Law for Non-Christians, Grace for Christians

Last night, I was reading K.W. Leslie’s post on I John 1:6-7, entitled A relationship in the Light. He said the following about how Christians’ treatment of non-Christians compares with their treatment of Christians:

This gets back to the usual problem among us Christians: that we have everything ass-backward. We preach sanctification to the pagans, and grace to the Christians. We’re supposed to be preaching grace to the pagans, and sanctification to the Christians. God wants to save everyone, but once He’s saved us He expects us to behave ourselves. Christians—particularly Christians who are involved in politics—focus too much on how God wants everyone to behave themselves, and ignore the fact that He doesn’t expect the pagans to follow Him, and in fact allows them to do their own thing, and destroy themselves, since they’re gonna do it anyway. (Ro 1.20-25)

Meanwhile, we preach grace to the Christians: We tell one another it’s okay if we live sinful lives, because nobody’s perfect, because “all have sinned,” (Ro 3.23) because anyone who expects good behavior from fellow Christians is a “legalist.” (That is, unless the bad behavior is criminal, sexual, or political in nature. Then it’s okay to condemn it.) But by and large, we Christians give one another a free pass to act largely like the pagans do. Sometimes worse; after all, we‘re saved, so we have afterlife insurance.

I wonder who came up with this approach. I frequently read in Martin Luther’s writings that Christians should preach the law to non-Christians, hopefully scaring them so they flee to Christ for salvation. Then, once they’ve become Christians, they get the soothing message of God’s love and grace.

Many Christians treat the Sermon on the Mount in this way. “The commands are hard in order to teach us that we can’t earn salvation through our own efforts. That should motivate us to seek Christ’s imputed righteousness, which he offers us freely.” Philip Yancey says something like that in The Jesus I Never Knew. My landlady made such a comment a few weeks ago. Ironically, I don’t recall Luther saying this in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, for he thought people should do it.

We do see the sort of thing that K.W. talks about: Christians preach the law to non-Christians, but grace to their own kind. But we also see the opposite: Christians preach God’s love and grace to non-Christians to attract them, then they stick them with rules once they’re inside the body of Christ. In Frank Peretti’s The Visitation, a bitter ex-Christian pretends to be Jesus Christ, and he tries to win a disgruntled ex-pastor to his cause. The would-be Messiah mimicks a fiery southern preacher to express his bitterness to the ex-pastor: “You are a sinnuh, saved by grice! Come to Gee-sus and you shall be clean–then follow me, ’cause I make the rules!” The ex-pastor then replies, “Salvation by grace. Christianity by performance.” (339)

I’ve come across both types of Christians. The Christianity I heard growing up (Armstrongism) was mostly focused on law: do the commandments, act this way, have this attitude, etc. We believed in God’s love and mercy, but we tended to mock the evangelical world for its sappy presentation of these concepts. And, in the process, maybe those concepts took second-place to the law.

Most Christians I come across in person are of the “God loves you unconditionally” variety. I admire their joy, and I feel uplifted whenever they discuss the love of God. But deep down I wonder if they’re correct in their beliefs, since the Bible has a lot about God’s wrath and law, the need for people to obey, etc., etc.

Online, I tend to encounter the “obey, obey, obey” crowd. Some say disobedient Christians can lose their salvation. Others say only those who obey God are the truly saved, as opposed to the false professors who just say they believe in Jesus.

I’ve tried to embrace the “God loves me unconditionally” approach, only to be put down by Christians who say, “Well, you’re not obedient, since you’re not loving people and sharing your faith” blah blah blah. So that discourages me from having the “God loves me unconditionally” view.

Overall, I’m somewhat of a hypocrite. I get disappointed with Christians who are flat-out jerks, for I think they should be better than that. But I recognize flaws within myself and hope that God shows me free grace. Go figure!

At this moment, I try to believe in a God who loves me unconditionally, but I also seek to grow and to show kindness to others. I’m sure Christians will stand in line to critique my performance, but I hope I’m doing what I can with what I have, whether they’re impressed or not.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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