Too Much Erring on the Side of Grace?

Faith & GraceI have often heard from among people of my own denominational ilk that we United Methodists are “people of grace.”  That’s true, in one sense.  Anybody who has gone to seminary or read certain writings on John Wesley’s theology run across terms like “prevenient grace,” “justifying grace” and “sanctifying grace.”

We also talk about the “means” of grace – chiefly baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but also searching the scriptures, prayer, fasting, and other works of piety.  But John Wesley’s logic carries the means of grace further.  When we visit the sick and serve the poor, those actions, too, are means of grace, not only for the recipient of the service, but also for the servants.

So, lots of grace to go around for Methodists.  But we also make some mistakes when we talk about grace.

For one, I have a feeling other folks in the Reformed Tradition would be a little bothered by our claiming that somehow Methodists are people of grace.  Martin Luther and John Calvin, to mention only two of the list of Reformers, had a bit to say about grace.  And Catholic theologians get in on the act, too.  Thomas Aquinas promoted a version of prevenient grace, for example, but he also had a lot more to say about grace.

(Now that I’ve mentioned “prevenient grace” twice, I’ll have to explain it.  In short, it is a kind of preparatory grace, the work of God in us even before we know of God’s saving work in us.)

Come to think of it, grace is pretty important in practically every part of the Christian tradition.  So, why do Methodists talk as if we practically thought it up?  I have two possible answers.  Maybe you have more.

1.  We are ignorant of the larger Christian tradition.  We only know how the word “grace” gets used in teachings on the theology of John Wesley and of The United Methodist Church.  Now, I realize that only a fraction of United Methodists have read any part of the Book of Discipline, but right there on page 45 (2008 edition), paragraph 101, under the sub-heading “Distinctive Wesleyan Emphases,” we read: “Grace pervades our understanding of Christian faith and life.  By grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit.”

If I read this paragraph – or if someone teaches me from a paragraph like this one – I can fairly readily get the idea that “grace” is truly a distinctive Wesleyan emphasis.  That’s what the subheading says.  And that word “Wesleyan” can easily morph into “Methodist,” because it’s right there in the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

2.  We are so determined to be generous that we characteristically “err on the side of grace.”  This one bothers me more than a little.  Here we turn grace on its head, from #1.  There (#1) grace is the work of the Spirit to shed the love of God abroad in our hearts.  Grace is God’s action to help us become fully Christian and that grace of God meets us along the way no matter where we are.  Here (#2) grace is a kind of spiritual mulligan, a pass, a do-over.

We all love do-overs.  Thank God for them.  But the assumption that grace is a kind of indulgence is a dangerous notion.  God does not merely indulge us.  God changes us – through grace.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Martha Myre says:

    Thanks, Steve, I know all this but I needed this word right now.

    I have recently been reflecting on the issue of grace as related to sexual abuse. So many times I have heard people want to “err on the side of grace” for the abuser. This makes me uncomfortable, because it seems to me that the victims feel re-abused in some sense when we do this with the definition of grace as a “pass or a do-over.” I think the next time someone says to me that we should err on the side of grace for a perpetrator, I will respond with a reminder that grace is God’s work in us to change us. This makes a prayer for grace a prayer for that person to change (which would include repentance of sin), not a free pass for past bad behavior.

  2. Christopher Laughlin says:

    I was not shown grace by the Bishop. He never once showed care for my soul, or why I became upset. He was indifferent to how the DS’s treated me. One of which yelled and threatened me and he supported.

    He cares nothing for the health of souls only for the amount of money being passed up the massive bureaucracy. That, and the number of buts in the pew.

    Methodists and grace?
    What a joke.

    Christopher Laughlin

  3. Steve , I typed a very lengthy comment , then erased it. As I was re-reading it I realized I didn’t get my message across. My comment would probably have been construed as narrow minded and fundamental. Of course, that is not my intention. I enjoyed your article and found it while googling “ere in grace”
    My 30’years as a Methodist have taught me a lot about grace.
    I have always been a “proud Methodist” and I never shy away from talking about how our connective ness is our strength.
    However…… The actions of a few at the 2012 conference were embarrassing. Carrying signs that said Do No Harm ; and clergy talking against the church that supports them. I could go on , but I’m sure you know the details . My point is quoting J.W. “Do No Harm”. , etc —- the antics of a few clergy, lay people,, and even a Bishop !! The media really enjoyed it and we will never know the people that would have come to our doors ….. “Erring on the side of grace”. Doesn’t mean we get to change the bible . Your quote of the Discipline is how we try and live and reach others. I guess that’s not as newsworthy? I have never felt a calling to preach. As a female lay person, I have preached several times. I have always dreamed of singing in a 200 member choir. It won’t happen:) but I can serve God and the church lots of ways and I try not to err , but I know if I do and I have erred with a heart of grace, God will correct my mistakes.
    May God bless you nd your ministry

    • Thank you, Kim, for coming to this blog and for your comment. Yes, General 2012 was a painful illustration of several problems in our church. I hope and pray for godly leadership all across the connection. It appears to me that you’re exercising some in your area. May you not grow weary in well doing.

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