Recently, a story circulated on Facebook about pastor Steepek who allegedly went to his new church dressed as a homeless man. It told how everyone was unwelcoming and ignored him. After a church elder revealed the man was their pastor, Steepek got up and quoted Matthew 25:34–43. He spoke about his morning experience and went on:
Today I see a gathering of people…not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples…. When will you decide to become disciples? Being a Christian is more than something you claim. It’s something you live by and share with others.
We know this was just another internet hoax. But many have commented that, although untrue, the story made a good point.
Personally, I was glad to hear the story was untrue. Stories like these are often rooted in shame and moralism. They inform us of sin but are powerless to change us.
The tension between God’s unconditional love and our obedience has always been difficult to manage theologically. But a good starting point is found in Ephesians 2:8–10.
Living with tension
Unfortunately, verses 8–9 are often separated from verse 10, creating a divide between grace and works. (The word “for” in verse 10 connects the three verses and their ideas). In this passage, the phrase “created in Christ Jesus” (v. 10) parallels “you have been saved” (v. 8). Christians are saved in order to do good works – we are a new creation with a corresponding new purpose. Regardless of our individual purpose in life, our primary purpose is to do good works.
Just like the fictional pastor Steepek, we often have difficulty managing the tension between grace and works. The danger for us is to unwittingly create our own gospel: one that either favours moralism (as the Galatians did) or libertarianism (as Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians); either diminishing the cross or diminishing the work of the indwelling Spirit.
An example from Corinth
In 1 Corinthians, we see the Apostle Paul faced with a situation similar to Pastor Steepek – a congregation not living up to its calling (Ephesians 4:1). Unlike the fictional pastor who declared that his congregation wasn’t the church but just a gathering of people, Paul challenged his wayward congregation to change their behaviour precisely because they were the church!
Paul repeatedly challenges his churches to live up to the new life God had given them (Philippians 1:27). When encouraging generosity, he wants believers to think about Jesus, who was rich but became poor for us (2 Corinthians 8:9). When encouraging holiness, he urges believers to consider “the great mercies of God” (Romans 12:1). In 1 Corinthians, we see a church that was divided in its loyalties to leadership; we see men visiting temple prostitutes; we see class divisions at the Lord’s table. All of this was a demonstration of the reign of the status quo rather than the reign of God.
If pastor Steepek declared his congregation “not a church” because they were unwelcoming, I can hardly imagine what he would say to this group! Surprisingly, Paul calls his wayward group “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). And more, he says they have been made holy, giving prominence to God’s declaration above human obedience.
Paul is consistent in his theology of salvation (Ephesians 2:8) and this consistency leads him to challenge the churches to live according to their new nature rather than the status quo (i.e., Greco-Roman cultural expectations) in Ephesians 2:10.
Emphasizing God’s grace doesn’t mean being soft on sin. It means we must think in terms of God’s love and mercy rather than human judgment (which tends to discard people rather than reclaim them).
The gospel compels us to love as God loves and to obey – not from a place of guilt or shame, but as an expression of our new nature created by God’s grace through faith.