“You know they were chaplains on slave ships, right?” Spoken word/hip-hop artist Propaganda queries this in his song Precious Puritans. “Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees? Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs, even if they theology was good?”
The entire track packs punch after truth-wielding punch, reminding us how even some we would consider theological giants were actually small, sickening men in some massive ways. It’s a guilt-trip for anyone who has ever quoted or lauded these people.
But Propaganda doesn’t leave it at that. The end of the song delivers an even sharper twist in the gut: “It bothers me when you quote puritans, if I’m honest, for the same reason it bothers me when people quote me… God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines. Just like your precious puritans.”
That’s the trouble with being both fallen and risen. That’s the trouble with grace. Sin still sidles through our veins. It’s not a permanent condition, but it is an influential one. We have been forgiven so much and we have the ability, though God’s Spirit, to live under liberty, not condemnation– as righteous, holy people. But we also have a rebellious nature that can abuse that grace, a nature that is bent toward evil. We hurt one another. We do shameful things, great and small, for which we deserve God’s judgement. We are fickle, hypocritical, unbelievably wretched at times.
But none of this changes God’s love for us. We can’t wriggle our way out of His grace. It encompasses our wickedness. Grace, by definition, means going beyond. Our sin is no match for the ridiculous grace of God.
And this is the grace He calls us to extend to one another.
Unfortunately, as Propaganda implies, we are much quicker to extend grace to ourselves than we are to others. It’s like the story Jesus tells about a man who tries to remove a speck from his friend’s eye before removing the log from his own eye. We are often quicker to condemn than to forgive, but we are called to live the opposite way.
On the flip side, we are also called to be holy. That is where the tension of grace sets in. We are called to live in godliness, to hold one another accountable, to stand for justice and righteousness. When one of our number sins, especially in a way that hurts others, are we not to do anything about it? How do we extend grace and expect holiness at the same time?
Grace does not mean sweeping things under the rug. In fact, we often get our definitions crossed and talk about grace when we need to be invoking mercy. Mercy is a clean slate. Grace is a chalkboard masterpiece where our one hundred lines of “I will not talk in class” were once scribbled. God calls us to be both merciful and gracious, in ways so far beyond what this world sees as fair. Wild mercy. Wild grace. They flow from a wild God.
But grace and mercy still don’t give us license to forget justice. Yes, God is the ultimate invoker of justice. But we are his ambassadors here. When we fight for justice for the least of these (or anyone who has been hurt), we are doing it for Christ. Grace and mercy do not call for us to turn a blind eye to the sinful acts of one another.
No matter how we want to appear before the world or the Church, we do everyone involved a disservice by covering the issue in the name of grace. Hiding the emotional or physical abuse committed by a pastor is not gracious, it’s sinful. Allowing that person to continue to lead is also wrong, because it ignores the gravity of what they have done. On the other hand, continuing to berate a sincerely repentant sinner in the name of justice is also sinful.
Grace is so much more creative than we allow it to be. When we truly let grace set the sites, it will aim better than we ever could on our own. Sometimes grace is letting something go completely. Sometimes grace is giving someone a second chance. Sometimes grace is asking someone to stepping down from an influential position, but still laboring to love them as a fellow brother or sister in Christ.
Letting the Spirit and Scripture guide us in applying grace to our relationships is non-negotiable. If we offer grace on our own, it will always be imperfect. If we offer grace poured from the hands of God, it’s sure to travel in the right direction. Knowledge, wisdom, and discernment are important when it comes to grace, but so is creativity. We can’t be afraid that God might do something we haven’t seen before, because He often will. It is His nature to go beyond. Even when it comes to teaching us how to use grace.
In David’s famous Psalm 23, he uses shepherd imagery to describe God’s protection and provision for us. In verse 6, he writes, “Surely goodness [or grace] and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” I once heard a preacher describe how, in the imagery of this psalm, grace and mercy were the sheepdogs assisting the shepherd in protecting the sheep. When you think about it, grace and mercy are just as boxed into our expectations as border collies are in an open pasture– they have a job to do, but they are free to roam.