I had a fascinating conversation with a Tanzanian friend the other day about God’s grace (giving us good things that are not earned by our good deeds), and our working hard to follow him and live a good life. The conversation started as we discussed a western missionary who believes that many Tanzanians have not understood the fullness and extent of God’s grace, and so who preaches about God’s completely unearned gift of salvation at every opportunity.
While my friend believes that God’s grace is completely free and unearned, he was concerned that the missionary has not completely grasped the cultural paradigm in which he is working. Many uneducated people go to church in order to hear the pastor tell them exactly what they must do to please God. Emphasising too strongly that God’s grace is not linked to our good deeds will result in people feeling they can do whatever they like, ultimately going against the major thrust of Scripture which is to live good lives that honour and obey God.
I could definitely see my friend’s point, and am very much in favour of understanding the culture of people you are engaging with and then presenting the good news about Jesus in appropriate ways. And I think I half agree with him.
But I wonder if part of the problem in this debate is that we are starting with the wrong question. If we start with ourselves, our questions are “how can I get to heaven?”, or as the rich man asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This is fine as a starting point, but if we stay here we end up either emphasising that God saves us purely by his grace, or that we must live good lives in order to please him and get to heaven (with plenty of isolated Bible verses available to apparently support both positions).
But when Jesus spoke of how his coming related to the law that God had given his people, his perspective was that he had come not to replace the law but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17-20). And he talked of this in the context of God’s people being a light to the world, and the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13-16). The law was given to Moses with the aim of making God known, first to the people of Israel, and through them to the whole world. In effect the law acted as a pointer towards Jesus, who fulfilled it as the ultimate revelation of God and light for the world. As a result Jesus’ followers are called to act justly and live good lives, not to earn eternal life, but to make Jesus Christ, and the revelation of who God is, known to all nations.
Maybe if we moved on from the question “How can I have eternal life?”, we might take a step back and ask instead “How is God making himself known in the world, and how am I part of that?” With this perspective, maybe our answer would then be that God’s grace and our good deeds are not two opposing answers to the question of how we are saved, but two perfectly complementary and vital parts of they way God is reaching out to and saving his world.
Is this too complex for an uneducated person in a village, who has come to church expecting to be told what to do, to grasp? I don’t think so, but the challenge, as with any missional engagement, is to find ways to creatively communicate the message of the Bible in ways that are appropriate and profound within the culture of the hearers.
How might the church begin to communicate, symbolically and creatively, the narrative of God reaching out to his world and the role of his people in that mission, to people in a rural Tanzanian context?