An astute reflection by Jared Jones:

There is a bustling market for “principles” in the world today. “Timeless truths to live your life by.” “7 Principles of Health.” “376 Different Things to Try in Bed that You’ll Try to Remember for the Next Time You’re in a Relationship Because the Only People Who Pick Up This Magazine to Read it are the People Not Currently in a Relationship Nor Will Be Anytime Soon But Theoretically We Think These Will Make for Great Sex.” You know, helpful advice like that. You can hardly go anywhere or read anything without being confronted with some deep principle about the universe and the way the world works. These principles, like fruit in the Garden of Eden, promise happiness if only we reach out and take hold of them and apply them to our lives. You know the drill.

I wonder if there is also a tendency in Christians to turn “grace” into a similar sort of “principle.” We, by nature, gravitate towards turning grace into a concept that is abstracted from history and time and space (and the One who embodies it), and make it into its own universal, timeless truth. We then begin to “apply” grace into different areas of our life and world (or at least, we want others to apply it).

Maybe you feel like your wife should be more gracious. Or perhaps you yearn for grace to be meted out in the political realm, like a gaseous cloud that can be bottled up and leaked into a room and suddenly everyone is happy and everything is wonderful. We talk about a “politics of grace.” You can certainly understand why Christians might insist that the Church should be one that is principled on grace. We lament when the church, in our estimation, acts not in accordance with this Deep Truth of the world. How could an institution that is on earth to proclaim Grace not apply it to itself? It seems not just ironic but tragic.

It’s not hard to see how making grace into an abstract principle simply turns it into a new law — thereby turning Christianity completely on its head. Rather than being starkly different from every other religious system (in particular the religious systems we see peddled on every grocery store magazine rack…#Seculosity). In this way, Christianity, even the grace-centered variety, can become another religion of law. Talk about irony.

You may ask, “Why is this a big deal? What’s the harm in trying to get people to be more gracious??” And of course, you’d be right. If we all were more gracious, that would indeed be a wonderful thing!

Yet why are we so obsessed with finding new principles to live by? Well, it’s for the same reason that anyone loves the law: because it offers control. Because as human beings, we live in a chaotic and dangerous world, so we reach out to anything that appears to explain how this world works. We are desperate to find something to give us a leg to stand on. And, as Paul describes in Galatians 4:9, those who are obsessed with the elementary principles do not know God: “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” Here Paul juxtaposes two things: living by the elementary principles of the world, or having a true knowledge of God.

Paul is saying that to live by these principles is to not know God as He has revealed himself: in the Gospel. When we substitute the weak and elementary principles (i.e. the law) for the Gospel of God’s Son, we lose the only real knowledge of God that we have in the process. We can talk about “grace” as a universal concept so much that we lose sight of the fact that Christ is the One who gives Grace as a gift, not merely represents it. Christ is more than the great example of Grace; He is the One who is full of Grace and offers it to you.

In Fitzsimmons Allison’s book The Rise of Moralism, he outlines a similar theological confusion that occurred in the English Reformation. He chronicles the development of the tide of moralism that flooded Anglican churches throughout the formative 17th century. In his conclusion, Allison writes:

The divines who introduced this trend towards moralism postulated a freedom of will in sinners that was of Pelagian proportions. Their remedy for sin consisted largely of exhortations to lead a holy life. Moreover, the only veritable significance attached to the atonement was the moral example of Christ. (One of the titles of Jeremy Taylor’s life of Christ was, appropriately, The Great Exemplar.) Starting from assumptions that can be characterized only as Pelagian, soteriological thought, by an implacable logic, moved inexorably through an exemplarist atonement, to an adoptionist Christology, to a Socinian deity, and finally from deism to atheism.”

Allison is pointing out that to use Christ as a moral example is to functionally do away with Christ himself. Preaching only the example of Christ renders him into merely an abstract principle or concept. It is to admit, albeit often not on purpose, that the preacher may be a bit unsure as to whether or not Christ is living and active right now. When Christ is held up as the one who conquered the Law in the sense that he proves that it can be done and you can do it too if you follow his lead, then there’s no need for a living God to do anything for you. Christ simply becomes a principle, a concept, a moral fable that teaches us some great things about the world or about God. In short, Christ becomes the Law, and therefore we functionally become atheists. When Christ becomes the Law, then we know nothing of the living God.

Of course, there is something about grace that cannot be ‘gamed’: the second we make it into a metric of “the way things ought to be”, then it is no longer grace. Grace is spontaneous and free; it can never be demanded or held up as some type of ideal according to which we should conform. (Notice even the language here: words like “should” or “ought” or “conform”; this is the language of the Law.) To do so is to place grace as the highest ideal in the Christian pyramid of principles, the divine Logos at the center of the world, it is the concept in which “everything lives and moves and has its being.” In short, Grace then becomes God, and a hidden god at that. It stands removed and abstracted from the world and is only useful for judging whether or not something is gracious or ungracious. In short, the principle of grace simply becomes a god like every other religion’s gods: a god who can promise nothing, a god who cannot speak.

This stands in stark contrast with historical Christianity. At the top of the Christian pyramid is not an idea or a concept — even a concept as wonderful as grace — but the divine Logos-made-flesh himself, Jesus Christ. Not a moral exemplar, not a Jesus in principle, or someone we can bandy about when we want to make a point. He is not a concept. He is the Divine Name made flesh: “I am who I am.” He is who He is. He is his own person, with a will and a body, and he is the Risen and Ascended Lord. In short, He is God, and He is not a mute, abstract deity.

In Romans 10, St. Paul contrasts the righteousness of the law (which Paul describes as a moral example or principle) and the righteousness by faith (which is the Word himself preached to you). Paul writes:

Moses writes this about the righteousness that is by the law: “The person who does these things will live by them.” But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:5-9)

Christ is not “somewhere” as an abstract principle or ideal. He is in very concrete places, and these places are not simply limited to liturgical settings, either. Grace, of course, does exist here on Earth. We can find moments of grace all over. But, as mentioned above, these moments should be seen as free, spontaneous actions of the Spirit, not as adhering to the norm or divine law of how things ought to be. Christ does “play in a thousand places”, liturgical or very ordinary. He is present in any moment of undeserved favor. He is in movies, literature, and even sometimes politics. He is in court rooms, hotel rooms, or classrooms. The point is that these moments are not places where some general idea of grace is present, but these are places where the work of Christ is echoing in the world through His Spirit. He is on the lips of preachers who absolve you. He is in these very words you are reading now: Christ Jesus died for you. He chooses you. He forgives you.

This Lent, I thank God that grace is much more than an abstract idea out there, nor is it the standard by which the church or the world ought to operate. Grace is simply a promise that Christ was crucified and offered for sinners, more specifically Christ offered for you. Let the Law have its place in governing the world, the institutional church, and even our own lives. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But give to God what is God’s, as you receive the living Christ proclaimed for you in Word and Sacrament, and walk away knowing you have encountered His grace.