Law and Grace and History

Manuscript9Anymore, I believe very little that so-called experts try to tell me about the “millennial” generation. I appreciate what people say about themselves but not necessarily what acclaimed analysts tell me about someone else. There may be an irony in here somewhere. The young adults with whom I work as a chaplain and college professor don’t seem to be interested in outside quantification of their lives, habits, even likes and dislikes. Most tell me that they simply want to be heard and respected, as any other person.

That might explain an unexpected phenomenon in our ministry a few weeks ago. Adrian College was founded in 1859 as an abolitionist institution. Many of our early leaders (including students) were involved in the antislavery cause. Today we have a special focus on human trafficking (often considered contemporary slavery). The founder of our school was an eccentric, older pastor/professor named Asa Mahan. He kept a notebook of sermon outlines and insights regarding Christian ethics. After more than a century this notebook deteriorated, and we had to do something about its condition. A world-class archival facility worked on the notebook for more than one year. It was sent back recently and is now on display – and people around here really care about it all!


I noticed that the students are especially interested in the preservation of this legacy. That’s right: the students. There is a sense of pride in having their artifact receive attention so that it is available for today’s work. By most “expert” opinion the students are not supposed to care. But they do. One recent graduate asked for a duplicate of this 275-page document. We are scrambling to see if we can get some digitized copies.

Why the interest?

For starters, the notebook’s content reflects devotion to God and humanity. One critical section addresses the idea of “moral law.” At a time and in an age when such archaic concepts receive little scholarly attention, our students care about whether there is such a thing as “moral law.” And if there is such a thing, how is it related to grace and commitment to others? Seriously.

This student interest goes beyond the superficial claims of those who assert their opinion as God’s law. Our folks want to look at the matter from several angles. President Mahan argued that the moral law (in philosophical terms) came down to a respect for the “intrinsic worth” of others and a universal application of love. That’s not bad. It was certainly intellectual fuel for the antislavery movement of old. It is also insight for many young adults seeking to change their world today.

Sometimes we in the church toss off simplistic statements about grace and deride the concept of moral law. Yet it is easy to speak of grace and live in very controlling ways toward others (which seems like legalism to me). Conversely, if we respect the intrinsic worth of others in a consistent and unconditional manner, we can call that law, but it seems to be awfully close to authentic grace. I suppose if I had to risk one characterization regarding younger people, I would say that they have extremely well developed skills when it comes to distinguishing the real from the fake. Maybe this is why an old notebook filled with reflections regarding love, law, and grace is appealing. The “Old Doctor” who scribbled these thoughts yearned for a real faith, too – and a real commitment to others.


I do not understand it all, but I do venture to say that if our witness lacks love, it is not going to fly. Moreover, if it embodies love, it will not be soft and timid. But it just might energize a movement – one that has many mothers and fathers over the centuries. Not everything old is stagnant, and not everything new is deep. The most exciting and compelling (and yes, “innovative”) ministry today draws on profound wisdom passed down to us.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

It’s all grace. We float on a cosmic ocean of grace. It’s all gift, mystery, grace. “Law” is merely the first stage of human development just las the contents of the Hebrew Bible are lined up. First there’s Limits (Torah, or the law.), then we learn criticism of our group and our own self (The prophets.), then paradox, mystery, ambiguity (The Writings.) While all the time it is three steps forward two steps back. Limits or “law” are only negative/bad/evil when we tiny little dots try to control the all. The all is grace and grace is all. Grace don’t… Read more »

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