A culture that builds everything on the single doctrinal pivot point of grace loses the
toolbox with which to grasp truth, and to acknowledge, identify, and combat sin. When
virtue, liturgy, and deep symbols are traded for surface-level “relevance” and mere
“Christian principles,” there is little left to touch the soul and build meaningful
discipleship. A focus on relevance and principle-driven faith creates policies, not soul-
deep hunger, and certainly not life-changing relationship with God.
The problem is not grace, of course – it remains forever the central plumb line of any true
Christian faith. The problem is how near to us we’re willing to let God’s love and presence
come, how willing we are to have Him set the terms of our experiences of Him, and to what
extent we’re willing to allow for mystery and His active defining of our worlds.
The most compelling aspect of liturgy today is its complete comfort with mystery in a
world that doesn’t understand the difference between chaos and a loving absence of
concrete answers. Say what you will about “modern,” “postmodern,” or “emergent”
movements, they all suffer from an inability to engage mystery while maintaining
meaningful contact with God’s order, or logos. The greatest gift liturgical traditions can
offer the rest of the Body of Christ is a solution to the chaotic conundrum into which the
remainder of the Body has wondered with a slavish addiction to Enlightenment thinking that
refuses to leave room for a God who is both wholly “other” and eminently near.
Liturgical traditions hold the keys to releasing the rest of the Body from the curse of what I
call utility-based Christianity.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
In all of our interactions with reality, we’re allowed two primary alternatives: substance
ontology or relational ontology. Ontology deals with ultimate reality and the essential
nature of things, and in each moment we measure what is real based on either “stuff,” or
dynamic interaction. For the believer, that dynamic interaction boils down to encounters
with a loving God and his love.
The gap between differing perspectives on grace offers a ready illustration of the
difference between substance ontology and relational ontology. All orthodox Christians
agree that grace is the means by which relationship between the Father and Humanity is
reconciled. However, the specific way grace is understood in some circles begins and ends
with grace’s ability (as “stuff”) to make up the distance that all of us have fallen short of the
glory of God (with the purpose of enabling communion with the Father), while people who
understand grace the way authors like Brennan Manning or Philip Yancey explain it will
insist that grace itself is an expression of relationship. They will agree that practical
deficits are overcome by grace, but they will insist that grace is not a substance, like extra
credit points or something to make a person tall enough to ride the roller coaster of
Heaven would be a substance. For those believers, grace is understood relationally as the
love of God. They see it as the adjustment made by God that results in an experience of
embrace – like when you kneel down to hug a kid, or bend over to hug grandma in her
wheelchair, or when you lift your lover from the ground and spin her in your embrace.
They say that grace is God’s love overcoming the divide. For those people, grace achieves
practical and material ends, but it is not a tool or a substance – grace is an aspect of a fluid,
loving, delighting relationship between Creator and creation.
For some believers, grace is the “stuff” that makes up for shortcomings. For other
believers, grace is understood as an attribute of a relationship, much as love is an attribute
(rather than a thing or “stuff”) in a marital relationship. For the person who sees grace for
its ability to make up for deficits, the watchword has to do with being made adequate.
Those people are not incorrect, but they miss the relational truth that quickens the
functional, substance attributes of grace.
For the sake of this publication, it’s worth pausing to celebrate grace as but one of
countless both/and Incarnational mysteries embraced by the Christian faith that outstrip
“Christian principles” or concrete catechesis. Grace can only be meaningfully encountered
and trusted when it is engaged as a mystery having to do with the love of God expressed as
relational truth delivered in material form. The experience of grace dies when it’s
dissected by human pride, rather than being left to roam on God’s terms in the form of soul-
engaging virtue, indicative liturgy, and dynamic symbol. Grace lives where grace is allowed
to live freely, and the tools of liturgical traditions are unique in their preservative and
inspirational precision where loving mysteries are concerned.
If the believer who sees grace for its functionality tends to see grace in the light of a
substance perspective, and that perspective leads to thinking in terms of adequacy, then for
many believers whose religion is built around things like the Great Commission (go and
make disciples of all nations) or the Westminster Catechism (the chief end of man is to
glorify God and to enjoy Him forever) or phrases and personal titles like co-laborers,
redeemers, ambassadors, witnesses, salt, light, or having been “blessed to be a blessing,” we
see substance ontology trump relational ontology when the focus falls to words like
usefulness, or utility.
For utility-focused (can we say purpose-driven?) believers, we humans become the “stuff”
ourselves, rather than being understood as Incarnational expressions and participants of
God’s delighting relationship with His creation. We’re taught to see ourselves as tools in
the hands of a master craftsman, or pliant lumps of clay in the hands of a master potter.
Terms like these, or like the list from the previous paragraph, are not incorrect, but they are
certainly every bit as incomplete as a merely substance understanding of grace would be.
Here’s how you know that something’s wrong. What do say if you’re a utility-focused
believer who turns out to be broken? Further, what do you say if you’re a broken utility-
focused believer whom God chooses not to fix? If you exist to serve a merely functional
purpose, as is understood by many who read the Westminster Catechism too narrowly, and
your sinful brokenness chronically thwarts your efforts, what do you say about your worth
in God’s eyes?
Okay, we won’t say “worth.” What do you say about your value or your usefulness or your
utility in God’s eyes? If you’re a tool in the hand of a master craftsman, what should God
do with you when you turn out to be a broken hammer? Use it as a doorstop, perhaps? A
living Plan B? What do you say about brokenness that leads to you serving a Plan B,
diminished purpose? And then what do you say about God’s refusal to fix you so He can
use you for a purpose closer to the ideal, but corrupted, capacity that you know exists
If we exist to serve a utilitarian function, and our salvation does not necessarily result in a
healing of our functional brokenness, then we serve a cruel God indeed.
We can see a more beautiful relational truth beyond the majestic substance atonement of
grace. Could there be a more beautiful relational truth beyond the majesty of a broken
people striving for wholeness and utility before God? Are we missing a glorious, joyful
mystery that could lead us to a stronger embrace of the miracle of us? (Are we even
allowed to hope for such things?)
The answer is “yes,” of course. But the sorting out of what that looks like can’t happen in a
single online article. This is a point of departure into relational ontology, and into another
both/and incarnational mystery. It is enough to run the sword of truth through the lie of
utility-based Christianity here, and to return to the gentle setting of liturgical framework to
see what God shows us as we go. We know for certain that He runs and laughs and delights
to encounter us there, and to show us what comes after the tools all break…and remain
This, I believe, is the great opportunity and the great adventure of liturgical traditions in
contemporary Christianity – this invitation to life beyond the substance ontology that
makes stuff out of bearers of the Image of God. My prayer is that it may captivate and
inspire you, and set you free in vast new ways.
Lest I end this on too vague a note, I’ll offer my best resource. The strongest, most
beautiful voice I’ve encountered in this engagement of relational ontology, or affective
theology, as it is also called, is the great Puritan Richard Sibbes – especially his book The
Bruised Reed. If you dig in further and would care to interact with me, you’re invited to
write to email@example.com. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.
|The Death of Utility-Based Christianity
|Evangelicals are not only saved by grace, they’re frozen by it.
- Dallas Willard
Pete Gall is a brand strategist and passion-driven
gadfly whose clients range from Fortune 50
corporations to national denominations, shoestring
start-ups, nonprofit organizations, and local churches.
He and design partner Mark Arnold created “visual
editions” of Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing
About Grace? and Lee Strobel’s The Case for
Faith, with additional visual editions in the works.
Pete and his amazing wife, Christine, live in
Indianapolis with their two dogs. His book My
Beautiful Idol was recently published by Zondervan.
Visit Pete's Web site at http://affexis.com/PeteGall.