"Tough Grace" Is Not Grace (and It’s Not Law Either)

In an unsigned editorial yesterday CT came out in favor of what it calls “tough grace.” The presenting issue or symptom is CT’s concern that Christian institutions are failing to be both “tough” and “gracious” simultaneously. The argument is that the fall of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy signals a societal shift and presents a challenge to evangelicals who will “longer enjoy the ambiguity that DADT attitudes traditionally afforded.” They point to the case of the dismissal of a Lesbian soccer coach from Belmont University. They call for “Christian institutions” to be “clear about the behavioral standards they expect from employees, students, and members, and then enforce them—consistently, but judiciously.” The problem, they say, is that “among Christians, consistent enforcement constantly butts heads with grace.” Their solution is: tough grace. There is a better way.

All Christians should sympathize with the goal of the editorial, that Christians and Christian institutions should both uphold God’s moral law and be gracious to sinners. The first great difficulty of this editorial is, however, the way it analyzes the problem. The second difficulty is the solution, and the third is a missing category.

First, what is the problem here? It is that Christian institutions employ sinners and among them may be sexual sinners, including homosexuals. The problem is compounded by the fact that we live in an increasingly pagan culture in which homosexuality is celebrated and even encouraged in the media and among young people. Whatever stigma attached to homosexuality is virtually gone for those under 30.

The historic Christian understanding of the New Testament is that it teaches that same-sex (homosexual) conduct is contrary to the moral law of God. That understanding hasn’t been overturned as much as it has been ignored by the mainline churches, who are most like the culture they once sought to transform. Their “evangelical” cousins are just a few decades behind and are now catching up with them in virtually every way. Apparently ignorant of the failure of the mainline experiment, they seem bent on following them over the cliff.

One of the ways in which the evangelicals are following the mainliners is in the redefinition of “grace.” There is no such thing as “tough grace.” There is tough love and there is tough law but in the nature of things grace cannot be “tough.” Grace is the unmerited favor, approval of God. It is free. It is undeserved. It is transformative. It is sovereign. It is unconditional. It is relentless. It is many things but it is not “tough.” Indeed, the ESV translates Charis (or some word related to it) as “grace” 124 times in the NT. In not a single usage is there an obvious case where Scripture refers to or wants us (the reader/hearer) to conceive of grace as “tough.”

Yes, there are moral implications for those who are the recipients of grace but it does not help us to re-define grace. What we need is a second category, which is missing for many evangelicals: law. In themselves grace and law are not in tension. Relative to the justification of sinners before God, grace and law are two diametrically opposed principles. Law is essentially conditional. The law says: “do this and live.” Grace says “Christ has done for you.” The benefits of the law are promised only to those who personally keep the law perfectly. The benefits of grace are promised to those who have not kept the law perfectly, who do not keep the law perfectly, who cannot keep the law perfectly, who will not keep the law perfectly but who trust in Jesus who kept the law for us sinners. Those benefits are received only through trusting, resting in, receiving Christ and his finished work for sinners.

There are moral consequences for those who have trusted in Christ as their law keeper. One of those consequences is a commitment to God’s revealed moral law. Evangelicals have trouble with this for two reasons. First, the dispensational heritage of many evangelicals makes them queasy about talking about the law this way because the law is so closely associated with Moses that it cannot possibly have any enduring relevance for the New Testament church. Second, many American Christians lack an essential category here: nature. The reasons for this are many, more than we can survey here. Several writers have observed the essentially gnostic character of American religion (including evangelicalism). I have argued that American evangelicalism, since 1900, has become essentially Anabaptist. In both cases, nature as such, is suspect. It is something to be obliterated or overcome. God’s law did not begin with Moses. It began in creation. The law that was given to Moses was an extensive, historically conditioned, re-statement of the law given in creation. That moral law binds all humans, including Christians, those who have been redeemed by grace. By God’s grace alone, by the work of his Spirit within us, we learn to love God’s law and to see it as a gift, as a perfect moral standard and a reflection of his character.

So we have three distinct but related categories to employ when addressing the problem of sexual morality in Christian institutions. The first is law. Human sexuality is normed by God’s creational standards. Heterosexuality is an integral part of those creational standards. Heterosexual monogamy is another integral part of those standards. Nothing about redemptive history changes those fundamental standards. They’re just as much in force today as they were in creation. We’re not indebted to Sinai to them as much as we are to creation. That moral law is binding and is binding upon Christians. To deny that is antinomianism.

Second, we are indebted to creation because there is a “nature of things” as constituted by God. The great lie of the late modern age is that everything and everyone is endlessly malleable, that there is no fixity. On that see the essay on that topic in this book. There is fixity and it began when God said: “Let there be.” That’s fixity. Nothing we experience or learn can ever change God or his fixed, natural, moral order in the universe. It will never become right to worship any other God than the triune God of holy Scripture. It will never become right to represent God visually or to abuse his name. It will never become right to steal, lie, murder, commit sexual immorality, to dishonor authority, or to covet someone else’s stuff. That’s because those laws are built into the nature of things in the same way gravity is built into the nature of things. Whatever the late modern physics is telling us about the nature of the created universe (and that story has been developing for thousands of years and will continue to do so), gravity is still true. Keanu Reeves may be able to do wonderful things on a movie screen but he still can’t do them in real life. Why not? Nature. Time. Space. They are limits.

The third category to use here is grace. All sinners are broken and should be humbled by and before God’s holy, immutable law. Grace is for the broken, i.e., for those who know “the greatness of their sin and misery” (Heidelberg Catechism, 1563). Grace redeems, restores, and will someday glorify those broken sinners. By grace alone God the Holy Spirit awakens dead sinners to life, grants them faith in Jesus, unites them to himself and begins conforming them to himself. We could add another category, the visible, institutional church, but that would take us away from the main point.

Christian institutions need to be gracious but they don’t need to turn the law into grace or grace into law. Let grace be grace and let law be law. Yes, Christian institutions need to articulate clearly, unambiguously the moral law as it relates to the institution and to its life. They need to adhere to God’s moral law. People who have been redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone, who’ve been given new life in Christ, who’ve been united to Christ by the Spirit through faith, want to obey God’s moral law and recognize it when they’ve sinned against that law. Yes, adhering to God’s moral law will necessarily bring us into conflict with an increasingly pagan culture hostile to any fixed moral norms. The response to that conflict is to be gracious to sinners and resolute regarding God’s moral law.

Tough grace is not grace. It helps no one. It offers no salvation to sinners and no guidance to saints. Grace is for broken sinners of all sorts, heterosexual and homosexual sinners alike, for murderers, for thieves, and for idolaters. Where all these (and many more!) sins abounded, grace abounded more. Not so that we could or should continue to sin, not at all! No, grace, God’s unconditional, free, unmerited approval comes to those who know their need and who turn in faith to him who still loves sinners: Jesus. Those who have been received by grace will need a gracious community of redeemed sinners, that hospital for sinners that Jesus established as they learn to walk in the new life they’ve been given by Jesus the Savior of sinners. If we don’t know the difference between grace and law, however, we’ll never be of any use to sinners or saints.

Related Posts

Natural Law, Two Kingdoms, and Homosexual Marriage

Sexual Liberation and Fixed Moral Norms

How Does Homosexual Marriage Affect Me?

Dealing with Homosexuality at Work

Dealing with Homosexuality in Church

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