The “Grace Revolution”, Hyper-Grace, and the Humility of Orthodoxy
There are people like that in all sorts of churches, whether or not you’ve come across them. The self-description for the theological movement as a whole is the “grace revolution”, and it’s being fuelled by well-known preachers like Rob Rufus and Joseph Prince. From what I can tell, there are a whole host of things these guys are saying about grace that are thoroughly orthodox, and extremely helpful; that was certainly our experience as a church when Rob came to us five years ago, and in many ways I find it awkward to challenge anyone whose main purpose in life is to preach about the scandalous free grace of God (which, I hope it goes without saying, I absolutely affirm and delight in). But there are also some emphases, particularly some of those I’ve just highlighted, that are patently unbiblical and demonstrably unorthodox, and have led to it being described by observers as “hyper-grace”. Whether they are “heretical” or not depends on whether the people in question know that their views are unorthodox, but from what I can tell, most of them do, and think the church needs reformation on this point.
Some readers will be inclined not to take this particular quirk of the “grace revolution” very seriously. (Again: I’m talking about the whole not-asking-for-forgiveness thing in what follows, rather than the theological movement in general, much of which I celebrate). The universal church has prayed the Lord’s Prayer for two millennia, and will continue to do so long after the proponents of this particular theological fad have moved on to glory and discovered their mistake; it is a heavily enculturated phenomenon, resulting from a fusion of hyper-Lutheranism and Western therapeutic individualism; and biblical scholars of all stripes will easily debunk the very shaky exegetical foundations on which it rests, particularly its absurd treatment of 1 John and Romans. But although all of this may be true, I have found myself wrestling with it. Not, I should say immediately, because I think it holds any theological water - on some counts it is almost indefensibly ridiculous - but because it is growing in popularity in charismatic circles, and more importantly, because it raises the interesting question of how we engage with and appraise new theological ideas when they emerge at a popular level.
Here’s what I mean. If a new proposal emerges at an academic level, there is a very clear mechanism for establishing whether it should be accepted or not. Extensive research is done, a journal article or scholarly monograph is written, it is peer reviewed, footnotes and bibliographies are provided, a conference paper is presented and critiqued, and experts in the field assess the proposal on its merits. When a new idea emerges at a popular level, though - when, say, it is taught by an influential communicator who writes paperbacks, speaks on television and preaches at large conferences - these mechanisms do not exist. In fact, as I have discovered, they may explicitly be disavowed, on the basis that it was the intellectuals and eggheads in biblical times who rejected Jesus. So if a keynote speaker says that 1 John 1 is written about unbelievers, and substantiates it by saying the word “Gnostics” a few times and quoting a couple of Greek words, it does not count as an argument to say that all scholars would disagree. Of course scholars would disagree. The scribes knew their Bibles better than anyone, you see, and they still killed Jesus. Heads I win, tails you lose.
You are in a similar Catch-22 if you try and engage with the idea on the basis of church history. For someone like me, the fact that the universal church has always believed something carries enormous weight; if Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox alike have been praying the Lord’s Prayer together for two thousand years, then to claim that this is unnecessary, legalistic, introspective or sub-Christian is an extremely serious charge, the burden of proof for which is almost unreachably high. But at a street level, this can easily be dismissed as an argument, on the grounds that, after all, the whole of Christendom was wrong about lots of things in the Dark Ages, and somehow managed to lose the doctrine of salvation by grace for 1500 years, and the power of the Holy Spirit for nearly 2000. If the universal church has lost things like that before, then why not now? Historical consensus, then, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
So how do we proceed? There is no way to squash this sort of thing altogether, as far as I can see; one of Protestantism’s great strengths, its stress on the individual believer’s ability to interpret Scripture for themselves, is also one of its great weaknesses, and the internet age has simply made the theological smorgasbord available to anybody, anywhere, much more quickly. Given that availability, some people will stumble across forcefully presented arguments for things they want to believe, by charismatic and gifted communicators, and some of those will swallow them. Clearly it is possible to stop it spreading throughout the church - clear public and private explanation, and where necessary, confrontation of those who are teaching it (if they are) - but how is theological dialogue to take place with those who are happily convinced, like the people in my church and probably yours? If the charges of unorthodoxy and exegetical implausibility do not have any traction, then what can be done?
Several things. (1) There is always an important place for patient, thorough exegesis, with a view to showing, for instance, that 1 John 1 does refer to Christians (although how anyone could think it wasn’t once they’d read 2:1 is unclear), that Jesus taught his disciples to ask God for forgiveness, that he then told them to teach others to obey everything he commanded them (which ought to debunk the whole “Jesus is old covenant” thing), and that none of the apostles saw any conflict between believing sins had been forgiven and asking for forgiveness. It may not be enough to persuade people, but it is still very important, and it models a text-centred approach to defining doctrine, which in the long run speaks volumes. (2) It is also important to clearly articulate a hermeneutic that makes our default position one of obedience to New Testament instructions, rather than assuming people understand why we don’t wear head coverings or rip our eyes out when we sin. If everybody began with the assumption that we do what Jesus said unless otherwise stated, it would be be much harder to argue against praying the Lord’s Prayer.
(3) We should be careful to avoid anti-intellectualism ourselves, whether or not we or our churches are naturally intellectual; instead of lumping Pharisees, scribes, New Testament scholars and Bible translators together as if they are all much of a muchness, we would do well to esteem scholarship, point out that it’s the only way we even have a Bible in English, and emphasise the vital role Christian scholars played in the Reformation. Lest we forget, the Pharisees weren’t actually Christians, which is a fairly significant difference. (4) Similarly, we have a responsibility, as leaders and teachers, to take issue with popular level distortions of church history (things went well in the book of Acts, then the wicked Catholics got in power and set up the papacy, and that led to grace, the Holy Spirit and the Bible vanishing into thin air for thousands of years, while the powers that be went around burning everybody), and replace them with more accurate ones (every generation has believed in grace, the Holy Spirit and the Bible; every generation has distorted or underemphasised some aspects of biblical teaching; some have done this more than others, especially when access to what the Bible actually said was very low; etc).
(5) It is helpful, when talking about theology in public church contexts, to stress consensus more than distinctiveness. If the diet of teaching in a church is repeatedly built around areas where other Christians disagree, then the impression given to the congregation, however unwittingly, will be that Christians disagree all the time about most important things. If it focuses mostly on areas of agreement, and only highlights issues of contention carefully and in an honouring way, then the impression given will be one of unity and solidarity with Christians from other backgrounds and centuries, and this will make unorthodox ideas less likely to gain traction. (6) We should talk about, and act in accordance with, our belief that elders in the church are the guardians of doctrine, and have a responsibility to teach sound doctrine and correct those who contradict it. Practically, this has implications for the way we do Sunday teaching (in our case, elders either deliver or check in advance the content that is taught), the theological education of the leaders (since if this is lower than some in the church, credibility is much harder to achieve), and even the way we do membership courses or equivalent (such that new people understand our view of spiritual authority). None of this will ensure that odd ideas don’t pop up; they should, however, stop them from spreading too far, which is a major concern of Paul’s in the Pastorals. (7) We need to remember that when theological discussions are happening, the debate is taking place at two levels: what people believe to be true, and what people want to be true. Teacher-types will typically focus on the former, but we need to recognise the very important place of the latter, and present the biblical doctrines as attractively and captivatingly as possible. The reason this particular idea has spread so quickly, I suspect, is because so many Christians who say they believe in grace don’t really seem that happy about it, and live in practice like they are still under the law.
(8) Finally, and perhaps most challengingly for Charismatics like me, it is helpful to think about and talk about the humility of orthodoxy. Being orthodox, in the sense of affirming what the vast majority of Christians in history have believed, is fundamentally a posture of humility, for it involves believing that the untold millions of faithful Christians, leaders and theologians have been guided by the Holy Spirit into all the truth. It can often be presented as if orthodoxy is heavy-handed, authoritarian dogmatism, and unorthodoxy or heresy simply represent the humble and impish whippersnappers trying to get their gentle voices heard - but in general, there is an arrogance to believing that you are right and almost everyone else is wrong, especially when the “everyone else” includes Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Wesley, Barth and co. That doesn’t mean we can never challenge an orthodox consensus, of course; it would be naive to act as if the church’s historic teaching had never been wrong. But when we do, we must do so from a position of humility, and give the benefit of the doubt to the weight of orthodoxy. Luther began the Reformation, remember, by objecting to an egregious abuse (the sale of indulgences by John Tetzel) that was demonstrably unbiblical and which had not been practised by the vast majority of Christians in history, not by announcing that everyone who lived before 1517 had denied justification by faith.
The reason I say this is particularly difficult for Charismatics is that our controlling narrative, at least in its mass market incarnation, can easily sound like a tale of How Everyone Got It Wrong Until We Came Along. The church banished the Holy Spirit to the doldrums, but then we came along and restored him to his rightful place (even if we did call him “it” a lot of the time), and the church responded by kicking us out. The church used to be legalistic, but then we showed them what grace looked like in practice. The church used to be governed without any reference to biblical patterns, until we started doing things properly. And although I have it on good authority that a lot of British churches in the 1960s and 70s were rather dull, lifeless gatherings which had lost confidence in the gospel and were not pursuing a Spirit-filled life as they could have been, the facts remain that (1) the Holy Spirit has been powerfully at work throughout Christian history, and we certainly did not discover spiritual gifts thirty years ago, (2) every Christian in history has believed in grace, even if some have uprooted legalism less comprehensively than others, and (3) telling the story like this makes it sound like novelty, rather than fidelity, is what we should be pursuing, and the fact that something is orthodox has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not it is true. All of which makes contending with novel, unorthodox and even bizarre theological developments becomes much harder, since it involves sawing off most of the ecclesiological and theological branches we have been sitting on for twenty centuries, and thereby implying that doing so is a necessary part of keeping the church on track.
Roughly translated: in order to deal with new ideas, particularly ones which emerge at the popular level and are not subject to the normal checks and balances, we need to exegete carefully, presume obedience, honour scholarship, portray history accurately, stress consensus, esteem eldership, teach winsomely, and emphasise the humility of orthodoxy. It may not stop people from picking up funny ideas from time to time, but it should help them see that the real “grace revolution” they’re looking for happened a long time ago in Israel, and is showing no signs yet of fizzling out.
Author’s Note: It has been wisely pointed out in the comments that I shouldn’t attribute views to Bill Johnson on hearsay. The post has been amended accordingly.