not a trait of victorious life in Christ.
Category 3: Finally there are those who are not confident in the power of the Holy Spirit alone to convict. They cannot comfortably separate “grace teachings” from “warnings of wrath and judgement”. They feel somehow that it is selling Jesus and the gospel short if “God loves you” is not followed with “and you will split hell wide open if you don’t turn from your sin”. These are the churches that put slogans on their signs during the summer such as, “You think it’s hot here?”. There is a certain inappropriate and disturbing glee to this sort of hellish threat that is unbecoming a follower of Christ. Warnings of wrath and judgement are a part of gospel teaching, to be sure. They are not, however, the central theme of gospel teaching. The theme of gospel teaching is love and grace. Jesus did not hurl condemnations at the thieves between whom he was crucified, though they were quite guilty. He offered grace that was free, but not cheap. When our Lord offered stern words to the religious leaders of the day, and called out sin for what it is, the scriptures tell us that he was motivated by compassion and a broken heart. A heart broken over the lostness of the world is not amused by clever threats of judgement. The proper context of “judgement warnings” is through sincere pleas in the pulpit, or a compassionate personal relationship. Yes, Jesus threw over the tables in the temple and drove out the money changers. He did so out of righteous indignation towards a religious system that was taking advantage of people. Following this example means holding those who call themselves Christians accountable to show grace and mercy to the masses, and not abuse them. We must not appeal to Jesus if we take his example out of biblical context.
The reality of our human condition is that apart from salvation we are doomed to eternal death and separation from God. Without the reality of deserved punishment, grace has no meaning. We must however have confidence in the Holy Spirit to convict sin, and not attempt to force conviction ourselves out of a lack of faith.
A high view of God would inspire confidence in His grace to convict as well as comfort. When sinners experience the loving call of God’s salvation, the first response of a grateful heart is humble repentance and worship. We are not called to shame, threaten, or argue people into the Kingdom. We love, and God convicts. Let me be clear, we should preach the whole counsel of God’s Word. We should preach God’s call for sinners to repent. When the scriptures name a sin, we should faithfully and publicly oppose such behaviors. We must not compromise, and we must remain true to God’s standards. But as 1 Corinthians 13 guides us, if we want our service to matter, we must do so in the context of love. “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
In all likelihood, the challenge of living out convictional kindness is the defining issue of our generation in the church. I believe that there is equal danger of the church becoming cold and closed off to the world, as well as infiltrated by it. We must guard against both. We must do so out of confidence in Christ and not misguided or worldly motivations. The best part is that we have a perfect example to follow, Jesus Christ.