Recovering a Pauline Practice
One of the things we try to build into the rhythm of church life at Grace Fellowship Church is something called ‘Identifying Evidences of Grace.’ By that we mean the practice of deliberately seeking proof of God’s grace at work in those around us and then speaking it to each other.
A practice like this is helpful for so many reasons. But like all things, a practice like this can quickly become rote. It’s easy to forget why we do it, or think we do it just because it’s a good habit, or tradition or something. Some people have even objected at times that this discipline might be forced and unnatural, or drawing too much attention to the person, or even mere flattery, which is never healthy.
Recently, however, I’ve been reading through Paul’s epistles and I’ve been reminded again and again that this practice of identifying evidences of grace is actually something that is biblical. It is something worth defining by the word itself.
Here are a few things I’ve noticed about evidences of grace in Paul’s letters so far:
1. Gifts and Character, Not Personality
Biblical evidences of grace are not, ‘Your smile is so pretty!’ or ‘I love the décor of your home!’ Rather, it is clearly pointing out how believing the gospel has changed someone’s speech, or deepened their knowledge, or enabled them to receive powerful spiritual gifts (1 Cor 1.4-8).
2. Grounded in Truth, Not Flattery
In 1 Thessalonians 2.5, Paul writes, ‘We never came to you with words of flattery.’ What’s so significant about that is that he had just identified evidences of God’s grace in their church (1 Thess 1.2-10). This means that when we’re speaking about God’s grace acting upon and in another person, we’re doing it to build up God, not butter up people.
3. Connected with Prayer and Thanksgiving
When Paul identifies evidences of grace, we know that he is doing it for the praise of God’s glorious grace, because he often speaks words of thanks to God for the people in the form of an out-loud prayer (see 1 Thess 1.2-3, for example). That’s a world of difference from thanking the people for their good works. He’s saying, ‘Look, I’m happy not because you’ve done something good, but because God has done something good in you.’
4. For the Encouragement of the Recipient
So if Paul is praying to God, to thank him for the grace he has shown other people, why not keep that to himself? Why does he make it an out-loud prayer? The answer is that he wants to encourage the people by pointing out what they themselves may miss. Just as the parents of a small child see the child every day and easily miss gradual changes in the child’s height and maturity, Paul is concerned that the believers might easily miss the gradual effects of God’s grace in their life. He wants them to see, and to be encouraged.
5. Can Be Used as ‘Godly Gossip’ to Provoke Love & Good Deeds
All that said, it is also the habit of Paul to seek and speak grace as a means of godly gossip, speaking in reference to those not included in a given conversation. For example, Paul speaks to the Corinthians about the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8-9. The reason? He wanted to identify how God’s grace had worked in them so that the Corinthians would be stirred up to love and generosity all the more.
6. Almost Always Appropriate
Some object that identifying evidences of grace is artificial and forced if there is also sin present and obvious. ‘Why focus on grace when there is clear sin?’ it is argued. To that I would say this: I think it is almost always appropriate and not disingenuous to identify evidences of grace.
The classic example is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He is going to address divisions, rampant immorality, lawsuits within the church, divorce and people mistreating their betrothed, abuses of the Lord’s table, abuses of ‘rights’ in the gospel, abuses of the spiritual gifts, etc., etc. In other words, if there was ever a time to skip the evidences of grace, you’d think it would be here. But yet, Paul carefully, and pastorally, points out how God’s grace has worked, is working, and will continue to work in the Corinthians (1 Cor 1.4-9) before he addresses sin. So we see that no matter how bad it may be with a given church or Christian, if they have believed the gospel, there must be some grace which we can seek and speak.
And yet, there is at least one circumstance when identifying grace is inappropriate: When people are abandoning the gospel. When Paul addresses the Galatians he does not point out grace. The one thing that is unfathomable for Paul and makes speaking about grace disingenuous is when someone’s life is making little of the grace of God in the gospel.
So Let Us Seek & Speak
So, let us become imitators of the apostle Paul. Let us actively seek and consistently speak of God’s grace as we interact with others so that we may speak only that which builds up and gives grace to those who hear (Eph 4.29).