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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Grace & Gratitude, Part III: A Community of Grace
February 26, 2015

Last week we noted that one of the hallmarks of God’s grace is that it perseveres, whether we embrace it gladly or resist it mightily. God’s disposition toward us is grounded in the constancy of who God is, rather than in our variability. This is not to say that what we say and do bear no consequences. Far from it. But they don’t change God’s heart toward us.

The Scriptures testify to a God who is intimately engaged with and responsive to us. Calling upon God is not fruitless. Rejecting God is not inconsequential. Badly chosen pathways lead us to real ruin. We reap what we sow. Yet none of that changes God’s inclination toward us or ways with us. This is one of the lessons of the story of the prodigal sons (Luke 15:11-32) – their father’s generosity flourishes in face of both the younger son’s wanton recklessness and the older son’s self-righteous indignation. Neither son incurs the judgment he deserves, even though both reap real consequences of their choices.

The great African theologian Augustine (354-430) fought tooth and nail against his British contemporary Pelagius over the meaning of divine grace. Augustine taught that our salvation depends entirely on God’s grace, whereas Pelagius emphasized human response to that grace as the condition of salvation.

More than a thousand years later, Luther and Calvin contended that Augustine’s legacy had been lost in the church, even though the church had officially sided with him and against Pelagius. When the sixteenth-century church taught that one’s favor with God could be enhanced through donations to the church, veneration of relics, ascetic rigors, and the like, the Reformers charged it with capitulating to Pelagius. It had withered the wealth of divine grace down to God providing opportunity for people to step up and do what they must in order to procure salvation. Luther and Calvin were both alarmed by the pervasiveness of this “works-righteousness” in the church that had reared them. Separately yet in unison, they labored tirelessly to remind the church of its grand Augustinian heritage focusing on God’s unmerited grace that sustained ancient Israel, was embodied in Jesus, and suffused the teachings of Paul.

Alas, the Reformers’ heirs have not always kept alive their recovery of the gospel of grace. Soon a new Protestant version of the old Pelagianism arose, in which salvation was understood to be conditioned on our decisions and beliefs. It prevails among us yet today. It is different in form, but not much in substance, from the works-righteousness that saturated the church on the eve of the Reformation.

How easily we come to think that our standing before God as individuals, as congregations, or as the whole church depends on what we say and do! We assume that if things go well, it’s because we did things right; if not, it’s because we erred. This leads us to make judgments on others based on what they say or do, or on whether they flourish or struggle.

While we may not burn people at the stake, do we readily cast fires of aspersion on others? While we may not shed blood in pursuing our crusades, do we readily cut from our fellowship those who do not fully conform to our faith and practice? When we forget that God’s grace is the one and only condition of our own hope, we easily descend into sweeping judgmentalism of others, all putatively in the name of truth and goodness.

Those who depend utterly on divine grace know that we have neither the right nor sufficient knowledge to judge others’ standing before God. For Calvin, this entails that we ought to hope honestly for God’s saving grace to extend to all persons, including those whose convictions and commitments differ greatly from ours. (See, for example, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.20.38.)

Dearly beloved, I urge us to beware speaking ill of others, especially of those who declare their trust in the same Lord and Savior in whom we place our own trust. We need not call into question the integrity of others in order to establish our own. The grace of God in whose grip lies our sure hope is as much a lifeline for others as it is for us. Our readiness to dismiss others betrays the grace of God that has persevered toward us.

This is not a call to abandon discipline, or to care nothing for truthfulness in the church. It is not to say anything goes. Quite the opposite: Because we know ourselves to be claimed as God’s own by grace alone, we are genuinely free to hold one another in loving accountability without the threat of rejection. The freedom of grace is not a freedom from each other, but a freedom with each other, as unconditional as the grace of God lavished on us through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Yours in the grip of grace,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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