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What Grace Isn’t

I consider myself a “grace boy.” That is, in all the debates that have been ongoing in Presbyterian and Reformed circles over sanctification over the past few years, I side with those who emphasize the indicative (who we are by virtue of our union with Christ) fueling the imperative (what we are to do, empowered by such grace). Our church’s tagline is “grace transforms”; when I had a chance to preach at General Assembly in 2012, I preached on “grace transforming everything”; when I had a chance to write about the heartbeat of my ministry for Tabletalk, I chose the same theme; I’ve even written a booklet called “What Is Grace?”

So, I think my bona fides are pretty good when it comes to the importance of grace for sanctification. However, I always have a concern that people misunderstand how grace actually works out when you face messy, difficult or challenging situations.

I’ll never forget being in a meeting with Bryan Chapell and many others. The topic was how grace works out in an organization, and Bryan was asked directly about poorly performing employees and how grace relates to them. After noting that a grace-centered organization would work first to try to help the employee—whether through offering skills assistance, or mentoring, or even a new position within the organization—he then said something like this, “But it is not gracious to the employee or to the organization to keep them if they will not improve their performance.” I’ve thought a lot about that through the years, both in trying to lead institutions and congregations. There are times when grace isn’t grace when it tolerates poor performance in the workplace or sinful behavior in the congregation.

Especially when it comes to churches, there is a misconception about all of this. We think that grace means that we become allergic to imperatives, that discipline is legalistic, that there should be no consequences for the forgiven. But biblically speaking, none of that is true. Because we are united to Christ, we are transformed to live differently in obedience to Christ’s commands, responding to Christ’s grace. Because we sometimes fail, God in his grace uses discipline to bring about our repentance. And sometimes, God’s grace means that the pathway to repentance and forgiveness involves painful consequences.

And so, it is necessary for those of us who love grace and who see ourselves as “grace boys” to try to make careful distinctions in order to protect the grace of Jesus that we love and preach. We need to say that it isn’t grace not to hold one another accountable and to seek thorough-going repentance. Failing to hold each other accountable is not grace; it’s lazy self-protection. We don’t want to get involved; we want someone else to handle it. Or we will be involved in the beginning, but we don’t want to do the hard work of every-other-week meetings for a year to seek another man’s repentance. But it is actually gracious to the individual and to the church to seek repentance and to hold each other accountable.

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Sean Michael Lucas serves as the eighth senior minister in the history of First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Born in Stratford, New Jersey, Sean moved up and down the eastern seaboard as a child. He graduated from Bob Jones University (BA, 1993; MA, 1994) and Westminster Theological Seminary (PhD, 2002). He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 2003 and served on the staffs of two churches, Community Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA), St. Louis, Missouri. He, his wife Sara, and their four children came to FPC in 2009.