Interview: The Balance of Grace and Holiness

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This post is from a conversation recorded for the podcast, Behind the Message.

Moderator: Steve, this week you started a new series on Jesus’ teaching, how He allowed for the ideal – the best, the perfect, the holy – to encounter our reality as humans in human relationships. And the faults and failings that happen within that. He allows for that to happen.

Steve: I heard a message from Andy Stanley several months ago that uses this language. This idea that for so long in the church we haven’t been able to talk about really tough teachings of Jesus because it’s going to offend someone or it’s going to make a really good person that’s had some bad stuff in their life feel guilty and condemned. And so we’ve stayed away from it, or what we’ve also done is in our silence we have allowed everybody else to talk about what’s moral what’s good and what’s best rather than the words of Jesus. There is an ideal. And we all know we don’t meet up to that ideal, but doesn’t that doesn’t mean we need to change the ideal to match our experience. We need to lean into the ideal. This kind of idea was revolutionary for me. I was like -oh!- it was like a light bulb went on. This is how I talk to everyone, not just church people, but even people that are outside of a church. They want to know – is there anything in the Bible that actually can help me? Actually there is! And there’s a way that will help you.

Moderator: Jesus is acknowledging that no one is going to make make the ideal all the time, perfectly. And yet he’s allowing us into communion with God.

Steve: Right! In our in our speaking teams, we’ve talked about how many of the teachings of Jesus might actually be impossible. We’re still on the fence with that. Why would he say something that’s impossible? Even his disciples said about the divorce issue that Jesus raised in his teaching, “Well why would anybody get married?” So there’s a sense in which his teaching draws us to that point “is that even possible?”. And then he draws us back to himself, to the one who will help us move the pendulum toward it even if we don’t get there all the way. I don’t know if I’ll be able to follow Jesus teaching wholeheartedly all the time, but but let’s give it a shot!

Moderator: Do you think that when Jesus is teaching, does he start from a place of grace and then introduce this idea of holiness? Or is he starting with holiness and then bringing in grace after? Which direction does he move in?

Steve: I think holiness was a done deal in the Old Covenant. And so I don’t think he had to try to bring that in. And even the Incarnation – him coming in the flesh – was an act of grace, not holiness. Holiness is the sense of separation – you can’t be with unholy. Holy and unholy don’t mix. Well, he kind of puts that to the side in his incarnation and then I think he begins to rebuild the idea of holiness once Grace is established. You’re accepted, you’re loved and I came to save the world, not to judge the world. Once that’s established, I think then he starts teaching some harder truths later in his ministry. I mean, if you look at the Gospel narrative, there’s a few hard teachings early but not many. And then towards the end, his last year, there’s a lot compared to what there was before.

Steve: People started leaving him later in his ministry, not earlier, because of some of his hard teachings.

Moderator: When we see him encountering sinners and showing extravagant grace, right off the bat, with no repentance or change in the moment from them; he’s laying that foundation of acceptance and grace and in the last moment before he leaves them, he’s saying things like “go and sin no more”. And sometimes I think we think that’s just that’s the style of ministry we should do: tons of grace tons of acceptance, and now go and be healed and be free – bye! But we don’t get to do that, right? We have to walk with people.

Steve: I’m accepted, you’re accepted, and you’re loved! But also there’s a standard there. And let’s not ignore it, let’s not think that it’s not for us or for this generation. But let’s not use it as a baseball bat to get everybody in line, either, because that was definitely not why Jesus said it. He did it for our best. I was talking to somebody after church this last weekend and we were talking about the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments were written, not because God wanted us to all fall in line and do exactly what he wanted us to do, it was that he knew we were going to be wandering around for 40 years. And if you have lust in your heart towards your neighbor’s wife, it’s gonna be bad for you. It’s gonna be bad for the community. Even the Ten Commandments were written for their good, knowing that they were gonna be wandering around for a long time together. I think we have to look at the teachings of Jesus, not as a rigid, in-or-out, judgment, condemnation type way but more of, “Hey! He wants the best for us.”

Moderator: There’s real world value in following and pursuing the ideal.

Steve: There’s not one person that has been through some brokenness or abuse, and says, “I hope my daughter goes through that too”. No. Why? Because there is this ideal and I think the Bible has something for us because Jesus doesn’t apologize for teaching these hard things. There’s a lot of you know people who have gone through stuff in their relationships and so even bringing it up feels foreign. It’s easier not to bring it up or just be like, yeah, you know… we’re all we’ve all got stuff. But you start naming the trouble that we’ve walked through and saying that it’s not God’s ideal. And you always feel the tension.

I had a conversation maybe week we can a half ago with one of our leaders in the church. He was asking me about our speaking team and where we’re going. “We’ve heard so much about Grace and so much about acceptance and everyone’s included”, and he’s like, “I’ve all honestly had it up to my ears in grace – where’s where’s holiness in this? Where’s this calling to a higher standard?” Here we go. We’re actually allowing the hard teachings of Jesus – the standards of God – to come to bear on our relationships. And so it’s not that they’re mutually exclusive or that we have to choose one of the other: Grace Church or Holiness Church. Jesus walked that line. He allowed the two to mix. He attracted so many broken people and then called them to a higher standard.

Not everyone will follow Jesus. And I don’t want people to follow Jesus because we only ever talk about grace. At some point he’s going to ask them to stop doing something they’re doing.  Grace is always going to be a part of it. But it’s this higher call, this higher standard that I want to lean into. I don’t want to let my life and my relationships suffer because I’m being a jerk!

Moderator: You’re in the home stretch as far as having kids in the house. You’re four years out?

Steve: My youngest is eighth grade, so he’s he’s a freshman this fall. That in total will be twenty six years with kids in the house. My my poor wife! That’s a long time to be a mom.

Moderator: How do you foresee that affecting your marriage and just kind of your sense of family?

Steve: I have been realizing that that not everybody has that kind of family structure. I think there are people in our church who could feel isolated like, I’m not part of this. We’re all family. And there was something really powerful that Jesus was trying to incorporate into the church. His vision of the church was that it could in many ways replace the traditional family structure. I don’t think he was trying to undermine the family structure but I think he wanted to let people know that family can be defined in many different ways. And one of those ways, one of the most powerful ways, is in his body, the church.

Moderator: He knew that for many, to follow him would mean a breaking off of biological family.

Steve: Without a doubt! I mean, we served in and Europe where Muslims were coming to Christ and they had to deny their family and their families denied them. They didn’t have to deny their families, their families denied them. They just said, “you are no longer my daughter, you’re no longer my son.” And that’s the Cost of Discipleship, right? That’s the cost of following Jesus sometimes. And Jesus didn’t pull punches with that. He let people know hey sometimes you’re gonna have to make a choice.

About the author

Steve Mickel
Steve Mickel

Steve Mickel grew up in the home of a pastor, faithfully attending church every week. He graduated from LIFE Pacific University with a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies and a masters in strategic leadership.

Presently, Steve serves as the Lead Pastor at Westside Church in Bend, Oregon and loves spending time with his family, riding his motorcycle, and enjoying the outdoors.

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