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The most well-known hymn in America, "Amazing Grace," by the former slaveholder John Newton, contains a line that many people stumble over.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!

The hymn may be popular, but the sentiment is not. Few Americans consider themselves "wretches" of moral repugnance and debasement. We like to think of ourselves as basically good, with a few flaws; not fundamentally bad, with few virtues to save us.

Some Christians believe it would be good to remove unnecessary offense by downplaying human sinfulness, but such a move severs the root of what makes grace so powerful. It is precisely because we're bad, not good, that God's love in sending his Son to die for our sins is so significant.

The trouble is, grace is unimaginable in a world where everyone believes grace is deserved. And when grace is transformed into entitlement, the definitions change, for both those inside and outside the church.

New Definition of ‘Showing Grace’

In a culture that thrives on self-affirmation and self-determination, "showing grace" now means accepting someone else's definition of their own righteousness. Our age of expressive individualism leads us to find meaning in the identities we've constructed for ourselves, and then to expect (no, demand!) that others affirm our self-construction and give us their blessing.

Welcoming vs. Affirming?

Apply this idea to sexuality, and it's no wonder that churches now get asked if they are "welcoming and affirming," meaning, Do you welcome LGBTQ people and affirm their sexuality?

Churches that hold to the historic teaching that sex is "a one-flesh union" within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman respond by splitting up that phrase. They say they welcome all people, but do not affirm sexual practices outside that union. The result is an updated way of saying "love the sinner, hate the sin."

But LGBTQ advocates say it's impossible to split up that phrase. Unless you affirm people's sexual self-identification, you cannot truly welcome them because, by default, you have denied their dignity as individuals. So, caught in the trap between "welcoming and affirming," many Christians are content to be neither, and an unwelcoming posture becomes a mark of "faithfulness" to the truth.

The Dilemma

What is the crux of the problem here? It's the expectation that the church would be in the business of affirming anyone at all.

The Bible teaches that God's righteousness cuts us all down to size. If a church were to close its doors to sinners, it would be empty. And if a church were to empty itself of only some kinds of sinners, it would soon be full only of self-righteousness. Better then for the church to close its doors entirely.

But the remedy for self-righteousness is not to make "showing grace" the acceptance of someone else's self-definition. After all, God showed grace to us by rejecting our own view of our innate goodness. Repentance includes agreeing with God regarding our sinful state, which means we accept his definition of ourselves.

Welcome All, Affirm None

Where does this leave the church? We welcome everyone and affirm no one.

That’s right. We don't even affirm ourselves. The last thing we need is a club of self-righteous people who pat themselves on the back for meeting their own standards of righteousness. We don't affirm anyone for being straight, gay, or any other label that may be popular in an age of individualism. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and this "falling short" happens in thousands of ways.

Self-affirmation is the gospel of the American culture; we are idolaters when we make it the gospel of the Christian church. The church exists not to affirm ourselves, but to adore the King who loved us and gave himself for us when there was nothing good in us to affirm. The more we affirm ourselves, the less we adore the King for his grace.

It is a mark of a Pharisee to want the church to affirm us as we are, and whether Pharisaical religion infects us through legalism or license, through "respectable, churchy sins" or sexual immorality, it still kills. We cannot cordon off areas of our life and demand that God respect our individuality, whether in regards to sexual behavior, or how we spend our money, or how we engage others, or how we forgive.

God of Welcoming Love

It is because God loves us that he welcomes us. It is because God loves us that he refuses to affirm us in our sins. Because he longs for us to find joy in him, he will ruthlessly oppose self-righteous self-definitions, whether our pride shows up in a Sunday school roll or a city parade.

The cross levels us all, but in that dirt of our despair comes deliverance. The Father runs to the prodigal. He entreats the older brother to come inside. He doesn't affirm the prodigal in the pigsty or the older brother in his pasture of pomposity, but he does open his arms to both his sons. And that's why, just like our Father, the church should welcome everyone and affirm no one.

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11 thoughts on “Welcome Everyone, Affirm No One”

  1. Curt Day says:

    The above distinction between welcoming and affirming is necessary one that many fail to make. It is a nuanced approach to reacting to those from the LGBT community when they visit our churches.

    But one more distinction should be made. That distinction involves how we should want society to react to the LGBT community vs how Christians should react to those from the LGBT community when they visit our churches. How can we want society to deny affirmation of those from the LGBT community without having society marginalize them? At the same time we must remain faithful when preaching the Gospel to society. How we can faithfully preach the Gospel while protecting the equality of the LGBT community in society requires further thinking.

  2. “. . .The cross levels us all, but in that dirt of our despair comes deliverance. . . ” amen

  3. Nick says:

    God doesn’t look at us as awful wretches. God loves creation. God does not hate that which is created in his image and likeness. There is goodness and the divine in all of us, all that needs to be done is to recognize that and water those divine seeds instead of the bad seeds that fall upon our hearts. God loves and affirms us all, so we should love and affirm each other….every human on this earth.

    1. Matt says:


      I’d appreciate it if you would explain how your statement is reconciled to Romans 1:18-32. Or with Romans 3:10-18 (quoting from Psalms 14 and 53): “None is righteous, no, not one;
      11 no one understands;
      no one seeks for God.
      12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
      no one does good,
      not even one.”
      13 “Their throat is an open grave;
      they use their tongues to deceive.”
      “The venom of asps is under their lips.”
      14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
      15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
      16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
      17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
      18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

      We are rebels against a good and holy God. We are despicable wretches. But, when we confess our sins, repent and believe in our Lord’s atonement for us, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us and the Spirit indwells us.

    2. Rev C David Dean says:

      Nick, well said. Many thanks.

      My mind boggles and my heart grieves when I hear (or read of) those who claim to be Christian yet show little, if any, understanding of God’s redeeming work-in-Christ-Jesus-completed.

      Completed: ‘It is finished!’ we hear Jesus say from the cross. Therefore, never again may any follower of Jesus think, never mind affirm(!), that we are still stuck in “depravity” (or any other such synonym).

      God in Christ has reconciled, redeemed, and restored humanity, absolutely, completely, fully, utterly.

      We might as well smack Jesus in the face with the back of our hand if we don’t affirm, wholly, God’s finished work of redemption.

      Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved and set us free…!

    3. Tim says:

      If true, then why did Christ have to die? 1 Cor 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

  4. There can be no identity movements in the Church. In baptism, the Christian dies to every identity other than that of simply belonging to Christ. The “not I, but Christ” eclipses every other definition.

  5. Shawn says:

    This is such a great dissection of our cultural reality and the challenge of walking in both truth and grace, attempting to emulate the character of Jesus in both. Thank you for this.

  6. Megan says:

    As a middle-aged, married woman I’ve had an issue with older, married, Christian men who make passes at me and/or touch me in an inappropriate manner. They do this, I suspect, because I don’t go to their churches and they therefore assume I won’t tell on them. Because these men are straight, as opposed to LGBTQ, I assume they are welcomed and affirmed in their places of worship for the simple reason that none of these men is stupid enough to confess to his fellow churchgoers that he’s actively coveting other men’s wives and committing adultery if he thinks he can get away with it.

    With all due respect, I call B.S. on your claim that older men like this don’t receive affirmation in their churches. For all I know, many of them may be deacons, elders or holders of other leadership positions that scripture commands to be treated with “double honor.” (1 Tim. 5:17)

    The problem with a church that affirms only those who are able to get away with their sins is the bar has been lowered so only the liars and hypocrites can enter without stumbling.

  7. Doug says:

    Not sure I understand you. The Bible is loaded with affirmations. Some examples:

    “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.”

    “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary.”

  8. beccajrt says:

    Trevin, the crux of the problem is LGBTQ advocates (through dialogue) would have you believe there is a “dilemma”—there is no dilemma; God’s Word is crystal clear.

    Your solution to the supposed dilemma i.e., “Where does this leave the church? We welcome everyone and affirm no one”—doesn’t make nary a bit of sense in light of God’s Word, 1 Corinthians 5:11-13; Romans 16:17-20; 2 John 1:4-11, etc.

    The Church should welcome everyone who affirms God’s affirmation of who we are in Christ Jesus. The foundation is “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and…He was buried, and…He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” What that entails is that we “died to sin” and we “died to the Law” with Christ; “the world has been crucified” to us, and we “to the world” through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; Romans 6; 7; 8; Galatians 2:19-20; Galatians 3; 5; 6; Colossians 1; 2; 3; Titus 2:11-14; Philippians 1:11; Philippians 3, etc.

    Whether it’s those who adhere to false doctrines of license or those who adhere to false doctrines of legalism, they all draw from the same root; unbelief in God’s Word. Clearly both groups advocate living in practical denial of the fundamental, foundational truth of the Gospel. We should not welcome them, let alone affirm them.

    By the way, the notions of Calvin, and Reformed theology in general, that, “the law has been abrogated as a covenant of works, but not as a rule of life” and thus, “Believers are still under the Law as a rule of life”—have no basis in God’s Word. They are un-Biblical, man made doctrines (clearly hangovers from Roman Catholicism) that are just as serious as false doctrines of license. Sadly, no one seems to care. In fact, I’ve been treated with what can only be described as contempt and subsequently shunned by Reformed believers (some of whom are pastors and teachers) for stating that fact.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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