Have you ever wondered what would happen if a pastor, convinced of the truth of grace, actually tried what Robert Farrar Capon suggested here in The Foolishness of Preaching?

I think good preachers should be like bad kids. They ought to be naughty enough to tiptoe up on dozing congregations, steal their bottles of religion pills … and flush them all down the drain. The church, by and large, has drugged itself into thinking that proper human behavior is the key to its relationship with God. What preachers need to do is force it to go cold turkey with nothing but the word of the cross—and then be brave enough to stick around while [the congregation] goes through the inevitable withdrawal symptoms.

What exactly is in these religion pills? Fleming Rutledge calls the active ingredient “the Pelagian Default.” In her masterwork, The Crucifixion, she describes it as “the assumption that righteousness is actually within the reach of the human will.” But who is this Pelagius guy anyway? Justin Holcomb, in his helpfully titled field guide Know the Heretics, devotes a whole chapter to the 4th-century theologian and where he went off-roading. Pelagius “thought that God’s commanding a person to do something that he lacked the ability to do would be useless: ‘To call a person to something he considers impossible does him no good.’ If God called humans to live moral lives, Pelagius thought, it should be within their own power to carry out God’s commands.” As Holcomb explains, “Pelagius believed that God commands only according to our abilities. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus commands, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Pelagius interpreted this to mean that perfection must be within our reach. Since perfection is achievable, it should therefore be obligatory.”

A classic quote from PZ’s Grace in Practice goes into detail explaining just how this potent ingredient of self-reliance works in us:

People become semi-Pelagians the day (after) they become Christians. This is the heart of it. People in the world, including Christians, are Pelagians by nature. They want to do it for themselves. ‘Control’ is the key word and concept. But control fails massively at some specific, vulnerable point of opening. When this happens, people are undone and they open up to grace. The grace of God makes its appearance, usually in the form of compassionate one-way love from another person. But the moment things are patched up a bit, life morphs back toward control, into semi-Pelagianism. Semi-Pelagianism is the compromise Christians force between the grace that saved them and the Pelagianism inherent in their human nature. It is the Achilles’ heel that besets Christians and all the Christian churches. Semi-Pelagianism, which acknowledges grace but insists upon an effort or response from the pained human side, defeats Christians just as wholly as Pelagianism defeats the world. Semi-Pelagianism dies hard. It is the old ‘control’ theme in a new and sanctified form. It is not grace. This control hates grace.

I think it’s safe to say we have all experienced this particular drug — still potent after 1600 years! — and the withdrawals that go along with it. That being said, it’s much harder to kick the habit if you are in a place were it’s handed out every Sunday morning like Tic Tacs. We keep willingly ingesting it because it makes sense. It makes the Good News merely Okay News, but at least we can get our heads around it. The very idea of unearned, undeserved, One-Way Love simply does not compute. This also makes a pastor, convinced that Jesus was actually telling the truth, seem dangerously unorthodox. We even go so far as to label the non-Pelagian ministers heterodox at best and heretics at worst. The irony is delicious!

A friend of mine, Taylor Christian Mertins, recently started teaching through Capon’s Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, an entire book devoted to the fine art of stealing religion pills. I asked him how the detox has been going at his church:

I’ve only preached on parables since Easter and I think some of my people can’t wait for it to end. In fact, one of my members has been praying for it. It’s not because they don’t enjoy Jesus’ stories but that the bug of grace bit me so hard earlier this year as I was making my way through Capon that I couldn’t shake it. To some degree, I think people got excited to see what kind of crazy way I would spin some of the most beloved parables every week, but the total and unrelenting force of grace felt overwhelming. One of my older members waited for me in the narthex a few weeks ago and rather kindly intoned, “If you keep preaching grace like that, this church is going to die.” Behind his comment was the presumption that, if you tell everyone they’re already scot-free, then they’ll have no incentive to attend or participate in church. I gave him a slight shrug and said something like, “We’ll have to wait and see.” If I were a braver pastor I would have told him the truth: “Dying’s the only thing we can do — that’s what the parables are all about.”

The reason Taylor is so willing to take this risk is because grace freed him, and that experience changes everything. He doesn’t need convincing; any direction other than toward grace seems dangerous. Capon explains that “preachers can’t be that naughty or brave unless they’re free from their own need for the dope of acceptance. And they won’t be free of their need until they can trust the God who has already accepted them, in advance and dead as door-nails, in Jesus. Unless the faith of preachers is in that alone — and not in any other person, ecclesiastical institution, theological system, moral prescription, or master recipe for human loveliness — they will be of very little use in the pulpit.” We give thanks for those useful pastors — you know, the ones that are useful because they are dead as door-nails, and wouldn’t have it any other way!

Bonus material:
The conversation that inspired this piece from our friends over at Crackers & Grape Juice.