Can you get grace apart from the church?
Even as I typed it, it’s like I heard a voice saying, Whoa, that sounds really Catholic. So I’m not talking about indulgences or Eucharists. I mean, can you really grasp grace and keep grasping it (or keep believing that it’s grasping you) without the body of Christ? Here’s why I ask, and why it matters to mission:
There were a handful of people I grew up with who seemed to have radical salvation experiences in their teenage years. We were “on fire for God”. Not only could you bet that we’d be at any Christian event with our Third Day t-shirts and ichthus bumper stickers, we’d be leading the events. We were our youth ministers’ sermon illustrations and our athletic teams’ designated chaplains. On the weekends we even peacefully conceded to Monopoly with our families instead of partying. And everything was awesome. No really, it was.
Then the fog came. I remember it as a look on people’s faces. Tired. Everything wasn’t awesome. God didn’t feel near anymore. We were overwhelmed. We were stumbling in secret sins. But we’d been put on too high a pedestal to confess or step down. So we kept the act going as long as possible. It didn’t end well for most of us. To this day, few are walking with the Lord anymore. I barely made it.
So what happened? Did grace fail? It certainly seemed as though we had encountered Jesus and his grace in undeniable ways. But the seed of the gospel had been sown on rocky soil, and though it sprang up with great promise, it yet had no root to endure the trials common to life with God (Matthew 13:20-21), trials that John Newton said are guaranteed and necessary to prove genuine faith. Honestly, who springs up day-one with deep roots? New believers are perhaps the best witnesses of God’s grace, but they’re probably the worst leaders in God’s church. That’s why Paul wrote into his leadership qualifications, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). It wasn’t just that he wanted to avoid crappy leaders–he was concerned for the little seed of the gospel in their hearts.
God himself cultivates the soil of people’s hearts, but he uses the church like fertilizer. What did my friends and I need as the seed of the gospel took root in us? The nourishment of the body of Christ. We needed the instruction, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer, wonders, sharing, gathering, and witnessing (Acts 2:42-47). We needed the teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness from the word of God by men and women of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). We needed an honest place to confess our sins and pray for one another so that we could be healed (James 5:16). Instead, we did what we knew best, what any of us do naturally. We tried really, really hard. And that’s exactly the opposite of grace.
So again I ask, can you get grace apart from the church? There’s no way! And not just young believers. It’s a warning for all of us because the journey of grace is much more than a conversion moment. The author of Hebrews sang “prone to wander, Lord I feel it” long before the famous hymn. He wrote,
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
He wrote this to believers who had already endured dark days for their faith, including public defamation, the plundering of their property, and imprisonment (10:32-34). If they were in danger of drifting from grace, how much more are we who have yet to taste the pangs of daily death in distant fields, the goodbyes and failures and unproductiveness and disconnection and identity crises and sickness and spiritual attack common to life on mission? A missionary’s commissioning service and plane ticket do not mark the end of a wandering heart, but the beginning of a season of wandering like never before. Let us take heed lest we fall. The grasp of grace cannot be proven apart from the church (1 John 4:20). The grasp of grace cannot be worked out apart from the church (Ephesians 4:7-16). And the grasp of grace cannot be maintained apart from the church (Hebrews 10:23-25).
So run to the body of Christ. Be grasped by grace together. In every season of life at home or abroad, mature your calling to Jesus—to his grace and his mission—in community.
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, Ephesians 3:8-10