This talk generated a lot of “buzz” on the #GAFCON2013 Twitter feed yesterday. Highly recommended!!
The Grace of God OR the world of the West?
The Rev Dr Michael Ovey, Principal of Oak Hill College, London, England
Day 2, Oct 22nd GAFCON 2013
My first really significant encounter with worldwide Anglicanism came at theological college. It was 1990 and an east African priest was on secondment with us. He preached in the college chapel. He posed a question. Which gospel, he asked, which gospel do you westerners want us to believe? The one you came with or the one you preach now? Which gospel? I was horrified, not because what he said was not true. I was horrified because it was true.
My east African brother`s question has nagged away at me ever since. But how has it come about that we have a different gospel now from the one we first preached. What is this difference between what we westerners say now and what we said then?
I think the difference is nothing less than the grace of God and what we mean by it. The difference comes from the way that western culture and the western church deny or distort God`s grace. The modern west, in both culture and church, is, overall, graceless, and has become so because of its worldliness. That is why I have called this plenary talk the grace of God or the world of the west. Ultimately you cannot have both. It is either/or. My prayer is that as global Anglicans we choose grace, not the world of the west. For those of us who have tried to have grace and the world, I pray for our repentance. My fear is as global Anglicans we will try to have grace AND the world, and that God justly hands us over to the consequences of our sin in rejecting his grace as it truly is and builds his kingdom through others.
But I must now explain why grace is at stake, why the culture of the west denies grace and how the western church distorts grace.
2. Why is Grace at stake?
Let me begin with grace
On first hearing you may well be thinking that I am simply crazy. People in the western church still talk about grace. They talk about it a lot. If anything the charge is that traditional believers like me lack grace. So what am I getting at? It’s this. It`s not enough just to say the word `grace` a lot. The issue is what we mean by it, and whether we mean what the bible means or whether we have made up our own meaning for ourselves.
2.1. Cheap Grace?
Now the kind of grace that I think the western church talks about, and come to that western culture when it thinks about grace at all is this: cheap grace. Cheap grace. I am borrowing from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He says this. ‘Ê¹Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate’Ê¹1
We especially need to note three points.
”¢ This grace is worldly. Bonhoeffer means that it conforms to the patterns of the world, is no different from the world and listens to the world.2 Crucial. Bonhoeffer was warning us about mixing Christian grace with the world’s idea of grace, and at worst substituting the world`s view of grace for the Christian view. For Bonhoeffer, who was writing in the 1930s, that influence from the world came from the tragic infatuation of some German Christians with Nazism. The precise kind of worldliness may be different now from Nazism then. I`m not saying that modern western culture and the modern western church is pro-Â””‘Nazi. I am saying it is pro-Â””‘world, just as, in their different way, Nazi Christians tried to be.
This worldliness is at the heart of Bonhoeffer’s criticism. He is echoing the Barmen declaration of 1934, when German Confessing Christians rejected the idea that Christ’s people should listen to any other voice claiming to stand on a par with his. The Barmen declaration comes back to that time and again: the imperative that Christ’s people listen to him the good Shepherd and not to any competing voice. It is Christ alone, not Christ and something else”¦. Whether the something else is Nazism or liberal democracy or an understandable pride in establishing oneself as an independent country. But what does this cheap grace that conforms to the world look like? Bonhoeffer points especially to 2 things that mark out cheap grace from real grace.
”¢ This grace is repentanceless
”¢ This is a grace we bestow on ourselves, in other words, it is a grace we give each other when we see fit, rather than according to the pattern of God
We need to look at both aspects, the lack of repentance and bestowing grace on ourselves.