We believe what we believe, especially in the spiritual realm, deeply. If someone differs from us or questions the conclusions we’ve reached it is common for the one being challenged to react with anger, with attacks and with slanderous remarks about the other person. In an atmosphere of grace, people can disagree over even the most important matters while still treating each other with kindness, mercy and respect. But such a culture is both hard to locate and hard to maintain once it is established. It is amusing that we can get angry, frustrated and attack each other in a discussion of “Grace.”
When Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia he said, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.” (Galatians1:6-7) In a culture of grace three things are common. One is genuine praise for God. He is the God of all grace and Father of mercies. He makes His grace abound toward us. Second, an atmosphere of grace is attracting and inviting to one who has fallen deeply into sinful habits and behaviors. Instead of feeling that everyone is looking down on them to condemn their actions, they marvel that people treat them with kindness, love and respect. Grace doesn’t minimize sin but marvels in the vastness of God’s mercy and grace to forgive and give a new start. Grace isn’t naive about how far down one may have traveled into the depths of sin. When Paul described the unrighteousness of those who had become faithful parts of the church in Corinth, he said they were unrighteous and described that unrighteousness as “Sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men having sex with men, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers” and said these would not inherit the kingdom of God. “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Corinthians 6:9-11) Third, an atmosphere of grace is encouraging, forgiving and helpful to one who is trying to live for God now in spite of what may have been the case in the past.
It is strange that a people who recognize their own sin and the amazing nature of grace to give them salvation in spite of all their sin, would have such a difficult time extending grace to others on the same basis that it has been extended to them. We may know we are guilty of sin and God has mercifully saved us, yet expect the other person to earn their way back into a right relationship with God and with the church or community.
At some point Paul had encouraged the church in Corinth to discipline a member who had caused Paul problems and likely had lied about Paul’s work. They had followed through on the discipline toward him. In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 he writes again about the man and his situation. “If anyone has caused grief, he has not so much grieved me as he has grieved all of you to some extent – not to put it too severely. The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him. Another reason I wrote you was to see if you would stand the test and be obedient in everything. Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.”
It had evidently been difficult to convince the church to discipline the man who was slandering Paul and the other apostles, claiming they weren’t really speaking from God. When they were convinced to discipline him, it was then difficult to get them to stop and to now forgive and treat him with love and grace. This seems to be an aspect of our human nature. Whenever we are convinced as a matter of principle to head in one direction, it is hard to stop or turn around even when we have reached the end of that road
I want to be part of an atmosphere of grace, a culture of grace, a community of grace that is a church called out to live as Christ in the world. I’m convinced that you can tell if a church has an atmosphere of grace from the moment you walk in the doors. A critical, Pharisaical church has an atmosphere about it that causes one to guard every move to be sure they don’t do anything wrong. When one enters a church that has a culture of grace there is a feeling of warmth, acceptance and love no matter who we are, the color of our skin or the caliber of our clothing.
It was that spirit in Jesus that pulled people to Him. When He is the main person in a church they have the same culture. You can’t stay in a church which has this kind of atmosphere for long if you don’t develop that spirit yourself. Critical, elder brothers want to come home and be accepted into such a culture for themselves, but are terribly frustrated when the same grace is extended to their brother who has been living in the world.