Andy Stanley is the senior pastor of North Point Community Church, Browns Bridge Community Church, Buckhead Church and Watermarke Church in and around Atlanta. As separate campuses of the same church, they comprise the second largest church in America. Stanley is also the author of more than 20 books, including last fall’s The Grace of God. We sat down with him to discuss grace, legalism, holiness and why Christians can never figure out the balance.
Why do you think we have a tendency to consider grace and law as opposites?
I think in the church world we contrast grace and law because Paul did in the book of Romans, and he presents them as two different approaches to life. But I think his attempt to reconcile the two oftentimes gets confused and we see them as polar opposites when in fact there’s really not an actual tension between the two.* I think one of the most overlooked sequences of events is the order in which God gave the law to Israel. God delivered the nation of Israel from Egypt before they even knew God’s name and before they knew any of His requirements. In fact it was months later before they received the law. So that sequence of becoming God’s child followed by understanding His requirements, for some reason we get those two confused and we think we have to keep requirements in order to be redeemed. When there’s confusion there, there is a perceived tension between law and grace.
People talk about the pendulum swing from legalism to grace within the Church. If legalism is one end of the pendulum, what is the opposite, and how does grace counteract it?
Legalism is an assumption that I can work my way into God’s good graces, just like growing up in school: I had to work my way into my teacher’s good graces. In the marketplace, the person that performs the best makes the most money [and] gets the bigger bonus. So we transfer that whole system over to God, but the proper understanding is purely a relational one. It’s father-son, it’s father-daughter, it’s unconditional love of family.
I think that the pendulum swing from law to grace goes back again to this misunderstanding. One way of saying it is this: I never impose rules on my neighbor’s children, and I never punish my neighbor’s children. The only children I discipline [and] the only children I give rules to are my own. The reason I have permission to give them rules is because they were born into my family. If we can keep that straight in our thinking and look at both the Old and the New Testament through that grid, everything begins to make sense. There’s really no tension, and they really aren’t polar opposites. They are all part of the same system, and every parent understands that. Every parent who loves their children establishes rules, but they know if the child breaks every single one of those rules, that child is no less their child.
How do we appropriately approach grace and still acknowledge the destruction of sin?
Just like we talk to parents about disciplining and making clear the boundaries to their children—it’s the very same thing. You start with the relationship, you’re in the relationship. God’s not going to throw you out. You can’t sin your way out—you didn’t behave your way in, you can’t misbehave your way out. But now that you’re in a relationship with a loving heavenly father, here’s how God wants you to live your life. These aren’t arbitrary rules; these aren’t some sort of cosmic, intangible things God has come up with just to see how we are doing. God loves us and He has established boundaries for us, just like a parent establishes for children.
We’ve heard this so much, we certainly don’t understand the significance, but when Jesus taught the disciples to pray and said, “When you pray, pray like this: ‘Our Father.’” We have heard that so many times, but the apostles were astonished that He would encourage them to address God, not even as an earthly father like Father Knows Best, but “Papa” and “Daddy.” It was so intimate, it was staggering. This was a brand new category for them. And Jesus was saying, “Here’s how I want you to view your relationship with God: ‘Our Father.’” Because everything flows from that.
As a pastor, how do you cultivate a culture of grace at your church?
I think one thing is to always preach the dos and don’ts, the thou-shalls and the thou-shall-nots, within the context of a pre-established relationship, first of all. In my situation, I constantly say something about “the God who has invited us to call Him ‘Father.’” I say that every single Sunday to just try to reiterate and help “brainwash” people or renew people’s minds to the fact that God has invited you to call Him “Father.” I just go overboard on that, because if we get that right, everything else falls into place.
This article is part of a longer interview that appears in the April/May 2011 issue of Neue.