The Christian religion never saved anyone nor gave anyone life. The Christian religion should not be confused as the hope of the world. Our faith centers on grace. It was grace and truth that came through Jesus. (R. Kirby Godsey, When We Talk About God, Let’s Be Honest)
Grace has always been my “back pocket” topic. With four years of issues of the magazine completed coming up with topics has become a bit more challenging. Grace was always the fall back topic. I figured that if I got pushed one month and couldn’t come up with a topic I’d just use “grace.” Hey, that’s an easy topic! How wrong I was! I’ve been pondering the topic of grace for a good month now and appear to be not much closer to really understanding grace than I was before I seriously started considering it.
I’ve always had an idea of what grace is and what it means, but trying to explain grace to others is like trying to tell a blind person what “blue” is like. You know blue when you see it … describing it is almost impossible. It’s the same with grace. You know grace when you experience it … describing that experience is almost impossible. But, hey, it’s the topic and others have made wonderful and inspiring attempts to describe God’s grace and its power in their lives … so I’ll give it my best shot, too.
How Do I Get Grace?
R. Kirby Godsey is president of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Mercer, for those who don’t know, is a Southern Baptist institution. Godsey got in an ocean of hot water over the book I’ve quoted from above. From the quote I suspect you can understand why. To say that the Christian faith as never saved anyone or given anyone life is just this side of heresy in the Southern Baptist religion. Certainly they believe the church gives life … is indeed the source of life and salvation for everyone! Godsey’s words are radical, unorthodox and completely correct.
Jesus didn’t come to earth to found the institution of Christianity we have today. Jesus came to give us a gift — grace. It is the only thing we need to draw near to God. We don’t need the church, dogma, doctrine, a pope, a preacher or a priest. We only need to acknowledge the free gift of grace that Christ came to bring us. In that acknowledgement we see that we are God’s precious children, and that nothing else, no other qualifier in our life, matters. Grace cares not if you are black, white, lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, male or female. Grace covers, without conditions, anyone who accepts it. Grace is the sole basis of our salvation. Godsey takes this concept a step further:
“Accepting Jesus is not the basis of salvation. Jesus came to say that we are saved. We are forgiven. God’s forgiveness lies within us. We are loved. God’s embracing love lies buried within us underneath a load of guilt and fear. No conditions, no prerequisites, no plans to follow — grace is not a conditional affirmation.”
Paul confirms this idea in Romans 3: 23-34: “for there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift!” What good news! We are not justified by our acts, by our religious alliances, by our sexual orientation or by our heritage. No, we are justified by grace … as a gift! We haven’t earned this wonderful thing called grace … no; we’ve received it as a gift from God.
It took awhile for this realization to really sink in. I was so tangled up in that guilt and fear that Godsey talks about to see that I’ve already been forgiven of all my sins. No more bowing and scraping and raking myself over the coals for the bad things I’ve done. Grace has set me free! I only had to acknowledge its presence and its power in my life!
I get many letters from people who tell me I must believe certain things to be a Christian. I must believe in the virgin birth, a literal bodily resurrection of Christ and, oh yes, I must believe that homosexuality is sin. If I don’t believe these things then my one way ticket to hell is stamped and ready for use. Grace proves them wrong! I don’t need to believe in any doctrine, or any dogma, or anyone else’s opinion of homosexuality. I’m covered by God’s grace as a gift! That means no matter what God is here for me … nothing can separate me from God.
Now, when the attacks on my faith come … and they come often … I shrug them off. Another person’s opinion of my faith, or my walk with God, is just that — an opinion. It’s an opinion, most often, based on false presumptions. The people who attack my faith assume that since I am a lesbian I am automatically “immoral.” The only thing they have to back that up is their opinion that homosexuality itself is immoral. Their opinion is based on a fallacy since homosexuality, in and of itself, is no more immoral than heterosexuality. How one uses their sexuality can be moral or immoral, certainly. But the orientation itself has no moral attachment. So, my attackers are assuming facts not in evidence … namely whether or not I use my sexuality morally or not. Knowing this, the attack loses its sting for me. I see condemnation in their words, sure … but not a condemnation of me because they don’t know me!
I recently received a letter full of this sort of condemnation and a dire warning that I should renounce my homosexuality and realize “the truth” about God’s word. I wrote one line back: “Thank you for sharing your opinion.” The response was swift: “That’s not opinion … that’s the truth.” I replied: “Thank you, again, for your opinion.”
What this man had to say about my sexuality and how it impacted my salvation means nothing. His attack has no sting because it has no basis in fact. I know the truth! The truth is I am covered by God’s grace as a gift! Paul tells the Ephesians: “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God!” I don’t have to do anything to earn God’s grace. I don’t have to believe in doctrines, I don’t have to renounce my sexuality … I don’t even have to believe in Jesus, the man. All I have to do is believe Jesus’ message is eternally true — that God loves me … that God will never abandon me … and trust, or have faith, in that knowledge. That is grace.
Got Grace! Now what?
Now that I’ve got grace … what do I do with it? Good question. I think Jesus’ parable in Matthew about the servants given the master’s talents applies to this question. To one servant the master gave one talent, another received two talents, and still another five talents. The one who received the one talent buried it for fear of losing his master’s money. Those with more talents went out and used the talents wisely, increasing their master’s wealth. I think we should approach grace in the same manner.
We have been given an incredible gift … why would we want to bury it? Grace that is not used is grace wasted! Grace that is buried atrophies and becomes useless. We must exercise our gift of grace. When we do, it multiplies … grace upon grace … we increase God’s wealth of grace!
Why hoard the gift that has been given to us? We cannot take grace for granted. True, it covers our sins and wipes them away. But as Paul asks, “are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Quite simply, we can’t. Once we acknowledge God’s grace in our lives we cannot continue to sin. Indeed, once we have truly acknowledged the power of grace sin should hold little temptation for us. Grace means our sins are wiped clean … we have come to a new level of relationship with God … a level of relationship that demands a new kind of thinking and a new level of responsibility.
My favorite “Got Milk?” commercial depicts a man who has died and landed in a place he believes is heaven. It’s full of chocolate cookies that he hungrily devours. He spots a refrigerator and discovers it packed with milk cartons. He’s sure this is heaven now. Then, to his horror he discovers every carton of milk is empty. Now he wonders where he really is!
Our lives operate in much this same fashion. Often we think we’ve found heaven here on earth. We’ve got money, cars, homes, relationships … everything we’ve ever desired. It’s heaven! Then we realize that even though we have all these wonderful things something is still missing. Despite seeming to have it all, we find that a major part of our lives remain empty! Materially we’ve got heaven before us, but often we find ourselves spiritually empty. What are we lacking? Grace! We’ve failed to accept that gift that fulfills our empty lives! Without grace we can truly have nothing worthwhile in our lives.
Often grace can be found in the places we least expect it … in the stranger’s smile or in the words of an enemy who means to harm us, but God means it for our good! How many times do we miss the grace that abounds around us because we are so wrapped up in our pursuit of material things? Is this really heaven? We can only know heaven when we know God’s grace in our lives!
However, don’t, for one second, believe that because we have God’s grace we have no responsibility to respond to that incredible gift. Grace should be a life-changing event! If we say we are saved by grace but that gift of grace fails to change our entire world, and how we act the world, we have what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.” He urges us to follow after “costly grace” which “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus.”
Godsey agrees, writing: “The presence of God’s grace will always, without fail, reconstruct our priorities.” Now that I have embraced the reality of God’s grace in my life I feel like a brand new person. Things that concerned me before no longer concern me. I now find I have new concerns that spring directly from God’s grace. Instead of acting out of selfishness, I begin to see places in the world where I can step outside myself and help others. God’s grace compels me to act, think and live in a new way!
Let’s be clear though on the order in which I act. I am not compelled to do good acts because I think it will win me Brownie points with God. No, I am compelled to do good acts because God has already forgiven me no matter what! When I do good acts it is out of gratitude for a gift already freely given to me. This grace is costly because it requires that I set aside my own best interests from time to time. It is costly grace because sometimes I do things that cause my own detriment in order to build someone else up.
There have been so many times in these past four years that I have wished to stop producing Whosoever. It’s time consuming … no; it’s life consuming … and it’s often an outright chore to get issues together. I’ve found myself fantasizing about ditching it and getting on with life! Think of the free time that I’d have to pursue other interests! But I have discovered I cannot quit Whosoever. Why? Because of God’s grace. I have been given such an incredible gift I cannot help but share it. I cannot help but spread the grace I have been given. The wonder of it all is that I have seen God’s grace multiplied through Whosoever. It’s a wonderful experience! Every time an issue goes up I experience God’s grace anew. I’m amazed at each issue … amazed that people contribute … amazed that people read … amazed that people write to tell me they’ve been touched by the magazine … amazed that God has chosen such a flawed and selfish person to do God’s work in this manner. That’s some amazing grace, my friends!
How can I continue my old ways in the face of that amazing gift of grace? Quite simply, I can’t. Even more importantly, I don’t want to! So I continue to pursue the path of costly grace … a path that has led me here, to Whosoever, a ministry that consumes my life. But then, my life is God’s anyway, is it not? How can I be unhappy that my life has been consumed by God and God’s work? There are moments when it’s a lonely life … a hard mission … a painful chore, but the rewards far outweigh the trials. The pursuit of costly grace is not easy … but when you see that grace multiplied … when God shows you the wonders of what grace can work, not only in your own life, but in the lives of others, you know your pursuit has not been in vain. You know the power of God’s grace and you long to be part of that.
Grace, without that sense of responsibility, without that sense of wonder and awe, is cheap grace. If you believe you have God’s grace and still are continuing in your old ways, your, yes, sinful ways, you’re experiencing cheap grace. It’s a grace freely available in our churches today. It’s the kind of grace that invites you to come to church on Sunday and forget about God the rest of the week. It’s a grace that invites you to believe you’re saved and others are damned. It’s a grace that tells you if you work hard you’ll be saved. It’s a grace that tells you that if you believe rightly you’re guaranteed a spot in heaven. That’s man-made grace that has little to do with the costly grace God offers.
Grace is not about going to church. Grace is not about being “saved” or “unsaved.” Grace is not about righteous acts. Grace is not about right belief. Grace is about our one-on-one connection with God. Jesus came to clear the way for us to realize this connection. Jesus’ message, the one he died on the cross for, was that we are children of God already. We don’t need a church, a denomination, a religion, a doctrine or a messiah to “save” us. All we need is grace, and it’s a gift we’ve already been given!
What kind of grace do you have? Is it cheap or costly? I invite you to examine your life and recognize the awesome gift of grace you have received. So often GLBT Christians especially want to dwell in a pit of guilt and anxiety over their lives. So often we believe we’ve done so many horrible things that to be forgiven of those sins is merely a dream. Grace means our forgiveness is already a reality! All we must do is accept that gift of grace and use it wisely. Grace is a powerful thing. When you embrace it, get ready for it to change your life. Above all, enjoy the gift of grace. It is indeed God’s greatest gift to us.
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not worthy of God’s grace. Nothing separates you from God … least of all the opinions of others. Ignore the naysayers who tell you God’s gift of grace is beyond your reach, or that you must change your sexuality to attain it. Godsey is right — the Christian religion has never saved anyone. It’s not your religion that saves you — it’s God’s grace. Even if you never set foot in a church, God’s grace is available to you. You don’t have to belong to a denomination, a congregation or have any other religious affiliation. The kingdom of God is within you and it is built on grace!
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.