Advocates of Amendment A have made grace a focal point of the debate and, in the process, jeopardized its vital meaning. Grace deserves a better shake than that, as does the PCUSA in the current debate. Grace, I believe, is preeminently “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (# 4). But to get there, I have to say what grace is not and engage the debate along the way (## 1-3).
1. Grace is not cheap. Cheap grace, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Works righteousness is cheap grace because, if we can do the good works to make ourselves righteous, we don’t need God to bestow grace on us. We can do it for ourselves. Doctrine can be cheap grace, too, according to Bonhoeffer, even the vaunted Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. For if we can simply subscribe to the doctrine of grace or reduce faith to a matter of our own choosing, we don’t need God to be actually gracious to us. We can do it for ourselves. The Gospel, too, can be cheap grace if we simply declare ourselves loved and forgiven by God. We don’t then need to draw close to the God who loves us or worry ourselves about what God has had to forgive. We can simply accept the new relationship for ourselves, move on, … and extend it to others with similar ease. Cheap grace, says Bonhoeffer, is a pale reflection of costly grace, which cost Jesus Christ—God with us—his life and, if we follow him, may cost us ours.
2. Grace is not a matter of God’s offer and our response. Offer-and-response is the default way many people understand grace today. The offer is salvation through Christ. The response is to accept the salvation offered, by our believing in Christ. The response may also include repenting before we believe or doing the good works of sanctification afterwards. The grace is typically in the offer, not in the response, but the response is as necessary as the offer for our salvation. To the contrary, however, I do not see how the sequence of offer and response can avoid works righteousness—cheap grace again. As a demand for response, grace loses its gift character and leaves the critical step of responding up to us while we are yet sinners. To avoid this dilemma, the response itself has to be part of the grace offered. Then both offer and response would be gifts from God, and not one before the other. For Calvin and the PCUSA confessions, faith itself is a gift, the work of the Holy Spirit personally and closely bringing us to union with Christ. United with Christ, says Calvin, we participate in Christ’s good works, not our own, and we participate above all in the close fellowship of God’s mercy which Christ accomplishes and we cannot.
3. Grace and law are not opposites. We reach here the heart of the current debate over Amendment A. Advocates argue that inclusiveness toward gays and lesbians is a matter of grace, not law. Their opponents, they say, prefer law-based qualifications for ordination instead of grace. The main case for Amendment A thus comes from keeping grace and law apart. To the contrary, the Bible treats God’s covenant with the Hebrews—notably the Ten Commandments—as the mark of God’s electing grace for a chosen people. For both the OT and the NT the problem of the law is not legalism but idolatry. When we fail to keep the law, we put other gods before the one true God. When we pursue works righteousness, we put the law itself in the place of God. Sinful humans, it seems, constantly turn the law into fresh avenues of cheap grace. On the other hand, Calvin’s “3rd use of the law” and Barth’s “command of God” point to the Christ who fulfills the law and the God who keeps the law God also established—utterly. In Christ the law loses its accusing, demanding character. Christ restores the law to its original purpose, to delineate the space where God and God’s people meet and live together, where God will be our God and we will be God’s people. There by grace, we glorify and enjoy God concretely, together, and forever. With this space in mind, James speaks of the “perfect law of liberty,” and the Westminster Confession of Faith sees the law as part and parcel of the covenant of grace. Is it irony, then, error, or lack of memory, when Amendment A advocates (a) separate grace and law, (b) identify grace with the demand for inclusiveness (a new law?), and (c) advance their cause by seeking to pass an enforceable rule in the PCUSA Book of Order? Amendment A has no special hold on grace.
4. Grace is bound up with Jesus Christ for both Scripture and the Reformed tradition. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” keeps us centered on the One who creates, unites, and holds us together as a community in his name. Our unity in Christ supersedes all difficulties, differences, or diversity among us. Inclusiveness, on the other hand, remains mired in the 18th Century, Pietistic question, Is everyone saved or just the ones for whom Christ died—universalism vs. limited atonement? Note well: Neither answer is correct if it circumscribes God’s grace, attempts to trade on grace, or denies that the Gospel is good news for all. Yet all that is precisely what the accent on inclusiveness does. It demands that God be inclusive, which binds God. It demands that the Church be inclusive at the outer rim of the Church, trading on a non-specific, limitless grace. It demands a humanly generated, uniform feeling of openness and corresponding relationships, while magnifying our differences (grace vs. law) and excluding any opposition when it can. To the contrary, for Scripture and the Reformed tradition, grace means that God does the saving, in Christ, through faith, in every aspect a gift from God. And life in Christ—by grace—is an end in itself, nurtured in the community Christ draws to himself, yet serving God’s purposes for all humanity under the Lordship of Christ. The Christian has no higher calling in life than to live and to die in covenant fellowship with God.
From Scripture and our confessions, God has given Presbyterians a clear message of the good news of life in Christ—by grace alone. Precisely at the point of grace, Amendment A misrepresents that message and should be defeated until we can find a better solution to resolve our differences. Whereas Amendment A attempts a solution from the rim, i.e., from a humanly generated, uniformity of feeling or relationship, an authentic solution will arise only from the center, namely, our unity in Jesus Christ. [See “The Debate Over Ordination: Where Has It Been? Where Is It Going?” Link to essay at Outlook website.]
Presbyterians have always thrived when they hear and speak the message of God’s grace. We know and enjoy the freedom we find in Jesus Christ by grace alone. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” is no cheap grace nor does it discard the particulars of God’s covenant with us. The vision—and the message of grace—may be best thing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has to offer the 21st century. God grant us the grace to hear it yet again.
Merwyn Johnson is retired professor of theology at Erskine College and adjunct professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, N.C.
Copyright © 2011, by Merwyn S. Johnson.
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