Preaching is Dangerous: Two good people (at least) left my church because of my last sermon

Image result for traveling with suitcasesTwo good people.  They were regulars, for years.  But one sermon sent them packing.  What happened?  I decided to be direct, to take on a poorly supported, terribly exegeted, yet popular view among many Christians.  I rejected it and suggested it was a dangerous view.  They didn’t like that, so they left.

Of course, I could put all the blame on them.  I could argue that it is pretty sad if people assume that every week when they go to church that the preacher’s job is to simply corroborate their theological stances and that they are to leave unchanged, but somehow blessed week after week.  I could argue that perhaps most church attenders (if not all) are looking for a place that simply confirms the way they already think and act, while allowing a very small space for very minor shifts.  I could argue that our sanctuaries have lost their edge and no one expects an encounter with God to really mess with their idols.

I could also put the blame on myself.  It wasn’t a great sermon.  I could confess that my critique of that beloved viewpoint was not communicated with charity or grace, but rather was dismissive and critical.  I could have admitted that I too held that view at one time but that as I carefully examined the evidence and looked at church history I had to leave it behind.  I could have given them some space to hold to a divergent view.  I could have recognized that some people, some good people, in my congregation probably still held that view.  I could have spoken as if I was speaking to a friend across the table, rather than acting as I might on Facebook ranting about a view in the abstract.

So what does this say about “prophetic” preaching?  I believe most genuine preachers want to be prophetic – they want to trust the Holy Spirit to use their sermon to speak into the lies and half-truths that infect people’s lives and inhabit our culture and even or especially our Christian culture.  If that is the case, how do we do that well?

Well, from the congregation’s standpoint, perhaps we need to warn them a bit more.  Perhaps we need to directly alert them to the fact that the word of God may not affirm their beliefs, even the beliefs that they believe are Biblical.  Perhaps we need to remind them that each one of us is a fashioner of idols.  If they forget that, and enter our churches to hear our messages and find those beloved idols being challenged, they will be shocked, and angry, and lash out.

From the preacher’s standpoint, I see a double call: we need to aim to be a centered church while also holding to the rule of charity.

A centered church: A centered church puts Christ at the center and aims for him in all things.  A centered church does not fixate on boundaries and does not love to declare who is in and who is out by whatever standard of measure.  A centered church preaches the gospel, a gospel center towards which all people can move, while a boundary oriented church cuts people out and declares there is no place for them.

A charitable church: Church is not meant to be a place where all people agree on all things.  Do we allow space for people to hold some unorthodox ideas?  (Can I admit that some of my own views are not spot on?) Can we have grace and tolerance toward people’s pet views and theological upbringings?  In other words, will we love people in their shoddy-theological states and point them toward Jesus or will be rip on their views and tell them they have no place at the table of Christ if that is how they think?

I believe last week I failed on my part.  I wrote a personal apology to one of the people for my failure – my failure in charity and in being properly centered.  I don’t know if it will make any difference to that person, but it will make a difference to me going forward.  Perhaps those who left our church also failed their own test.  But until I learn how to deal with the log in my eye, I have no right to a holier than thou attitude toward those who choose to pick up their idols and leave.

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How did Grace become a pharmaceutical?

My heart and mind are bursting Image result for inklingswith enthusiasm today after having two separate sessions with two different groups discussing my book on Grace and its implications for life and ministry.  My purpose with these groups is to prove the truthfulness of what Eugene Peterson said to me once, “All theology is experience-able.”  This should particularly be the case when dealing with a subject so relevant as Grace, and even more so when intrinsic in the definition of Grace is our participation in the life, love, and activity of God.  Today was
proof of the relevance and I look forward to how this will continue to unfold.

My intention is to blog through the book as these conversations in community continue.  This will enable others to join in the conversation.

The introduction provides a very brief background to T.F. Torrance, a rationale for a book on his concept of Grace, commentary on T.F.’s reception by the academy and the church, a note on his writing style, and a statement on the methodology and approach which I am taking in the book.  The purpose and goal of the book is to translate and exposit Torrance’s theology through the lens of Grace.  It, in effect, is a relentless pursuit of what I believe is the core of his thinking and theology, and not only that, the core of the gospel revealed in Christ send by the Father in the power of the Spirit.

The “meat” of the introduction is found in the section titled, “Background to Torrance’s Theology of Grace.”  This section brings to light the versions of Grace that Torrance understands himself to be combating.

Rather than going point by point through the material (you can buy and read the book if you want that), I’m going to drop in at a couple places along the way and do a combination of riffing on what Torrance is staying about Grace, and reflecting on the conversations I’ve been having with those who are on the front end of engaging with these ideas.

So….

What if we have misunderstood Grace?  What if, even in the Reformation, we have reduced it to something we can understand, manage, and control?  Torrance argues that our continual default is to naturalize grace by detaching it from the person and work of Christ.  Once Grace is detached from the person of Christ, it gets reduced to something instrumental, controllable, and impersonal.  In short, we turn it into a pharmaceutical (my term).  We turn it into a pharmaceutical when we treat grace like a supplemental add-on to the Christian life.  We say things and hear things said like, “…with the help of God’s grace…” you can do this or that.  Grace becomes our energy pill.  As a pharmaceutical, the Church and religious activities become the means by whiRelated imagech grace is dispensed.  We expect that by going to church, reading our bibles, fasting, praying, serving, etc…that we will “get” grace from that experience.

Forget the Catholics whom many Protestants so love to critique, let’s just look at how this plays out in the Protestant world.  Here’s a quote from page xxvi in the book:

  • “…the same errors and problems which plagued the Church before the Reformation reemerged afterwards; indeed Protestantism has shown an uncanny ability to replicate its own counterpart to nearly every flawed version of Grace which it opposes in Romanism. Torrance targets three particular snares which tend to besiege Protestantism: tendencies towards pietistic subjectivism, impersonal determinism and abstract extrinsicism.”

Pietistic subjectivism: Here we naturalize grace by melding it with common grace.  There is a mutuality between God and us and as we do our part and God does his part, progress is made.  We essential treat grace as something ‘infused’ into us, so we “grow in sanctification” and we “grow in grace” which is another way of saying, we get more of this thing, like muscle mass.  Now grace has become ours, because we’ve worked hard at it, we’ve trained for it.  Now it is “natural” to us when prior to our hard work it was not “natural” to us.

Impersonal determinism: Whereas pietistic subjectivism focuses on grace inside of us, impersonal determinism views it from the outside.  Here grace is treated as an impersonal force.  This is evident in both the theological position of limited atonement and also that of universalism.  Each in their own way imposes a deterministic framework upon God’s relation to humans, the former by limiting God’s gift of salvation to a pre-selected group, the later by forcing God’s gift of salvation upon everyone regardless of their own wills.

Abstract extrinsicism: Here grace is reduced to and controlled by legal categories.  This is grace on paper, where like an electronic bank transfer, grace is “imputed” to us, but that imputation takes place in ether world of “the cloud” and as such is abstract, distant, and external to us.  Grace in this form does not transform the person.  It bypasses the person, leaving them in the mire of their sin on an experiential level.  Cognitively, we know we are free and forgiven, but experientially we are still left on our own to fend for ourselves – until we die.

In one way or another each of these versions of grace convert “it” into a thing, “thingifying” grace into an instrument or pill that helps us live the Christian life.

Pick up any book on grace today and the assumed premise will be that grace exists as a fix for a problem.  How did we get here?  In short, we have not listened to Athanasius who sought to teach us that the incarnation did not take place because humans are bad, but because God is good.  We have reduced God’s gift of himself to a fix for a problem (humans are bad, sin must be forgiven), rather than recognizing it as God’s gift of himself so that we might participate in his life. (more on this next time)

I think this is where T.F. Torrance can become our best friend in leading us out of the quagmire of moralism, impersonalism, and extrinsicism that contaminates our gospel.  And finally, I’d like to think that my book could be particularly helpful there.  Here is the thesis as stated on p. xxviii:

  • “It is the argument of this book that this self-giving-for-participation movement of triune Grace functions as the presuppositional and allencompassing context materially undergirding and methodologically guiding the formulation of all of Torrance’s theology. Like leaven, Torrance’s concept of Grace permeates the whole and forms the basis upon which all other doctrines have their sustenance.”