The ministry of the grace of God

This post continues a series that examines key points in Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 81011.

So far we've explored Purves' view of pastoral work as ministry of the spoken Word of God and the heard Word of God. Now we'll see what he says about pastoral work (including the work of disciplemaking) being ministry of the grace of God.

It's all about grace

As Purves emphasizes, through union with Christ, by the Spirit, we are both recipients and bearers of the grace of God. We bear God's grace through "a life of holiness lived graciously as Christian vocation." This vocation is the particular way we go about "sharing in [Christ's] ministry to the glory of God, for the sake of the world" (p. 176). It is vitally important to note that this ministry, which includes making disciples with Jesus, is all about grace.

Come and See by Liz Lemon Swindle (use with permission)

It's not about what we do for ourselves

It's common for churches to operate in a way that views grace as limited to justification with discipleship being largely about what we do through our own (Spirit-empowered) efforts. But as Purves notes, our life in, by and with Christ (including our sanctification) is about grace from start to finish. Therefore pastoral work, which appropriately includes a focus on sanctification, must be viewed not as what we get people to do for themselves, but what we do to help them embrace and participate in the reality of Christ's obedient human response to the Father, by the Spirit, on their behalf. Said another way, we help them to be who they, in Christ, truly are (already).

Isn't disciplemaking legalistic?

Some, embracing this understanding that sanctification is about what Christ does for us, mistakenly reject disciplemaking as being legalistic. But this rejection is tantamount to "throwing the baby out with the bathwater," for as Purves notes, referencing Karl Barth's teaching, God's indicative of sanctification ("I will be your God") has a corresponding imperative ("You shall be my people"). The point is that we are called to participate in our sanctification, which is accomplished already in Christ (see Colossians 3:3). Purves points out the implications of this understanding for our work in pastoral ministry (including our disciplemaking ministries):
Pastoral work must have the call to discipleship as vocation clearly in mind---that is, living in all things to the glory of God for the sake of the world, and the ministry of the grace of God becomes the place where we hold together two seemingly different but necessarily conjoined aspects of Christian experience: pastoral care as the announcement of forgiveness and communion, and the grateful call to discipleship as lived Christian vocation. (p. 176, emphasis added)

Concerning communion with God

Seen from this perspective, discipleship, which includes a calling to Christian vocation-ministry, has principally to do with what Purves refers to as "restoration to communion" (p. 177). A word of caution is in order here: we must not conceive of the union with have with God and the communion that we, because of the union, enjoy with God. They are not somehow separate, "as if we might foolishly choose the one without the other" (p. 177). The point is that justification and sanctification go together. Both are "in Christ" and thus both are about grace---the gracious work of the triune God on our behalf to rescue us by including us in his life (union) and thus to restore us to fellowship (communion) with himself. Both union and communion call forth from us a response---not to make union and communion "actual" but so that we might, as believers, experience the reality (or, said another way, so that we might be who we truly are). As Purves goes on to note, fundamental to that experience is being embraced by the reality of both God's forgiveness (our justification) and the depth of the communion that is ours with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit (our sanctification).

Helping people experience the reality of God's forgiveness

Pastoral ministry is fundamentally about helping people experience God's forgiveness. But to do that, we must begin by helping them to know that triune God who is love. Purves elaborates;
All pastoral work begins within the framework and announcement of the love of God, for God is love (1 John 4:8). The gospel begins from the standpoint that God so loved the world... (John 3:16). We must first approach people not with God's judgment, or even with God's forgiveness---for we cannot assume that a person knows who the God is who judges or forgives him or her.... Thus the first pastoral movement of the ministry of grace must be, quite simply (although of immense significance), the announcement: "Jesus Christ is Lord, and this Jesus who is God loves you." (pp. 179-80)
On this basis, we can then declare to people that reality that this God of love has forgiven them. I urge pastors not to fear being "too generous" in this declaration. To be miserly "signals some kind of legalism" (p. 182). According to Purves, pastoral care properly grounded in the grace of the forgiveness of God will have these characteristics:
  • Above all else, it is a ministry of love expressed through caring.
  • It sees each person "in the light of the fact that Jesus Christ lived and died for this person, who, therefore, has been forgiven and restored to fellowship with the Father. In Jesus Christ this person has been elected to be God's friend, and is now called through the Holy Spirit correspondingly to live this truth" (p. 183). Note that the imperative ("live this truth") follows the indicative ("has been forgiven and restored"). As ministers of the grace of God, we see the person before us as "God's person," even if she does not yet know who she truly is.

Helping people experience the reality of communion with God

In Galatians 4:5 Paul gives us the frame of reference for the ministry of grace, noting that God sent his Son "to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." Unfortunately, some pastors attend more to the "under the law" part, while minimizing the "adoption as children" part. In doing so they are (perhaps unwittingly) "substituting a legal standing for a filial... thereby undercutting the great promise of the gospel." It's important to note that the atonement means not only forgiveness-redemption---it also means sharing in Jesus' sonship (a filial relationship) with his Father. By grace, having been forgiven/redeemed, we are restored "from our orphan state to communion through adoption" (p. 184). In union with Christ we come to God as God's children, a reality that has two important implications for our work as pastors and other ministers of the gospel:
  • Worship. Building on the indicative that we are God's adopted children, we lead people to the imperative (i.e. the grateful response) of the worship of God, which is our sharing in Jesus' own communion with his Father. Seen from this viewpoint, worship is about relationship. Moreover, we understand that this relational worship has sacramental value, not merely symbolic value. As Purves notes, all pastoral work "comes from Word and sacrament and returns to Word and sacrament, which means that pastoral work legitimately seeks to bring people into worship" (p. 185). Pastoral, sacramental (liturgical) practices include anointing the sick, celebrating Holy Communion, reciting ancient prayers, reading and interpreting Holy Scripture, confessing of sin and declaring absolution, and singing hymns and psalms.
  • Peace with God. "Pastoral work has the extraordinary privilege of being able to say to all manner of people in all kinds of situations, 'You belong to God; God has made you the beloved through Jesus Christ and restored you to fellowship with God. Receive who you are, and rejoice!" (p. 187, italics added).

Concluding thoughts

Here are concluding thoughts from Purves on pastoral ministry as ministry of the grace of God.
  • "To participate in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is to share in his life as the grace of God, from God, to and for us" (p. 187).
  • "The grace that is for all... means both the mercy of God and communion with God for all and the vocation given to all who live in Christ by the act of the Holy Spirit. It means both that while we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6), and that Christ's power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9)" (pp. 188-9).
  • "There is no reality of justification that is not also life in the Spirit, or sanctification. The Bible calls this being born again, and it leads to the Christian life as our life "in Christ" as opposed to our life "in Adam".... Pastoral work properly includes among its responsibilities the sounding of the call to vocation... [indeed] every Christian is called in virtue of the sanctity of the one who calls" (p. 189).
  • "The 'superabundance of grace' (Rom. 5;20) does not imply disregard for ethically responsible and vocationally oriented living. 'In Christ' means living in the explicit context of the fundamental relationship with Jesus Christ that determines everything else. The priority of the grace of the indicative is the ground of the imperative, which is no less gracious---it is also 'in Christ.' Any weakening of the imperative however, would be to advocate a practical theology of cheap grace, grace without obligation or discipline or cost" (p. 190).
  • "Discipleship is the call to follow Jesus; conversion is the turning to God and the turning to others; vocation is the daily living in all things to God's glory. Discipleship, conversion, and vocation refer to the same reality---to life 'in Christ'---but from distinct perspectives" (p. 190, italics added).
  • "Discipleship reminds us of our being bound to Jesus Christ. Conversion reminds us that we are always in process of being turned back to God. Vocation reminds us that discipleship and conversion are not merely pious states or abstract theological concepts, but actual conditions of Christian existence, the truth of which is expressed through human work day by day" (p. 190, italics added).
  • "Living out our vocation is to be understood in such a way that there is congruence between who we are in Christ and our life" (p. 190).
  • "Pastoral work that does not include the call to conversion, discipleship, and vocation leaves people passive recipients of [God's grace]. They can never know the full power and experience of grace in their lives, for they receive grace in one dimension only" (pp. 191-2).
  • "The call 'Follow me' comes to every Christian from Jesus Christ himself. Karl Barth, in typical fashion, notes that grace here takes the form of command. The grace that unites us with Christ requires that we are to do something, namely, share in his mission from the Father in some regard" (p. 192).
  • "We can only do as we are bidden (Matt. 14:28). But we are bidden by Christ, to whom we are bound. That is why it is grace, and that is why the yoke of Christ is easy and his burden light (Matt. 11:30)" (p. 192).
For more on this topic, click here for another Surprising God post; here for a GCI Weekly Update article, and watch this video: