One thing I’ve observed over the past few years is a sheer absence of any discussion regarding accountability when it comes to the Christian life. We hear a lot about grace but there’s little in the discourse about responsibility, accountability, restitution, and the like. It’s easy to talk about grace. That’s almost never unpopular these days. But it’s another story when you have to talk about the hard truths of Scripture and apply them to the Christian life. We are quick to rebel against it, especially when we drink deep from the well of American individualism.
One area of Christian life where this has become problematic is seminary. I was reminded this morning of something contained in the syllabus of my systematic theology class. My professor has a policy regarding students who fail to turn in their term papers on time. His policy on late papers is adapted from that of Dr. Bruce Waltke and is as follows:
a. The issue is not so much an inconvenience to the professor. If that were the primary issue, then he would grade late papers because it is fundamental to his Christian commitment to put the interests of others before his own.
b. The issue concerns the apparent laxity with which extensions are often granted. This is not Christian education. Wisdom is living within boundaries. The cosmos exists because the Creator provided boundaries for air, water, land. Moreover, he provided temporal boundaries for seasons. Without boundaries, the cosmos would degenerate back into anarchy. It is the essence of Christian living that we live within boundaries. Liberals want no boundaries. They want freedom without form, liberty without law, lovemaking without marriage. This is a fundamental battle. It is distressing when Christians do not show respect for boundaries and when students do not respect temporal boundaries.
c. Wisdom also entails knowing the goal and devising a strategy to achieve it. Students must be aware from the syllabus what is required of them and should be able to strategize a successful model to achieve it. Laxity and uncertainty with regard to deadlines actually confuse the students and militate against a good Christian education. Paradoxically, “grace” sounds Christian and pastoral and “law” sounds non-Christian; but, sometimes so-called “grace” and “pastoral concerns” encourage libertarianism and in truth is non-Christian and non-pastoral. Consciously or unconsciously students realize that there is a fudge factor here, enabling them to rationalize their not turning in work on time.
d. The issue also pertains to spiritual life, a subject on which a seminary rightly prides itself. However, the spiritual life includes self-control, discipline, etc. Students reap good fruit from hard work.
I think this pretty much speaks for itself. One disturbing trend I’ve noticed is the degree to which grace is so often abused in the name of “providing a good witness.” This is especially the case when dealing with unbelievers. The argument goes that we’re providing a bad witness to non-Christians when we don’t exercise grace toward them. I totally agree with that, but what does that look like? To what extent? Is there a uniform standard? Christians will react to the same situation differently and that’s not automatically a bad thing. Is a Christian wrong because he demands scrutiny in a particular area where another Christian may not be so strict?
Ironically, these advocates of grace–who certainly have good intentions–end up promoting yet another form of legalism. As for putting forth a good witness, there’s a flip side to that coin. Consider this: what kind of witness are we displaying when we demand no accountability for wrongs and offenses, thereby obscuring (or perhaps even denying) God’s attributes of justice and righteousness? Moreover, grace itself becomes obscured. We know that we have abused the principle of grace the moment the offending party is no longer convicted by the law they broke–or they are otherwise convinced that they haven’t committed any offense at all.
The Christian life means, among other things, living within boundaries. We are held accountable to the church (Matt. 18:15-20), civil magistrates (Rom. 13:1-7), family (Eph. 5:22-33; 6:1-4), employers (Eph. 6:5-9), each other (Matt. 22:39), and ultimately God Himself. None of what I’ve said here is meant to downplay the importance of the mandate to show grace and mercy to others. Grace is a good thing, but this must be balance here. It’s not a sin to demand accountability where appropriate. We need to avoid false dichotomies and the extremes of either side. Law and Gospel…rightly divided.