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.