Q & R: Conditional Grace?
Here's the Q from a young leader:
This may sound like the strangest, most ridiculous question ever, but do you think grace might actually come with terms and conditions?
It seems like it does sometimes. In order to be a "real Christian," either you have to believe in the right doctrines and go to the right church and read the right theologians, or you have to be a super-radically-inclusive-peacemaking-humanitarian-who-loves-everyone-the-way-Jesus-does. In fact, just think of the message of the Gospel: we're not perfect, so God had to butcher His innocent sin instead of us. Yeah, that's really good news!
Perhaps I'm just being too hard on myself. I've always been hard on myself ever since I was a little boy. The strangest thing is my parents never pushed me to be perfect; I somehow managed to learn how to be a perfectionist all on my own. And I guess I brought that perfectionism over when I started following Jesus.
Sorry if none of this makes any sense. I guess what I'm asking is this: can grace ever be truly unconditional? Is there a grace that allows us to be human?
Here's the R:
Thanks for your question. No - it doesn't sound strange it all. It sounds like you're going through some deep theological rethinking ... and there's almost always a lot of angst in that process! A couple of responses ...
1. You may know that the 5-point Calvinist community uses two terms - unconditional election and irresistible grace - in their outline of theological distinctives. You're putting a twist on it ... unconditional grace! The fact is - as Paul said in Romans - when you put conditions on grace, "grace is no longer grace" (11:6).
Sadly, even among people who affirm "salvation by grace," a lot of conditions have a way of sneaking in - doctrinal ones, political ones, behavioral ones, attitudinal ones, as you said. So your question suggests that if God's grace is meaningful it all, it needs to be free of conditions. That means - to put it bluntly - we'd better know the difference between God's grace and any particular church's (or religion's) grace.
My guess is that unless you are able to focus on God's real grace, the conditional grace that keeps popping up in religious communities will embitter and hurt you. So please - go deep in seeking God's authentic grace! Without it, we're all sunk.
2. On God "butchering his son" - as you know, many of us are questioning whether that's the gospel after all, even though we were taught a version more or less like this. For us, the proclamation of the kingdom of God is the real gospel, and that proclamation (as Paul said it in 2 Cor 5) is that God is not holding people's sins against them. It's an invitation to participation in God's reign of kindness, realm of grace, kin-dom, sacred ecosystem, new love economy, peace and reconciliation revolution ... no strings attached. That gospel of the kingdom of God is not a story about God butchering his son. It's a story about God giving God's son (in grace) to the human race, and the human race responding as butchers ... but God responds with grace, not condemnation and revenge, and God manifests forgiveness even for that most heinous crime, and seals it all by raising God's Son from the dead. Quite a different understanding of the gospel!
3. You mention perfectionism - and you see this as something you're doing to yourself. I think that's important ... A lot of people focus their blame on others (as it may have seemed I was doing in #1 above) - their parents, their church, etc. But in the end, our worst enemy is often inside us ... I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Enneagram, but perfectionism is a special struggle of Type 1's ... and in Myers-Briggs terms, NT's and NF's and some SJ's can be really hard on themselves too, in various ways. (So can SP's ...)
All that's to say that I think you're wise to pay attention to the ways that something inside you is turning on yourself ... This would be a great thing to talk about with a gifted and trained spiritual director. Three books that have helped me in dealing with self-condemnation are ... Brennan Manning's Stranger to Self-Hatred and Paul Tournier's The Meaning of Persons and The Adventure of Living.