ENID, Okla. — Two nationally-known Christian authors urged the faithful to focus not on legalism and behavior, but rather on God’s grace and unconditional love, during a 10-part conference on grace hosted by Emmanuel Enid.
The “Too Good to be True” conference featured talks by Jeff VanVonderen, an interventionist on the A&E show “Intervention” and author of six books dealing with overcoming addiction and finding grace, and David Johnson, senior pastor at Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minn., and co-author with VanVonderen of the book “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse.”
VanVonderen said his path to a career defined by grace started in his youth in a rigid, fundamentalist church.
“There was no grace where I was,” VanVonderen said. “You went to hell for chewing gum in the pulpit. Salvation wasn’t a gift. It was a loan — something you could lose.”
VanVonderen said he was well into adulthood before he discovered grace in his faith, while reading the 1979 book “Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?” by David Needham.
“The Christian life is an identity fight, not a behavior fight,” VanVonderen paraphrased from the Needham book. That identity, VanVonderen said, comes from a loving God, and isn’t dependent on how we behave.
“I am a person who has not gotten what he deserves, and has only gotten what he didn’t deserve,” he told attendees at the conference.
He said many people — both in and outside the church — get caught up in the notion that love has to be earned, and that it can be revoked.
“There’s no such thing as conditional love,” VanVonderen said. “If it’s conditional, it’s a deal or something else. It’s not love.”
When people don’t have a sense of grace in their lives, VanVonderen said they can live in shame for mistakes or shortcomings. And, he said, that shame, if it’s not resolved, can be passed down from generation to generation in violence, addiction, depression or an endless striving for perfection to “earn” love.
Like VanVonderen, Johnson said his early life was defined by a strict church life, with little sense of grace.
A pastor’s son, Johnson said he “just hated church,” and its emphasis on “how things look.” He said he felt pressure to conform in a culture of “pretending and posturing.”
When he worked up the courage to confront his father with his feelings, Johnson said his father shared with him an epiphany of grace.
“He wept, and that changed my life,” Johnson said. “I finally felt like, ‘If he can handle the real me, then maybe God can too.'”
Johnson said he strives to pass that message along to others — that they have an identity in God that transcends their behavior.
“You are outrageously loved by an outrageously loving God,” Johnson told conference attendees at Emmanuel. “You are the masterpiece of God, and any voice that tells you different, even your own voice, is a liar — and that’s the truth.”
But, all-too-often, Johnson said religious people meet those in need of grace with the message: “You don’t fit, you’re not welcome, you’re not invited.”
While grace is a message of “yes” for all, Johnson said “Whether we like it or not, whether we’re like that or not, religious people are some of the quickest people to say ‘no.'”
Those “no” voices can drive people from the church and from faith, Johnson said. To overcome that, he challenged attendees to consider: “How big would the ‘yes’ have to be, when you’ve heard ‘no’ your whole life.”
“The ‘yes’ needs to be a big one,” Johnson said, “and maybe an uncomfortable one, and the voice needs to be a loud one.”
VanVonderen and Johnson said their reception at Emmanuel Enid was positive — but that’s not always the case in their traveling ministry.
VanVonderen said, because of the radical nature of unconditional love engendered in grace, “I think some people are afraid of it.”
If the emphasis in the church shifts from obedience to grace, he said some religious leaders fear they will lose control over their congregations, or the people will lose the compulsion to give money to the church.
Johnson said he’s also been accused by some pastors of being antinomian — a theological term for the belief there are no moral laws God expects Christians to obey.
He said grace doesn’t relieve people from responsibility, but it does lead to amendment of behavior due to an internal sense of love, rather than external forces compelling obedience.
“Behaviors matter,” VanVonderen added, “but it’s where they come from that matters a lot more.”
Emmanuel Enid pastor Wade Burleson said the “message of grace rang loud and clear” in VanVonderen’s and Johnson’s presentations.
He said he wants people to take away an “understanding that their call in life is to give a big ‘yes’ to people, because people hear ‘no’ all the time.”
“Give others the same kind of ‘yes’ that God has given you,” Burleson said. “In our culture of name-calling and caustic things being said, that’s a message that’s needed.”
Burleson said a major focus of the conference was to teach people to focus first on others as people, rather than focusing on behaviors or perceived differences.
“We don’t focus on change in behavior,” Burleson said. “We focus on accepting and loving people, and change in behavior will follow — but not if you focus on behaviors.”
For people to pass on grace, Burleson said they need to accept it for themselves, and to love others unconditionally and genuinely.
“People know when they are accepted,” Burleson said. “That’s not something you can pretend. I want people to take away from this conference a focus on the acceptance of people.”