When Christians in their stories, songs, and discussions mention God’s Law, non-Christian neighbors don’t have a clue what Christians are talking about.
They also don’t get Christian “code” language about repentance, sin, death, and hell.
Fortunately, some other Christians (or professing Christians) understand that non-Christians don’t understand these concepts. These Christians know their non-Christian neighbors interpret these concepts as expressions of hate, guilt, doom, and power plays.
So their solution? Stop talking about God’s Law entirely.
Their solution is to assume their neighbors know all about what God’s grace means.
Several readers of this Franklin Graham post tried this “solution” in the comments section. This “solution” also pops up in conversations, books, novels, songs, sermon series, and blog articles that purport to explore how Christians should Engage A Post-Christian Culture.
One Graham critic used this assume-grace Christian code while making this assumption:
Shame on you, Franklin. Your dear father, Billy, would never have stooped to this level of vitriol against humans we have been commanded to love, not judge nor condemn, and certainly hurl no stones. Islam’s Taliban is a poor example for you to follow. Your father and our dear Lord provide a higher example.
Phrases like “we have been commanded,” “judge or condemn,” and “hurl … stones” are biblical references, particularly to the account of John 8:1-11.1 So the writer is trying to speak from a Christian perspective.
But the writer does not seem to understand none of this will be any help to non-Christians.
2. Non-Christians do not understand God’s grace
I’ll spend more time with this problem because I see it far more often in Christian cultures.
Here’s how the problem breaks down. A Christian is in a discussion with other Christians who are acting mean (or supposedly acting mean). In response the first Christian assumes:
- My non-Christian neighbor has had the same struggles with legalism as I have.
- That other Christian is acting legalistic, like the mean Christians I’ve met before.
- My neighbor feels enough guilt as it is. Someone else already made them feel that way.
- I don’t want to do that. I want only to reach my neighbors with God’s love and grace.
- So I’ll talk about Jesus’s grace and acceptance, which everyone (like me) would love.
- Non-Christian neighbors will see the contrast, and consider embracing Jesus.
To be sure, there are many legalistic and nasty Christians who need to be critiqued (but first with Scripture, not sentimental appeals). Their false ideas and un-Christlike behavior should be naturally challenged and exposed in stories and songs. And in some cases, such “mean Christians” do mean well, but their jargon and assumptions betray their insularity.
But Christians who assume non-Christians easily get biblical concepts of grace, love, and mercy are just as insular.
They don’t have a clue how non-Christians really interpret these terms.
Sure, most non-Christians are (wrongfully) repulsed by the idea of a loving yet disciplining, holy, judging God. They may claim they’re perfectly okay with a “loving” or “accepting” God.
But when many non-Christians hear Christians bring this assurance—“God isn’t mean or nasty! In fact He is very loving and accepting of people”—they are not always thinking like Christians think. They aren’t always thinking, “Finally, here is relief from this guilt I have under the burden of sin and the Law.” They aren’t always thinking, “At last, Someone Who can forgive me!”
Instead, at best they are thinking, “Good. At least some Christians will accept me and won’t ever challenge my sin with this ‘Jesus’ stuff.” And at worst (especially if they are political power-player types) they are thinking, “Good. Here is a Christian who is a useful idiot.”
For those Christians who try the “grace and acceptance” approach alone, trying to find common ground with non-Christians, I must be firm yet truthful: Many non-Christians simply do not understand your journey from sin, to legalism, to forgiveness. They can’t care about or identify with any of that. They view “legalism” and “good purpose of God’s law” as one and the same thing—something evil to get away from, by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Applications to fiction
Alas, when Christians do not understand this fact about our non-Christian neighbors, we grumpily or cheerily head out to combat or “love” our neighbors without having a clue.
And some of us write stories in which we attempt to “evangelize” imaginary beings.2
Not all Christian novels are this way. We need to stop pretending they are. But I have read some of them that are still like this: They are written by, published by, marketed to and sold to Christians, but are based entirely around the story of an imaginary non-believer.
The secular character serves as wish-fulfillment for some of our over-sheltered evangelical desires. He/she is convinced by soft-soap clichés, such as “just take a leap of faith.” Or the secular character hears a good-cop-Christian assurance like, “Yes, God really loves you,” and are led to sentimental tears, rather than confusion or eye-rolls. Such secular characters act as if they somehow already understood the Law, which would mean Grace comes as a relief to them. But of course, in such stories, the Law doesn’t even make a cameo.
So what’s the solution?
One offered solution might be, “Christians shouldn’t share stories or conversations about specific spiritual concepts like law and grace. After all, Just Tell the Story.”
But we may as well claim, “Write a novel, and if necessary, use words.” Law (and sin, guilt, repentance, punishment) and grace (and love, mercy, forgiveness, atonement) are crucial to all stories, and to the reality biblical Christians live every day. Without reflections of law and grace, there is no plot. Without a plot, there is no story—either in fiction or in reality.
Thus our stories, songs, and discussions must include these concepts.
But we must be wiser about how we explore these reflections, not only to a wider non-Christian world but to Christian who are themselves confused about law and grace.
We cannot assume our non-Christian neighbors will get either God’s Law or God’s grace.
And we absolutely cannot leave one or the other out of our stories, songs, and reality.
How have you seen God’s Law and God’s grace best communicated, especially in stories? How have you reflected these beautiful truths to the non-Christian neighbors in your life?
- Jon Bloom writes a truthful and imaginative exploration of this account at Desiring God Ministries that dispels some evangelical myths. ↩
- I’ve touched on this in part 4 of a previous series, Fiction Christians From Another Planet! ↩