January 15, 2021

Update: Galli on Grace and Obligation

An update from Chaplain Mike…

Last week I put up a post called, “Redeeming a Dirty Word,” in which I tried to say that concepts like “obligation” and “duty” are not the undesirable ideas we have made them out to be in our day.

You might want to go back and review the post, and what folks had to say in their comments. Many couldn’t get their minds around my assertion that the ideas of “grace” and “obligation” are not opposed to one another.

To follow up on that post, I would like to share with you the following quote from Mark Galli in an article on Christianity Today that makes reinforces my point.

I thought it might give all of us, especially those who disagree with the concept of “obligation,” some more to think about. Galli says…

Those steeped in the grace of God know there is no difference between freedom and obedience, and that the spiritual life is all about being compelled. Jeremiah says he cannot hold in the message God has given him (Jer. 20:9). Paul feels obligated to preach to Gentiles (Rom. 1:14). Jesus describes salvation in a parable in which servants compel people to come to a banquet (Luke 14:23). What is the life of faith but one compelled by the love of God to love others? Grace is so extraordinary; it has been known to compel people to do extraordinary things, to do things that fill one with dread, to go to places one would rather not go—like church.

Well said, Mr. Galli. I’m indebted to you. : )


  1. Excellent quote and clarification.

  2. And Paul says that we all owe each other love (Rom. 13:8), another statement of obligation.

  3. “Chris Howley, director of research of Group Publishing, replied that many people feel ‘compelled’ to be in church. They go out of a sense of obligation and therefore have no spiritual motivation for attending. In contrast, he said, the social atmosphere of a pub or restaurant draws people in without the feeling of obligation.”

    I would debate whether or not people go to bars out of social obligation, or whether people are expected to act a certain way in a bar. I think they do. In fact, I would go so far to say that the last place one will find grace is in your typical “meat market” night club.

    “In our informal, egalitarian, and therapeutic culture, friendliness—warm, comforting, amiable interactions—has become the cardinal virtue.”

    I hate the word, “therapeutic”. The negative connotations come from psychology, where you aren’t supposed to tell someone suffering from neurosis that they must change but merely to show them acceptance. Unfortunately, it became, “I’m ok, you’re ok”; in other words, we’re all neurotic; therefore, we all just need to be accepted the way we are, rather than being told that we need to change our behavior or thinking.

    Once again, the problem is that the church went over-board. Rather than finding the balance and redeeming the meaning of words, evangelicals demonized words like “therapeutic” and “acceptance”. Now, we treat everyone like they need a boot-to-the-head. We run scared of showing any sign of failure, weakness, or problems out of fear of being pummeled. We put on masks and perform out of mere obligation, because it is assumed that no one would like to see what we are really like. I even see this among Lutherans, where forgiveness is supposedly a centerpiece of worship.

    I think people need to hear those words, “you are accepted” before they can feel a part of a church and can begin to contribute or even change. People need to know that they are in a safe place before they can grow. If they know that a church truly cares about them, they will be more open to discipleship and offering service. We are so scared of grace. Yes, there is a place for “tough love”, but if we treat everyone like a callous, unrepentant sinner, more bruised reeds will be crushed that hard hearts broken.

    We live in the “epic fail” generation. Acceptance is hard to find. Humiliating people is no longer sport; it is a booming industry. Videos of people being made fun of or beaten up quickly hit “viral” status. The church needs to understand this and be willing to risk being a place of grace. If the church REALLY wants to “redeem the culture”, here’s a golden opportunity.

    • “In a place where people really belong, they are free to talk about the most uncomfortable things—sin and salvation, hate and forgiveness, suffering and hope, death and life. And they learn the fine art of forbearance and forgiveness. Merely friendly churches avoid such unpleasantness. But churches that take people seriously cannot avoid it.”


    • Very well said; I thoroughly agree that evangelicals are often the first to give up on words and ideas (as in “therapeutic”) and just let the “devil” have them. Pity.

      Praying that we both find a safe place to be accepted and grow unto HIM.

      Greg R

  4. I like the way Luther put it, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

  5. I think a key to the Galli quote is the qualifier “Those steeped in the grace of God.” As Steve Brown says, when we start from a place of Grace, we get better in spite of ourselves. But if we start from a place of obedience, we only get worse.

  6. One of my pet peeves: so-called Christians who say “I sin in this way habitually because I was born that way, besides God’s grace is sufficient for my sinfulness.” God’s grace is enough to justify you through the blood of the Lamb but it is also enough to sanctify you so that you can start dying to yourself, be overcoming of the world, and live in grateful obedience to the One who saved you. Those who keep making excuses for themselves for their sinfulness because they think they have been imputed with Christ’s righteousness deceive themselves to their own peril.

  7. Good quote from Galli, and I agree. I think it’s important, however, to keep in mind Jesus’s words regarding the nature of the obligation He has placed on those who would follow Him: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Now, that might seem like a contradiction when set beside some other of Jesus’s teachings regarding duty and obligation — such as the “take up your cross” thing — but I don’t think it really is a contradiction. I think Jesus’s yoke is such that it brings renewal and restoration and freedom and courage, even while compelling us to proclaim His good news, show His love to others, participate in community and relationship with other believers, or even lay down our lives for His name’s sake.
    As to how this relates to duty and obligation to the church (or a church), I suspect that depends on whether or not the yoke being placed on the shoulders of church members is that of Christ — or a yoke of a different nature. When speaking about His yoke and burden, it’s pretty clear that Jesus was contrasting duty and obligation to Himself to the yoke of the religious leaders of His time — which was a performance-based burden of strict legalism and the obsessive-compulsive observance of tradition and ritual. Rather than the abundant life that the yoke of grace brings, the yoke of pure religion can suck the life right out of you pretty quick — or drive you to crucify yourself in the name of meeting expectations and maintaining appearances.
    To be brutally honest, I think far too many churches are in the practice of heaping additional burdens onto the yoke of Christ. And I think far too many believers with a genuine sense of duty and obligation toward the church are being chewed up and spit out by the religious machinery. And once you’ve been ground up into hamburger a few times, salvaging your faith sometimes requires viewing obligation and duty toward Christ and duty and obligation toward the church as two different things entirely.

  8. The confusion about this mystifies me. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Lk. 12:48). What is the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30) but an exhortation to put to work what we’ve been freely (and lavishly) given, “the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience” ? (Rom. 2:4).

  9. maybe part of the confusion and aversion to the word “obligation” is whether we are free to perform the obligations that are truly in our hearts or locked into performing the obligations put upon us by a “church”. in my heart I love God’s word and enjoy reading my bible, yet we often are told that it has to be 15 minutes every morning and evening plus evening group bible studies. i love to pray and spend time with God but we are often told that it has to be a certain amount of time or look a certain way. we could all cite many examples of other things similar to this.
    the tension, then, is not taking what we feel obligated to do in our hearts and expecting others to be obligated in exactly the same way. each person must be free to pursue the obligations that God has personally given them and work them out the way He has made them, with wisdom and the fear of God.

  10. I think the seeming gulf between grace and obligation vanishes when we understand our relationship to Christ correctly. I don’t think that He just paid a traffic ticket on my behalf, so that I’m obliged to thank him nicely and maybe pay it back, or forward, or anything. I believe what He said about being Life, about being the Bread of Life, about being Living Water. I don’t feel an obligation to breathe, or to drink; I feel a desperate need to in order to live. And every breath is grace and redeems me from death. Sin is not running up another traffic ticket that needs to be paid somehow. Sin is turning away from Life and beginning to die.

    Maybe the more confusing part is now that we’ve turned back toward the Life of Jesus, how many times a week do we go to church, read the Bible, pray, how much do we tithe, are we nice to people, etc. The only answer that I know — and I don’t live this yet — is that by partaking in the Life of Jesus, I must/will grow into His likeness. I will eventually, through His grace only, come to pray like Him, love like Him, act like Him. It won’t be a duty, although in a sense you could say I’m compelled to do it. But I would be compelled by the nature of my life in Christ, not by a grinding sense of duty.

    In the meantime, I accept what Aristotle and C.S. Lewis both said about being virtuous: pretend you are, act like it, and you will one day grow in the virtues you are now only attempting. That’s a pretty cavalier summary. Better to read the originals.

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