Saying Yes and Saying No

by Ed Mackenzie.

‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age…’ (Titus 2:11-12 NIV)

How does the ‘yes’ of the gospel – the good news that God’s grace has appeared bringing salvation – relate to the ‘no’ it invites to the ‘ungodliness’ of the old life?

It’s easy, I think, to lean to one side or the other.

Perhaps in previous generations, or at least as we imagine it, the emphasis tended to be on the ‘no’, the turning away from ways of life that the gospel excluded. And while this is an important part of the response to the gospel, sometimes this led to an unhealthy inflation of what ‘worldly passions’ involved, ranging from styles of clothing to exuberant dance to particular styles of music. Even worse, at times an appropriate response to the gospel was merged with the gospel announcement itself, and a kind of ‘salvation by godliness’ replaced ‘salvation by grace’.

In more recent generations, the emphasis has perhaps tilted towards the ‘yes’, the wonderful truth that God’s love comes to us in Jesus. And while the church does indeed live by this truth, at times we have muted the call to discipleship that follows. In our rush to be welcoming and inclusive, it’s possible to tone down the cost of living for Jesus, promoting what Bonhoeffer described as ‘cheap grace’, ‘grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.’[i]

As the reading from Titus shows, the good news of God’s work in Jesus involves both a yes and a no. The ‘yes’ is that wonderful announcement that God is for us in Jesus, that God offers salvation to all people, that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.

But the grace of God also involves a ‘no’ to those ways of life we pursue apart from God. The grace of God ‘teaches’ us and ‘transforms’ us. It does not leave us as we are but shapes us to live like Jesus. Being a Christian involves submission to a divine pedagogy, an education that transforms us inside and out.

An ongoing challenge for the church is to hold together the yes and the no in a way that’s faithful to scripture and fruitful for discipleship and mission.  How might we do this?

Firstly, we can begin by ensuring that we teach and talk of the grace of God as a ‘transforming grace.’ Grace takes us as we are but does not leave us there; it aims to transform us by the Spirit. Happily, there is plenty in Scripture that offers ways of describing this, whether in the imagery of new birth (John 3:5-8), being ‘clothed’ with Jesus (Rom 13:14) or becoming ‘citizens of heaven’ (Phil 3:20). The Sacraments of the Church – Baptism and Communion – offer powerful moments when we can describe the transforming grace that these images signal.

Secondly, in evangelism we can talk about the cost of faith as well as the gift of faith.  Jesus spoke about the cost of following him constantly – not least in his strong words about taking up the cross (Matt 16:24-26) – and that too is part of the message we proclaim. In a context where people know less about our faith, it’s important that we sketch out the shape of life to which God calls us. To become a Christian is to become the servant of a new Lord, the citizen of a kingdom that opposes the ways of this world.

Thirdly, we can depict discipleship as an ongoing journey to deepen our ‘yes’ to God and ‘no’ to ungodliness. The Christian life is not a gentle stroll through fields of delight but a battle that involves intention and effort. But as Paul pointed out, it’s in our struggle that the Spirit works and moves (Phil 2:12-13; Col 1:29). One of the treasures of the Methodist tradition is the attention it pays to this process, whether in its call to ‘scriptural holiness,’ its stress on the means of grace, or its emphasis on accountability in community. Drawing on these and other treasures, churches can find ways to help young and old grow in faith, and so say an ever louder ‘yes’ to the God of grace.

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press, 1959), p. 4.

3 thoughts on “Saying Yes and Saying No”

  1. YES! YES!! YES!!!
    A transforming grace, the cost of faith as well as the gift of faith, an ongoing journey which brings us closer to God. Thank you, Ed, for such a meaningful piece, written in layman’s language, which anyone without a degree in theology can understand. Beautiful. A great start to the week. God bless you.


  2. Thanks Ed for a timely post having spent the weekend giving or listening to reflections on the reading about the cost of discipleship and taking up our cross. I echo the comment that many of the posts on here require a certain amount of theological study, but yours is in language that is clear, thoughtful but still challenging. Blessings


  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the practical expression of faith in this article, but I have issues with the motivation, which means issues with the way we use the word grace. When Bonhoeffer described ‘cheap grace’ as ‘grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate’ he was obviously talking about the way we respond to God’s grace and not of the way we experience the Grace of God. The reason I say this is that grace means a gift and as such is an absolute reality – so cheap grace is meaningless. As with love, forgiveness, courage and hope it is an all or nothing matter: We cannot be half forgiven or half loved or be half courageous or have half hope or give someone half a gift.
    For me the Grace of God is absolutely inclusive and non-judgmental. It means finding forgiveness for past mistakes, courage to face the demand of the day and hope for the future (and we certainly need that these days!). This is what God’s love means and these priceless gifts are given to all human beings irrespective of whatever faith they have or don’t have.
    It is only in church that we can consistently hear of this wonderful love and having heard I renew my commitment, and am motivated, to pass on this love to others. I am not motivated by words such as judgment, sinners, redemption, salvation or holiness. Perhaps the people who left the church in droves over the last 50 years felt the same?
    I should add that Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes – his idea of religionless Christianity is brilliant!

    Liked by 1 person

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