How not to be a guilt driven church – (Ephesians 2:8-10)

I want to come back to the question of how guilt and shame distorts church life.  Earlier, I mentioned about Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Church” and how it seems that we’ve at times picked up another book with a similar but really quite different title “The Guilt Driven Church.”So how do we guard our churches against being guilt driven?  How do we encourage believers to flourish in grace? How do we make sure that our Gospel communities genuinely are Gospel communities?

I want to suggest that a key issue is how we understand and apply 3 little verses from the Bible. Ephesians 2:8 is well known:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.

It’s one of those verses we often quote when sharing the Gospel. But if we know our Bibles well, then we’ll know that Paul goes on to say that

“10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

I’m quoting from the NLT. Older versions start the section with “For by grace you are saved….” And finish with “to do good works.”  This is where the problem comes. We know that we’ve been saved by grace but we also know that there’s a purpose for Christians – good works. Our lives are meant to be different and we are meant to be different. So how do you bridge the gap between grace and works?

This challenge comes up in our individual walks. How do I grow in godliness, how do I overcome temptation? Where do I find motivation and strength to live differently in a world that does not love God or his ways?  Then in church life, the question is how do we encourage each other to serve God. This is a particular problem for church leaders.  There’s two parts to this. First of all there is the discipleship issue, we want to see people grow. We want to see evidence of change. Then you also have the day to day reality of getting a group of people to function together. There’s so much that needs to happen in church life. How do you get people to fill all the slots on the rotas? How do you mobilise people to work together in doing outreach? What motivation do church members have for inviting friends, sacrificing time, giving money etc.

That’s when we risk trying to build our own bridges between Ephesians 2:8 (“for by grace…”) and 2:10 (“to do good works”). I’m finding it helpful to sum up these false bridges under three headings – you may well be familiar with them by now as I’ve mentioned them a few times.

Building our own bridges

Legalism – by this I mean a mechanistic understanding of our relationship with God. I do things in order to either earn God’s favour or to pay God back for what he has done for me. For the guilt driven church, this means two things. First of all, it means that leaders can use guilt as a means to motivate people. Service in church becomes a means of paying someone off. Sometimes it’s about paying God back. Sometimes it is about paying back other Christians. This is risky and we may be talking about unintended consequences but where someone has been helped, practically, emotionally etc. by other Christians within the church then they can feel a sense of indebtedness to those who have helped them. So if the request or instruction to do something comes from the helpers then the motivation to act can come from this indebtedness. We realise at this stage that you don’t need to be trying to manipulate in order to get that guilt response. Someone may be genuinely encouraging someone in their faith but the other person hears it from within a guilt context.  Legalism results in our service and use of our gifts becoming a duty and a heavy burden. This is when and where we risk losing joy.  We can even start out with all the right motives but over the years something becomes “my ministry” and although at times I’d love to give up, I can’t because it shapes my identity and who I am to others and to myself and/or I think that I’m the only one who could do it and the consequences of stopping would be terrible.

Licence – I don’t even try to build the bridge. My attitude is that if the Gospel is about grace then I don’t need to worry about what I do.  Notice two things here. First of all, I engage with church not as a family member but as a consumer. Church provides a service to me. Secondly note that this still has a lot to do with guilt. I’ve argued elsewhere that the guilt factor here is my decision to put up barriers and to hide my guilt and shame away. When I’m asked to do things then I feel guilty. It reminds me of my failure. So I choose to ignore and bury those things.

Magic – This is partly to do with superstition but in fact describes an attitude that can be present in the most secular of minds.  Here the idea is that somehow things will get sorted out due to forces outside and beyond my control (but not necessarily by God). For the church member it’s about hoping that my problem with guilt will be solved if I build the right connections with the right people and the right places (see more shortly).  For the leaders it means that motivation is connected in some way to the offer of magic solutions. So in its most very overtly superstitious forms we see types of mysticism -the expectation that the Mass and the Confession as sacraments will do something for me or the belief that exercising enough faith, paying my tithes and getting the right preacher to pray over me will take away guilt.  There’s a strong connection with my understanding of guilt and my understanding of life. If I don’t flourish in life, if I’m not successful then it’s probably connected to guilt.  I fear that I may be under a curse that my actions have brought on me. In fact, it does not need to be my own actions. It may be that some form of generational curse is on me and my family due to something my ancestors or someone else in the community did (this may well link into honour-shame cultures too).  Even if we don’t have that overtly mystical or magical view of life, this mind-set can still be very strong.  If I look to knowing and hearing the right preachers and attending the right type of churches and conferences then I can end up seeing the relationship as magical.  When we look for the “silver bullet” to sort out problems then we’re taking the “magic” route. This might be the hope that a new pastor will sort everything out or that a week on a camp or Christian convention will be the secret ingredient to spiritual growth or conversion. What I’m doing is I’m seeking to deal with my guilt, I’ve failed to grow and be godly through the year, we’ve failed to get these young people converted, Spring Harvest, Keswick, Word Alive might just do the trick.

Now, you will have noticed that these three things are actually very heavily interconnected.  You don’t tend to find a church or Christian who just use one of the bridges.  At different times and for different reasons we will use the different bridges.  This actually became sharper in my mind when thinking about the wider picture, not of local churches but of the journey of Western Culture from religion into secularism.

In his hefty work, The Secular Age, Charles Taylor maps out a history of secularism. He goes back prior to the reformation and describes a world that was in a sense enchanted.

“In the enchanted world….500 years ago…they lived in a world of spirits, both good and bad. The bad ones include Satan of course, but beside him, the world was full of a host of demons, threatening from all sides: demons and spirits of the forest, and wilderness, but also those which can threaten us in our everyday lives.”[1]

In other words, the dominant bridge was “magic.”  This was a world where there were good and evil forces at work.

“Spirit agents were also numerous on the good side. Not just God, but also his saints to whom one prayed, and whose shrines one visited in certain cases, in hopes of a cure, or in thanks of a cure prayed for and granted, or for rescue from extreme danger, e.g. at sea.”[2]

And as we’ve already begun to see, it wasn’t just about beings but about places and objects as well.

“power also resided in things. For the curative action of saints was often linked t centres where their relics resided; either some piece of the body (supposedly), or some object which had been connected with them in life.”[3]

There are some things that we will want to be careful not to lose from that mix (in fact that will be part of Taylor’s thesis that over the last 500 years the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater).  So, I do want to affirm the existence of the devil and of angels. There is more than this (another thing Taylor talks about is the loss of transcendence so that we only have the imminent world around us).

However, as we noted above, with magic we look outside of ourselves but not to God for salvation and help.  We look to places, beings, people.  So in a pre-reformation world, the pursuit of good and godliness was seen as virtuous but not achievable by all. There is “a tension, between the demands of the total transformation which the faith calls to, and the requirements of ordinary ongoing human life.”[4] So monks, nuns and priests lived holy and celibate lives in order that we benefit vicariously from them. [5]

Now, when the reformation happened, as well as seeing that sin and falleness made true obedience impossible, the reformers believed that redemption made obedience and faithfulness possible not just for a select few but for all believers.   However, the problem was still there, how do we bridge the gap from grace to works.  Taylor’s argument is that the reformers attempted to develop disciplined societies where transformation took place. [6]

However, at the same another pressure was at work. God was increasingly being pushed to the margins. So something called deism emerges on the scene post reformation. In Deism

“God still has a role, of course; indeed, he often is given two. First he made us, and endowed us with reason, and in some cases also, with benevolence, and it is these faculties which enable us to get things together, and carry out his plan. And secondly, in case this didn’t suffice, he stands at the end of time as judge, promising to distribute rewards of unimaginable joy, and punishments of unspeakable agony; and these will concentrate our minds on the task at hand.”[7]

In other words, the expectation for virtue is still there but God’s involvement is kept at a distance. The reformation is shorn of grace.  It is down to us as humans to do our best.  If God is at a distance then once again good living will be enforced by legal systems, sanctions and penalties.

You can also see how as God is pushed further from the scene that people will be increasingly tempted to opt out altogether. If God is not present to enforce his rules nor to hep me keep them then why bother. Licence becomes the solution.

You will also notice the close relationship between magic and legalism and magic and licence.  Legalism becomes the mechanism for some of us to win the favour or to appease our little gods.  If I do the right things in the right way at the right place then the spirits will be favourable or the priest, pastor or prophet will intercede for me.  At the same time, there’s the temptation the other way, if saints or my pastor or my church (as an entity distinct from me) provide virtue then I don’t need to. It’s been done on my behalf (but not by Jesus). So we end up with idolatry.  The problem with idols is that they always fail.

Now this “big picture” helps us to see a little more of the problem that leads to us building those bridges in the local church. The problem comes when I  treat God as distant or absent. Deists think that God only showed up at the start of creation and may possible show up again at the end of time to judge. Sometimes Evangelical Christians act as practical deists. We think that God only shows up at conversion and on judgement day. We entertain the possibility that he might show up on other special occasions such as when I have a spiritual experience (e.g. the Pentecostal concept of baptism in the Spirit), during times of revival, at the Christian holiday or at best in the Sunday worship (especially if it’s done in the right way).  So we push God to the margins and we either decide that we can ignore his demands on our lives or we try to do things for ourselves or we look to others to do it for us.

And…because none of those bridges actually work, we still feel guilty!

Solving the problem

So, how do we bridge the gap? Well it’s actually so incredibly obvious really isn’t it? Go back and see what those verses say

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. 10 For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

The flow is ….

  1. “God saved you by his grace…”(v8)   – note that in Greek, the phrase actually starts with “for” (gar) The word “for” pushes us back to what Paul has already said. We needed grace because we were dead in sin. You can’t save yourself.
  2. “So none of us can boast” (v9). This is a purpose clause. The sense is “in order that.” The purpose of God’s grace in salvation is to remind me that I had no part in it and therefore there is no place for human pride or boasting. It stops me from thinking I can earn salvation. It stops me from comparing myself favourably or unfavourably with others.
  3. But note this follows through. V 10 includes a “for” too …we cannot boast because we are God’s workmanship – he is the one who equips us. He prepares us for service (nb this links  back to an earlier point made by Paul that his aim is to be glorified by showing off the riches of his grace and kindness)


So the good works are something that God recreates us for and equips us for. It is grace all the way. I don’t get saved by grace and keep going by something else.  I am saved by grace and I go on by grace

This means we need to keep going back to the Gospel. The Gospel is for mature Christians too.

What does this mean in practice?

This means a couple of things. First of all, it means that I cannot simply opt out (licence). That would be to ignore what I have been made for. Also, it would mean ignoring the reality that God hasn’t left me to it. The sense here -and indeed throughout the New Testament is that God in Christ is intimately involved in my day to day life. We are in Christ, there is close union with him. Christ is in us through the Holy Spirit who indwells us and comes along side us our  counsellor and advocate.  I’m not left alone to get on with things.

Secondly it means that all the forces of legalism and magic are disarmed. There’s no place for manipulation, fear or false trust.  I cannot depend on myself but nor can I depend on others. I depend on Christ alone.

Now, I don’t think we are fully home yet. There’s still a lot of practical questions left to answer before we get this one right. However, I think that naming the problem and identifying the false bridges plus getting the right orientation is a big step in the right direction.

However, I do want to suggest some practical ways forward here.

First of all, my motivation our grace but this isn’t just about looking back to past grace -an attitude of gratitude so I pay back. Rather there is present grace.  I know that God is with me enabling me to serve him. I also see the very work he calls me and us to do as part of his grace. It’s a gift.  We would be helped here by getting rid of a false distinction between spiritual gifts and jobs and talents.  All opportunities to serve in God’s kingdom are gifts because they are part of what God uses for our own good as well as his glory.  I am free to serve. I can find joy in service and joy in growing in godliness too. Then there is future grace. I look forward to the day when God will take me home and the idea of reward that runs through Scripture. I have hope. I know that any struggle here is momentary. I know that whatever effort I put in here, whatever sacrifice I make is negligible compared to the wonder, beauty and joy of the day that is to come.  Christians are always a forward looking people. Christians have hope.

Secondly if God is present with us through the Holy Spirit then that means we are a family gathered around our father. That’s an important understanding of church.  The temptation to magic comes when I think God is absent so I look to other father figures, licence comes when I find the authority figures around me unappealing and run away from them, legalism comes when the family with the father absent starts acting like an organisation with its systems and structures instead of a family.  But when we are family, and when we know that the Father is present. It all changes.  We don’t do things to earn favour or to belong. We do things because we are already favoured and already belong.  Family members muck in to help. Family members should take delight in the good things each other do. Family members encourage one another, bear one another’ burdens and yes challenge and correct each other in love.  Healthy families thrive.

To think about

  1. When I am challenged to do something whether it is about life changes of service in God’s family, what drives me –grace or guilt?
  2. In what ways am I/is our church tempted to fall into legalism, licence or magic? Which of the three is the greatest danger to us?

[1] Charles Taylor, The Secular Age (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 32.

[2] Taylor, The Secular Age, 32.

[3] Taylor, The Secular Age, 32.

[4] Taylor, The Secular Age, 44.

[5] Taylor, The Secular Age, 44.

[6] See Taylor, The Secular Age, 90-145.

[7] Taylor, The Secular Age, 222.