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  • Paul Coulter

Grace Can Still Say No

Living Leadership is all about grace.


You may have noticed that.

We love grace. There’s nothing we like to talk about more. It excites us when weary leaders and their spouses come to us and get a sense of God’s love for them. It is such an encouragement to see leaders filled with joy, the kind of joy that picks them up for the next phase of ministry. We are thrilled when people know they can safely share painful, even shameful, things without being rejected out of hand. We rejoice when a brother or sister shares their weakness, when they discover that God’s power is made perfect at such times (2 Cor. 12.9).


Grace is what we are all about.


And grace is why we exist. The amazing, unmerited favour of God towards us that pours out His blessings on us in Jesus Christ. It’s the place where we stand. It’s the currency of the kingdom. It’s the theme of forgiven hearts.


Wow! I could keep on writing, but I’m afraid my words would fail to do justice to the full meaning of grace. Instead, I want to say that grace can still say no.


What do I mean?


In reality, grace always says no to us. In saying yes to God’s blessing in Christ, it says no to everything that is not Christ-like and within the will of God.


Listen to the apostle Paul writing to Titus (Titus 2.11-12):


For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.


Grace is your personal trainer. It doesn’t just pop up to bring you salvation in the narrow sense of stopping you tumbling into hell when your race is done. Nor does it reach down and pull you up by your shoelaces into heaven.


No! Grace wants to save you thoroughly from every last vestige of sin, and for all the blessings of eternal life.


Grace gets you off the couch of complacency, and gets you exercising your spiritual muscle. It teaches you to say no to everything ungodly and worldly in your own desires. It calls you to self-control that is essential for godliness. The depth of his forgiveness, its cost displayed on the cross, and the abundance of his love - these truths are a rallying cry to a holy life. They offer the motivation to seek to become like Christ, and to reject the person you would be without his grace.


That’s why grace so often says no.


If we haven’t experienced that recently, then perhaps we aren’t really resting in God’s grace, no matter how much we talk about it.


But here’s the rub. Grace also says no to others sometimes.


Christian leaders can be better at seeing where grace is saying no to them than understanding how it says no to others. In our own lives, we know the struggle to restrain our worldly passions, but when it comes to others, we often tend to assume the best. We excuse ungodliness because we know how much we need grace. ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ we say.


Now, let me be crystal clear. We need to have the humility to recognise our own weaknesses; we are most certainly not beyond temptation. And we must show grace to others, being ready to forgive wrongs done to us. When someone sins, we should seek their restoration as a brother or sister.


But please bear with me when I say, that doesn’t always mean restoring a beloved sister or brother to a position of responsibility in the church.


We know this when it comes to safeguarding. Some offences should disbar a person from working with children or adults at risk, even if they have expressed credible repentance. That doesn’t deny grace; it expresses wisdom. We realise that protecting vulnerable people means setting limits on who can serve with them. It also recognises that repentance for past sin does not mean a person will never be tempted again.


We limit our freedom for the sake of others.


This same principle runs true in other situations. The guy who is given an opportunity to serve in some capacity, and shows himself inept and unteachable. The person in a leadership team who shows a pattern of acting in ways that hurt others or foment disunity, perhaps by gossiping outside the meetings. The woman who signed up and was put on a rota for some kind of service, but repeatedly lets the team down by not showing up.


This is a tough topic to address. I already anticipate some responding by saying, ‘but we’re people of grace, which is limitless. We should give our people endless grace in the same way.’


Well, I agree, but only if we are thinking of grace as our trainer. Grace infused with wisdom.


First, when we deal with such situations, we need to consider what sins have been committed, if any. Where there is sin, we should aim for restoration of relationships through forgiveness and reconciliation. But we should not confuse that goal with the separate issue of the person’s suitability to serve again in the same capacity in the future.


Grace says yes to forgiveness and relational harmony. But it says no to people of unproven character or untested gifting being trusted with responsibilities they cannot bear. That is not grace, it is lack of wisdom.


How, then, to respond?


Of course, we must not simply remove the person. Grace also trains us to stick with them and work with them for their growth. Each person is different, of course, but often it’s necessary to see if the character flaws are overcome by the Spirit’s transformation. We should try to identify latent gifts that can be developed. Having said that, grace is not averse to removing a person from a position for which they are ill-suited.


In fact, grace, properly understood, demands it.


Separating out the yes of grace from the no of grace is a vital task in leadership. It requires great wisdom and insight. It cannot be achieved by trying to keep people happy. It requires strength and compassion, both expressed in the right way and at the right time.


No human being has infinite wisdom, so we must come before God to confess our fears and failures, our own need for his grace. For it is only by his grace that we can become leaders who discern when to say no and when to restore a person to former responsibility.


Make tough decisions, when grace requires it.


For the sake of God’s glory.

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