One of the most helpful and practical discipleship concepts that I’ve learned came from a seminary professor who was describing the difference between what he called “excusive grace” and “transformative grace.”
In brief, “excusive grace” is what happens when we easily shrug off irresponsibility and unfaithfulness in others by saying, “That’s OK. It’s really not a big deal.” This seems incredibly gracious, but it represents a soft attitude that can enable sin patterns in others’ lives.
Before I describe “transformative grace,” let me add my own third image to the scene that was being described by my professor. This category, which I call “militant ‘grace’,” is one that I’ve often observed in the world of discipleship. Militant “grace” (which often really isn’t grace at all, thus the quotation marks) responds to irresponsibility and unfaithfulness with a boot camp attitude that screams, “My way or the highway. Call me when you grow up.” This philosophy has a good heart behind it (a standard to be attained), but the line-in-the-sand is often drawn arbitrarily and individual situations aren’t taken into account in a loving way.
If these first two options are extremes at either end of a spectrum—excusive grace on the soft end and militant grace on the hard end—“transformative grace” is a more gospel-centered approach that falls somewhere in the middle and should be the aim of our discipleship relationships.
The Ends and Means of Grace
Transformative grace enjoys the understanding of excusive grace but rejects the cavalier attitude towards maturity, growth, and accountability. Likewise, transformative grace maintains the same goal of militant grace but rejects the path that is taken along the way.
Another way to state this may be to see discipleship as having a means and an end. The end is growth, maturity, and Christlikeness. The means is loving discipleship where life and truth transference happen in the context of real relationships. If this is the case, we should embrace the means of exclusive grace (if the “means” = understanding and love) and reject its end (if the end = no challenge to true growth). We should embrace the end of militant grace (if the end = a strong challenge to true growth) and reject its means (if the means = lack of understanding and love).
Allow me to illustrate how each of these positions might handle a common discipleship issue.
The Situation: You’re supposed to meet with a guy regularly for about six weeks to walk through a problem he is having. Because of his busy work and family schedule, you decide to meet for breakfast at a local restaurant on Wednesday mornings. Since he has to be at work relatively early, he tells you that 6:00 am is the only time that works for him. The problem, however, is that the first week he arrives at 6:10 and the second week at 6:25. The third week he is a no-show and was clearly still asleep when you called to check on him at 6:30. How do you respond?
The Excusive Grace Response: “That’s alright, brother. I know it’s hard to get out of bed early in the morning. Don’t worry about it – it’s good for me to get up early anyway and I just use the time I’m waiting on you to have a longer personal time in the Word.”
The Militant “Grace” Response: “Drop and give me 150 pushups. When you’re finished, I want 10 wind sprints in the parking lot. Then—after you pay for my breakfast—don’t let the door hit you on the way out. My time is too valuable to be wasted. You have my phone number; call me when you’re serious about committing to this relationship.”
The Transformative Grace Response: “You know I love you, right? That’s why I need to be completely honest with you. It’s not easy for me to get out of bed in the morning either. In fact, I had to leave a warm bed with my wife to be here by 6:00 am, and I had to stick her with getting our kids ready for school by herself when I would normally help shoulder the load. I’m willing to help be part of the solution for you in whatever way I need to be, but we can’t keep going on like this. Do you need me to give you a wake-up call in the mornings? Should we change the time of our meetings? Do I need to swing by your office so we can meet during your lunch break? Let me know and I’ll do what I can to help make this happen.”
These aren’t hypothetical situations and responses – this is an actual situation and three actual responses I’ve seen various disciple-makers give (minus the pushups and wind sprints). Do you see the difference the three approaches?
The excusive grace response may even be true. It might not be a big deal to you and you might have enjoyed the extra time in the Word those mornings, but that’s not the point! The point is that this person will never grow and mature as long as you keep enabling them and making excuses for their irresponsibility.
The militant grace response may be what you want to say to the person, but will it ultimately be helpful? Will you help the person develop a changed heart that values commitment, responsibility, and self-discipline? Or, will you help them have a fear of disappointing you and/or having a lighter wallet? This approach might even produce what looks like obedience, but the impetus can often be man-centered and not God-centered.
The transformative grace response should be a healthy mix of both grace and truth. It has a goal in mind for the person but is loving and nurturing in how to get there. The means is as important as the end goal.
This doesn’t mean that there’s never a time to say “That’s OK, it’s not a big deal.” It also doesn’t mean that you won’t occasionally have to “cut someone loose” and break off a relationship with a slothful disciple. But, both of these should be the exception, not the rule. Let’s disciple in such a way that we see changed lives through the Holy Spirit and the Word, because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to the glory of the Father!