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Grace against the grain

CMS workers Jon and Deborah have served in theological education and training in South East Asia for more than a decade. In this article Jon shares the challenge of teaching grace in a culture that values works. 

I teach in a rural Bible College in South East Asia, and every year I meet new students who have been brought up with a ‘works theology,’ that emphasises  being good and doing good, rather than responding to the grace of God. Of course, not all local Christians have this focus, but there are several reasons why God’s grace is so counter cultural in South East Asia. 

Culture teaches obedience based on hierarchy 

We live in a hierarchical culture here, where leaders are respected because of their position. If you are a leader, people look up to you and generally do what you tell them. In a hierarchical culture, people obey those above them. For example, if a minister asks a congregation member to do something—perhaps some ministry—they will generally do it with no questions asked! Workers will obey their boss, even if they disagree with his leadership, because that is what is expected of them. 

This obedience mentality easily becomes part of Christian culture: God is your boss, so the most important thing you can do is obey him. 

Dominant religion teaches morality for salvation 

Secondly, there is a moral message of obedience in Islam, which is the dominant religion followed by about 88% of the population. To put it simply, if your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, then Allah will accept you into heaven.  

While Christians don’t follow the teaching of Islam, this attitude is pervasive. Obedience equates to goodness. Most of the population are Muslim, and their beliefs influence many aspects of life. It is evident in the reporting on local politics: to be a good citizen means obedience.  

According to the local culture, the best way for the country to operate is for children to obey their parents, and for citizens to obey their leaders. 

The value of obedience permeates society 

The same message is preached from mosque loudspeakers, from people selling religious literature and from paraphernalia on public buses:  

“We must obey Allah and perform sholat (daily prayers), we must obey our parents, bosses, and the government.” 

During the COVID pandemic the same advice is promoted in large banners that hang across the roads which basically say, ‘The way out of your problems is to give your required payments to Allah’. 

This religious teaching permeates society, so that even Christians unwittingly absorb it. 

Blessing as a deserved reward 

For many people here, daily life operates at a tangible and concrete level. At the forefront of their minds is how they can meet the physical needs of their family that day. Most Westerners, however, tend to operate on abstract and conceptual levels.  

I see in many of my rural students a perspective of action and then blessing or consequence. If they are diligent farmers and the season is favourable, then they are likely to get a good crop and meet the needs of their family.  

This cause-and-effect thinking can be reflected in the practical outworking of their faith. They are raised knowing that they are saved and forgiven by the death of Jesus, but their life experience teaches them (incorrectly) that their actions should affect how God blesses them materially. This can easily shape their mindset and their spiritual life. If they attend church regularly, are involved in ministry and treat others well, then they expect to be blessed by God — with good crops, or success in business, or have a way out of their problems. This inevitably leads to them aiming to lead a ‘good life’ focused on doing what pleases God, in order to be blessed by him. 

Teaching grace in a works-based culture 

With such influences from the culture, the dominant religion, and their own life experiences and upbringing, when my students read about obedience in the Bible it already resonates with many of them, and they think that’s what it means to live as a Christian. Hence Paul’s moral teaching is often preached in churches, and many are drawn to verses such as James 1:22, “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” — which is rarely balanced with the doctrine of grace. 

It is not easy to counter this unbalanced theology! I emphasise grace in all my teaching, and show the students the consistent nature of the grace of God throughout the Bible. In my third year Theology of the Old Testament class, I taught recently from the early parts of Genesis and asked my students to look for examples of God’s grace—his undeserved favour—in all the stories we were discussing. It took some prodding, but they started to see how God is constantly good to people who don’t deserve it. He provided clothes for Adam and Eve after they had sinned. (Genesis 3:21). Although they deserved death, God allowed them to live, albeit outside of the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24). 

I also emphasise the work of God throughout the Bible, to help them see that he is the main character and not people. He is the one who takes the initiative to act, save, bless and restore. Combined with this is the need for a right understanding of the character of God, and the inclination of humanity: God does not operate in a transactional way, responding to our goodness with physical or material blessing. He is God who blesses according to his plan by his grace.  

Understanding life’s challenges in light of grace 

I try and help them see that difficulties, problems and challenges do not necessarily mean someone is being judged by God. There are numerous reasons in the Bible why God allows such things to occur – which is especially seen in the work and atonement of Jesus, where we see God’s incredible love for his people and indeed the whole world (John 3:16). 

Finally, I try to help my students understand how sinful they are. With a ‘works’ mindset, people are inclined to think about sin only in terms of what they do, and if they do the right thing, then they are not sinning and so can be right with God. However, to have a right understanding of grace, we need to know the depths of our depravity and the unlimited love of God.  

The fact is that we are all trapped in sin and by ourselves we cannot fix the problem (Romans 3:10). Ironically, a recent task I have given my students is for them to memorise some verses about God’s love and our sin, such as Romans 5:8  

Allah menunjukkan kasih-Nya kepada kita, oleh karena Kristus telah mati untuk kita, ketika kita masih berdosa. 
(God demonstrates his love for us because Christ died for us while we were still sinners).  

GO 

Understanding, and learning to engage with, another culture takes years of observation and immersion. Long-term mission enables deeper connections with local people and more thorough perspectives on different faiths and worldviews. Would you prayerfully consider serving Christ long-term in another culture? Get in touch with a CMS branch to find out more.