One of the most common principles found in theology is the pendulum swing. Someone will take one aspect of the truth of God and carry it to an extreme. Others will see the problems with this view, made obvious by its extreme nature, and jump to the opposite extreme to avoid the error. And both sides will stand, picking out the obvious errors in the other's extreme view and using them to justify being extreme themselves in the opposite direction. And the truth may lie somewhere in between. Someone comes from a rigid, legalistic background and takes to extremes the claims of Christian liberty. Another feels that the current Christian church is too lackadaisical in its zeal for God and pushes for strict obedience to the rules. Some react to an other-worldly Christianity that goes to great lengths to avoid contact with the world and end up being conformed to the current culture. Others react against the evils of the current culture and end up withdrawing into their own little Christian ghetto. And both sides stand at opposite ends, throwing stones at each other and using the most extreme examples of the other side to justify their actions.
Now I am not saying the truth always lies in the middle (though I find real extremes to be suspect). Sometimes it may be on one side or the other. Sometimes it may even be at an extreme. What I am suggesting is that we avoid reaching conclusions simply by reacting. That we carefully weigh out the pros and cons of the positions before reaching a conclusion, rather than merely trying to get as far as possible from some extreme view of the opposite position. I am convinced that most errors exist because they minister to a legitimate human need. Otherwise there would be nothing to make them attractive. But what they do is isolate that particular need and blow it out of proportion, ignoring other legitimate needs. There is a real virtue in being self-controlled and calmly thinking things though. There is a virtue is in having genuine feelings, of caring deeply about other people and being able to enjoy life. You press either to the extreme, and they can get you into trouble. And using the weaknesses of either position to justify doing this is a mistake. For reaction is a bad basis to build any position on.
Whatever I say about avoiding offences, I wish to be referred to things indifferent. Things which are necessary to be done cannot be omitted from any fear of offence. For as our liberty is to be made subservient to charity, so charity must in its turn be subordinate to purity of faith.
John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Third Book, Chapter XIX, Of Christian Liberty, 13 (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1973, Volume 2, p.139)
How do we decide what things are indifferent and in what cases to limit our liberty? Where do we draw the boundaries?
Paul Zechariahson walked out of the brick and glass building that housed the old knowledge. He glanced about carefully to make sure he was unobserved. The unbelievers hated the old knowledge, and even many of the congregation regarded it as suspect. He moved gingerly, flattening himself against the wall, until he was well away from the building. He almost stumbled over the old women sitting in a circle, chanting. They were seated around chalk marks drawn on the sidewalk, obviously casting some sort of spell. Perhaps a medicinal spell against the sweeping death. The unbelievers feared the old cities and stayed away from them as a rule. But they considered them magical places and came there to cast important spells.
As he walked, he contemplated the old knowledge. It was dangerous, but he believed that all truth was ultimately from God. It had taken a long time of study to understand it, looking for more elementary books, even children's books, to explain the more difficult books. But he felt he was making progress.
As he headed down the main street he ran into a procession of young women in ornate, provocative clothes. From their dress, what there was of it, he concluded they were worshipers of Isis. It was time for various spring-rites, Isis among them. One of the young women glanced at him and smiled seductively. Then she saw the cross and fish on his belt and jerked away, averting her gaze.
There were many theories, even in old times, as to where the old knowledge came from. Paul was convinced that it originated from his own beliefs. He believed in an orderly God who had created the world and that therefore the world could be studied and made sense of. More importantly, he believed in a God who had become a human being. And not just any man, but a carpenter, a man that works with his hands. This had moved people away from the idea of abstract thinking to the idea of testing things directly. This had proved a better approach to understanding nature. But over time, the old knowledge itself had seemed to take first place in people's heart over the God who created it.
As he left the city he crept slowly through the undergrowth, trying to maintain a low profile. He was going through the territory of the hunter tribe, and they had severely abused several of the sisters. He was not at all sure his own gender was a safeguard. He had run into their hunting parties before, but had made it into the bushes before they saw him.
The old knowledge had produced many good things, but it also had made great evils possible and had had unintended consequences. It also, after being detached from God, had become mechanistic and ended up denying the existence of genuine humanity and leading to the idea that truth was relative. Then came The Great Revolt, where people rebelled against the old knowledge and rejected it as evil.
Paul made his way into his own hut and hurried to the workroom he had built hidden in the back. The smell of the mold he had cultured pervaded the room. On the corner of the table sat a crude hypodermic needle with a liquid in it that could change everything. It could help heal the sweeping death and various other diseases. But it would also be letting the genie of the old knowledge back out into the world. He had thought and prayed about it, but he felt he not could just sit by and watch people suffer and die. He grabbed the syringe and headed for the door.
Grace is confused with indulgence, but the two are not really the same thing. Indulgence allows people to get away with things. It is the description of a father who spoils his children and cannot tell them "no." This is not normally the result of real love, but of indifference or guilt. God is not this type of father. Many people want this type of God because He allows them to get away with whatever they want. Further, He automatically forgives anyone who oversteps His suggestions for how they might live. But is this the type of God we really want? Do we really want a God who looks down on professional criminals and tyrannical dictators and pats them on the hand and says, "Boys will be boys"? If the moral center of the universe has no convictions, can we really claim anything is wrong? And if moral convictions are wrong , how come we cannot seem to shake them? Even those who hold openly to the idea there are no moral standards will then turn around and condemn others for violating their standards.
But grace is based on genuine love, which looks at what is good for people, not just what they happen to want. Grace does not just leave us where we are, but works to forgive and change us. It involves God the Son becoming a man (Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18; Hebrews 2:10-18) to pay the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). The goal of this is not to leave us where we are, but to change us into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29,30; 1 John 3:2). But it offers this as a free gift to anyone who puts their faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9). This is not the benevolent indifference of indulgence. It is a positive love which reaches out to genuinely help people out of the situation they are in. It is like the rescue worker who goes to great lengths to rescue a drowning swimmer. It is like the policeman who risks his life to free the hostages of a dangerous criminal. But I suspect the reason many of us prefer the indulgent God is that we do not really want to believe we need to be rescued. We want to believe we are fine just the way we are. But this is not the Scriptures' verdict on us. We are told we all live in clear disobedience to God and His commandments (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). The reason we do not see this is that we water down God's standard to fit our behavior. But if we look at God's standard, it is easy to see how we fall short (Matthew 5:21-48; 6:1-24; James 4:7-17). An indulgent God is not what we need. We need to be rescued and we need to be changed. And only the positive power of grace can accomplish this.