False Grace and Nonconformist Conformance

In a recent post, Peter Rollins brings up an interesting idea about how many people base their relationships on what I would call false grace:

… religion doesn’t simply offer a set of positions to conform to, it also offers the acceptable ways in which one can transgress these positions: it tells us both how to conform and how to not conform in a conformist way.

In a previous post I explored this logic in relation to a family where sleeping with a partner outside of marriage is viewed as morally unacceptable. For many of these families however there is an acceptable way in which the transgression against this law can be managed. As long as the child sleeps a in separate room from their partner when visiting their parent’s house, and doesn’t talk about how they live with their partner, everything carries on as usual. This logic can be outlined in the following way:

Law: Don’t sleep together
Acceptable Transgression: You can as long as we all pretend you aren’t when we’re together

– Peter Rollins, The King and His Jester: Religion and its Acceptable Transgressions

I think that Peter is right on in thinking that this is how a lot of people think about their religious practice. I think that a lot of people even think that they escape being “legalistic” by having certain areas of moral license that they avoid conforming to in a conformist way. It is a brilliant insight. I also think that this dynamic is balderdash and is grounded in a false concept of grace and morals that ends up being legalistic, ridiculous, and even damaging. It is a Christless and bloodless justification that breeds shallow relationships based on lies. It is also pandemic.

Grace isn’t about figuring out acceptable ways to transgress moral positions. It isn’t about pretending that sin isn’t happening just so we can all get along. It isn’t about softening moral positions. It isn’t about giving people slack because of their genetic proclivities or childhood or circumstances. It isn’t about softening our judgment because an evil response was provoked. It actually helps in understanding grace to harden our moral positions to a point of excellence and perfection that is entirely undoable. We are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). That includes never “looking”, never coveting, never being irritated with someone, never practicing our righteousness to be noticed, all of it. If we haven’t resisted sin to the point of shedding blood, we have succumbed to the temptation of evil at some point. Pretending there is a way that we can do this that is acceptable or understandable is another way of saying that we condone evil. It is not our place to rewrite the rules of justice so that they are easier to obey. Yet this is what the daily practice of even the most zealous Christian is like at most congregations. Our “evangelism” consists of trying to get people to adopt a fake and lying lifestyle.

Real Christ-forged blood-bought grace is a much stronger and greater kindness than the false grace that Peter Rollins has identified. The reason false grace is so bad isn’t just that it seems to foster a clever acceptance of evil in the name of God. It isn’t even that it promotes empty relationships based on false personae and lies. These things are indeed bad. The worst problem is that they don’t involve the application of real forgiveness and true release from guilt and freedom from morals-based rejection. Real grace cleanses the conscience without pretense; it addresses the pressure of our true guilt. Real grace says that we are truly known and truly accepted. False grace leaves us with an underlying fear and guilt and sense of ultimate rejection.

The reason why a mixed-grace gospel (Christ plus works) is so untenable is that it makes this very error. If someone says, “I’m not preaching mixed grace,” but they say there is something a believer could do to nullify their salvation, then they are saying that some particular work is a part of salvation. Inevitably, the only way forward under this teaching is to say that there are conformist ways to avoid conformance with the law. This mocks the true depth and power of the law, causes our hope to be impure, and eliminates our dependence on Jesus as savior.

man-in-trash-canI have to say that I have actually in real life been faced with the example Rollins gives us. So, how does a blood-bought grace-centered approach solve this problem? Here is what I think is honest. I let my older son know that living together outside of marriage is less than best and leads to hurt. It makes his most important relationship on earth a tentative and endable one, subject to the whims of either member’s vaporous notions of what constitutes a successful relationship. It maintains a door out of the relationship because freedom is not envisioned as staying together but as maintaining an escape. In the end it ends up treating people as objects of self-gratification rather than as living persons to be cherished and persisted with. I also knew for certain that no one involved was mentally prepared to be able say that they could sleep together in our house without saying sleeping together was morally acceptable. However, I believe the blood of Jesus is greater than any of these things, and that he and his girlfriend were very beloved and very welcome in our home. I asked them to cater to my younger sons’ needs by sleeping separately, because in important and various ways we are still prisoners of cultural appearances of conformance. Because of my faith in Christ I can say that for all of us involved, in one way or another, our sin is truly sin, while we remain truly beloved. I dare not take any other position, lest I make Christ neither just nor the justifier.

You want to judge this? I am not justified by rising above Peter Rollins’ notions of moral conformance or non-conformance. Nor am I judged by a mixed-grace person’s notion that I should maintain a conformist veneer of non-conformance to the law. I am free to make stupid solutions because in some cases stupid solutions seem to be the only options. Because I am under grace I can face my stupid options and knowingly determine to disappoint all observers. I die to redeeming myself through making the right decision. No matter what we do or think, there is going to be someone that can easily and rightly make us look stupid or heretical or unholy or wrong. All of you who need to judge one way or another can go to hell — quite literally. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace purchased at very great cost. Life is complex. We are all bound to make mistakes no matter what we do. So in Christ, I am not judged — at all. I live free from judgement and seek decisions that in a world saturated with foolishness and sin I can at least try to act from love, if not always from principle.

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