Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for establishing competing camps based on the teachings of their favorite leader: “I am of Paul…I am of Apollos” (1 Cor 1:12). Paul stated his goal in addressing them in 1 Corinthians 1:10, asking them to, “agree with one another” with “no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” That sounds like a tall order today, but even if we never achieve perfect unity, we can surely move toward a greater degree of it.
After sharing his goal, Paul dug deep into the issue, exposing their worldly mind-sets to be the product of immaturity (1 Cor 3:1). In contrast to Corinthian immaturity, spiritual people, such as Paul and Apollos, had the mind of Christ and knew how to judge matters in the Spirit instead of in the flesh (1 Cor 2:15-16). So Paul’s solution to immature divisions in the church is to become spiritually mature, possessing the mind of Christ. For the problems of division in the church today, the solution is no different. Numerous articles and blog posts have made their way to my desk in recent days present opposing views of the gospel, one from a grace perspective; the other from a holiness perspective. It is sad that two God-sent movements in the body of Christ are at odds with each other, especially when the disagreement between the two is largely the result of misunderstanding each other. If rather than arguing back and forth, these two “camps” tried to understand each other, perhaps some of the differences and divisions would go away. After all, we all know that holiness and grace go hand in hand. We cannot have one without the other.
Holiness is one of the most important and most frequently discussed themes in Scripture. There are not many things the Bible says you cannot see God without, but holiness is one of them (Heb 12:14). True holiness is beautiful and no lover of Jesus would ever speak negatively about it. But what begins as true holiness often ends up as legalism.
Holiness movements often spring from revival. When God starts moving mightily in an area people start changing the way they live. They give up frivolous activities and devote themselves entirely to the Lord. In the 19th century, many people stopped riding bicycles, playing cards, even drinking soda on Sunday. They did this because they wanted to devote themselves to God more fully. But when the move of God subsided, the next generation of Christians simply made into law what their fathers and mothers had practiced as a response to grace. That is how legalism is birthed in many denominations. Legalism is extremely harmful to the body of Christ. But the sincere desire to draw closer to God by willfully separating oneself from unnecessary, though not sinful, pleasures is admirable and praiseworthy. Refraining from worldly pleasures should never be criticized or labeled as legalism just because the same actions are done by legalistic people in graceless camps within Christianity.
Whether people are acting out of legalism or grace is not necessarily determined by what they are doing, but by why they are doing it. The same activity, as long as it is not a sinful one, can be done as a response to grace or as a works-based attempt to earn favor with God. For example, one person might give up watching Hollywood movies because the Spirit of God has captured his attention so deeply that he would rather spend his free time in prayer and reading the Word. Another person might refuse to watch movies because he thinks that by abstaining he will accumulate “points” with God. Both people are doing the same thing, but the former is walking in grace while the latter is bound by legalistic righteousness.
Failure to recognize the difference and branding all who refrain from watching movies as legalists is itself a legalistic reaction. Legalists judge on the surface: “Anyone who goes to the movie theater is sinning.” But I hear many grace advocates sound a lot like the legalists: “Anyone who refuses to go to a movie theater is a legalist who does not understand grace.” We should stop judging on the surface, stop making sweeping condemnations of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and learn how to judge righteous judgment. That can be done only in the Spirit. Sadly, too few Christians walk in the Spirit to any appreciable degree, and thus they are unable to judge things in the Spirit. The result is division and competing camps within Christianity.
On the flip side, what begins as true grace sometimes degenerates into license to sin. People who have grown up with a works mentality – which is pretty much all of us – hear a message of the true grace of God and think it is too good to be true. After hearing more and studying God’s word they realize that God is pleased with them just as they are. They do not need to perform in order to be accepted by God. This is so freeing, they feel as though they have been born again all over again.
So far so good. But because grace is such a liberating concept, a few might think it is impossible to become unbalanced concerning it. Hence any teaching that seems to limit grace is rejected as error or legalism, while any teaching that emphasizes God’s acceptance of the sinner no matter what is received as the true grace of God. Such people will condemn the non-movie goer as anti-grace and might even go see filthy movies to prove the power of grace. Some even fall into the error of thinking a change of lifestyle is not necessary. They can sin as often as they want, feel no remorse about it, and still believe that God has forgiven them. But this is not the grace teaching; it is a perversion of it that only a small percentage of “grace campers” have fallen into.
If anything is repulsive to people from the “holiness camp,” it is hearing about people who have not left their former ways but still think they are going to heaven. The problem is, many holiness advocates hear a few deviant teachings from people who say they are in the grace camp, and they conclude that all grace advocates are deviant in their doctrine and behavior. Such a sweeping judgment is itself a grace-less, holier-than-thou act. Those who emphasize holiness need to understand that most people who emphasize grace teach that God’s grace not only provides forgiveness of sins, but also empowerment to live free from sin. They teach that the evidence of a grace-filled life is a sin-free life. But they also emphasize that no one is perfect and our sins do not make God love us less or treat us differently.
People in the “holiness camp” and people in the “grace camp” are both guilty of the same fault. They tend to judge the whole on the actions of a few. As a result there is a holiness camp and a grace camp in Christianity, which is a ridiculous oxymoron, for we all know that holiness is impossible apart from grace. If we will recognize that both “camps” oppose the excesses that exist in their own camp, maybe we can move forward and find some common ground in our beliefs. If we do, perhaps we can eliminate these competing camps and realize we are all on the same side, fighting for the same cause. Then we may someday be able to say that we agree with one another and that there are no divisions among us, as Paul desired.