Our problem with grace

Our Problem With Grace
Sweat. Hand-wringing. “Yes, but…”
by Michael Spencer

Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A. That I belong–body and soul, in life and in death–not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Q. 2. How many things must you know that you may live and die in the blessedness of this comfort?

A. Three. First, the greatness of my sin and wretchedness. Second, how I am freed from all my sins and their wretched consequences. Third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption.

• The Heidelberg Catechism

Grace. It’s dangerous stuff.

“Amazing Grace” may be the church’s favorite hymn, but I’m not the first person to notice that the subject of God’s actual grace seems to give many Christians a case of hives. Singing about it is way cool. After that we need a team of lawyers to interpret all the codicils and footnotes we’ve written for the new covenant.

I don’t really care whether we all agree on how to reconcile Paul’s justification by faith and James’s justification by works. I don’t care whether we agree on the application of the threat of Bonhoeffer’s sermons on “cheap grace.” I don’t care all that much about Catholic grace vs. Protestant grace or conservative grace vs. liberal grace, though I have my convictions. Grace as merely a point or a subpoint in theology seems rather bizarre to me. Grace is an all or nothing gig, not some percentage of the take. Get with it, or get out of the kitchen.

For me, the Gospel itself is “the Gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24) The Bible is incomprehensible apart from grace. It is the tidal wave predicted in the first scenes, and it eventually arrives to soak everything and everyone in Jesus. Titus summarizes the incarnation and work of Jesus as, “the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” The New Covenant is grace and truth from Jesus, as contrasted with the law that came through Moses. (Consult Hebrews for the difference.) Every single New Covenant blessing comes through grace. Listing the scriptures that substantiate this would be woefully redundant to most of my readers. The air of heaven is grace. The heart of the Father is grace. The Good in the Good News is grace.

Paul knows that grace is a potent brew, and so in Romans 6 he anticipates the objection that is running around in the minds of thousands of evangelical preachers. “Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound?” In other words, how can we be sure people will live the way they are supposed to if this grace thing is as good a deal as it appears to be? What a great opening for a chapter on all the things we HAVE to do to really, really, really be serious Christians. Get ready to take notes.

Instead, we get a list of the miraculous accomplishments of grace, all done by Christ, for us, outside of us and in the past, accompanied by an expanded admonition to “consider yourselves dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Yes, I know he says to “yield yourselves” to God, which sounds like works, but keep reading. “…As men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:13b-14).

Ahem. In other words, the entire sixth chapter of Romans says act like God has graciously done everything necessary for your salvation and you can’t do anything to save yourself. Grace, not legalism, not works, is the great motivator of the Christian life. Every appeal in Romans 6 is based on what God has done that we cannot do, and the greatest obedience flows from the grace of God.

The reason for this is clear. Grace magnifies the giver. It’s not that obedience has no capacity to magnify God. It does–IF it comes from hearts ravished by grace, and not the accounting department.

Don’t we hafta…?

Let’s think about a practical problem associated with grace. Aren’t there things we have to do? How about a Christian duty like prayer? Shouldn’t we pray? What assurance of salvation is there for a prayerless person? Ryle and a lot of other good preachers say that a prayerless man is likely an unconverted man.

I wouldn’t disagree with Ryle if he means that a man with no desire to pray may not be converted, or that if we are talking about observable evidence for conversion. But what kind of obedience does real grace produce? Grace produces–guarantees!–the obedience of faith. Look at Romans 1:5 and 16:26, two verses that frame the great Epistle to the Romans like bookends:

Romans 1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,

Romans 16:26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-

In other words, the obedience that God desires is obedience that comes from faith, not obedience that produces results. Do we believe that faith in grace produces better obedience than that which is based on anything else? Or are we so enamored with what we can control, predict, produce and observe that we can’t stand the thought of leaving obedience in the hands of a gracious God and his amazing Good News about Jesus?

In other words, how does it make you feel to know that God is more pleased with the pitiful prayers of a person of little faith–a child; a least, little, lost person–than the impressive prayers of the spiritual athlete? Does it make you nervous? Why? Really. Why? What is it about grace that produces that look on every preacher’s face when he starts talking about the need to be “really sold out and dedicated to God?” Why is it that every time I ring the bells of justification by grace alone through faith alone, I’m followed back to my office by people who seem genuinely worried that I’ve just let loose the congregation to go steal, pillage and giggle without permission?

The Gospels are full of examples of people whose observable obedience is unimpressive when compared to other “seriously religious” people, but whose faith in grace is pleasing to God. In fact, the Gospels give considerable evidence that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ absolutely relishes tweaking our noses when obedience, not grace, starts to become the focus. Let’s take two examples from the teaching of Jesus.

Everyone loves the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. There are two actions that make the story interesting. One is Jesus’ gracious and brash self-invitation into the home of a despised tax collector. The other is the declaration of a stunned Zacchaeus that he will give away half his worth to the poor, and return four times his unethical takings. (What an example for Americans!)

The teacher in me wants to give you the assignment of writing a modern evangelical version of this story. Here’s some hints.

Jesus would have to be invited into Zach’s house by Zach himself, of course. Or knock on the door pleadingly before Zach lets him in. (The handle is on the inside.) Once there, Zach would promise to be a good tax collector from now on and share his testimony whenever he had the opportunity. He would buy lots of WWJD merchandise to remind him of what kind of tax collector Jesus would be. He might join a ministry of Christian tax collectors and form an accountability group. Of course, there would be the book deal.

Look closely. Jesus doesn’t require anything of Zacchaeus, but he gets a lot of obedience from him. Or at least, the declaration of obedience. I don’t really KNOW what Zach did after that dinner. I know what Jesus did, and as impressive as Zach’s promise is….it really doesn’t matter what he did. It doesn’t matter if he does all of what he promised, or does half, or takes a while to get around to it. The point is the grace of Jesus. Grace is the point. Not Zach’s obedience.

Doesn’t that just bug you? Admit it. Don’t you feel like Zacchaeus should have to be on a repayment schedule or something? Or can you buy it: Zach’s obedience is really beside the point?

One more. Matthew 20:1-16. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Who is the real audience of this verse? I’m betting it’s people who get nervous when grace gets out of hand, because Jesus is about to launch a major first strike on any shreds of legalism in the Christian’s thinking.

Matthew 20:15 “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?'” Anyone here ever thought grace was overly generous? I see that hand. God bless you. If you came in a bus, they’ll wait.

The obedience of the all-day workers is great. The obedience of the last minute workers is not that impressive. The grace of the owner toward both is the same. It’s an outrageous scenario. Today, we’d sue the guy. The resentment of the first group shows that they want the system to be fair; the system should be about the work that they do. The response of the owner shows that the whole matter was about him, and his hilarious enjoyment of his own crazy grace. He got to do what he wanted with his own money in his own vineyards. Something about paying everyone the same delighted him. Maybe irritating some kinds of people delighted him.

If you aren’t irritated by that story, you aren’t reading it. Of course, you can turn this into something twisted like, “We all go to heaven, but once there we get the rewards we’ve earned,” but it won’t help. The owner of the Vineyard is broadcasting on an entirely different channel.

It appears to me that the Bible is telling us a pretty big-time truth when it says in John 1:17 “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” It’s not that there isn’t grace all over the older testament, or that there isn’t law in the new. It’s that the point of the whole exercise is grace. Grace, the final and greatest truth, came through Jesus. The truth of God in the law isn’t the whole Gospel, not in the old or the new. Not in Deuteronomy. Not in James or anywhere else. The Final Word speaks the truth that saves: Salvation by grace through faith totally apart from the works of the law.

The problem for the sweaty-handed worriers is this: Certain passages, or even books, in the New Testament that stress and teach obedience. This leads some Christians to construct something like the “Law-Grace-Law” paradigm pointed out by Rod Rosenblatt, Jerry Bridges and others. I might change that a bit, to something more like “Law-Grace-Legalism,” with legalism being the necessity of some kind of obedience or law-keeping to prove that grace is really there. Grace has to be proven, and it’s evangelical law-keeping that does the job. At least for those who want to keep score.

This can turn nasty, with dress and behavior codes enforced by beady-eyed elders, or it can be pretty vague and amorphous, with no more official manifestations than too many sermons on obedience and morality, and too few on the Gospel of Grace. But the point is this: These New Testament passages on obedience have to stand in line behind the Gospel of Grace. Whatever they mean–and I’m all for a healthy debate on that subject–they can’t dilute or demean the explosive news that God is saving sinners, and renewing all of creation, completely in the person and work of Jesus. Wherever my works eventually fit in, get that straight, and keep it at the top of your list.

Christians at their worst–and I know some, because I am one–are constantly making excuses and explanations for grace, as if stories like the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep and the conversion of Saul could cause a lot of trouble if not balanced out with various lists of commandments and duties. When obedience is paraded around like the final point of the Bible–and in many churches of diverse persuasions, that is EXACTLY what happens–we’ve lost our way badly. Living out some evangelical version of what it means to be “good Christians,” we wind up not being floored by sovereign grace, and therefore, not resembling people who are “Jesus people” at all.

What about church discipline?

Doesn’t the New Testament’s clear advocacy of congregational church discipline speak volumes about the necessity of obedience in any right understanding of grace? That’s a good question, and one that can’t be avoided.

There are two New Testament passages that deal directly with the subject of church discipline, though there are many that make reference to it. In Matthew 18:12-35, church discipline is mentioned in a process of personal reconciliation. The church is involved when a brother refuses reconciliation with another Christian.

This passage is found between many passages dealing with Christ going after the lost sheep, and the Christian’s opportunity to live out the grace of God in personal forgiveness. So the passage in view is not about church discipline only. It is also about how the congregation can help a reluctant brother along the road to reconciliation. Being treated as a “gentile and a tax collector” is one step in that process, and I assume it means that when a person refuses to be reconciled we don’t judge him as beyond redemption, but graciously go back to the ABC’s of the gospel, and treat that person as a continuing project of loving outreach.

Grace toward someone who doesn’t yet reflect an understanding of what Jesus means is basic to discipleship. Imagine if this were a racist white brother who refused to come to church with black members. Would our actions toward him be law or grace? What will be his salvation and transformation? Rules about who can be a church member, or acknowledgment that Christ has created all of us as one new man, a new race in him?

The other passage, I Corinthians 5:1-13, deals with a congregation’s failure to respond to a semi-incestuous relationship going on within the congregation. Interestingly, Paul goes out of his way to say that Christians shouldn’t judge those outside of the church, something that may come as news to James Dobson and the rest of the cultural warriors. His words on judging those inside the church, based on behavior, seem unmistakable, and I don’t have a magic reading for this passage. I do have an illustration.

I have a family, and in my family, I have a son. My son is always my son. That relationship is one of pure grace, and doesn’t depend on any actions on my son’s part at all. Within that relationship, there is a kind of communication that might be called rules. Expectations of behavior are pretty clearly stated, and are reinforced as needed.

From my perspective, the essence of my relationship with my son does not depend at all on his behavior, but our mutual enjoyment of that relationship does depend on his behavior. To the extent that he gladly lives out my expectations, our relationship proceeds positively. It has been the case, however, that some of the key moments in our history have been violations of those expectations. His actions had consequences, and he was faced with decisions. How would he respond? What would he do? In our case, his response has always been to pursue the enjoyment of our relationship more than his own desires or preferences, and I believe that is not because of punishments, but because of the superior power of love, grace and affection in our hearts. It is a greater pleasure for you to be right with your family–if they love you–than to sacrifice that for your own way.

But I can imagine a situation where my son needed to be made aware of the value of this family relationship that is his by grace. I can imagine a scenario where his lack of response to truth would lead to me putting him out of the house, and telling him he could not return and enjoy the life of our family until certain changes were made. This is not a question of my love and grace for him. It is not a question of what is in my heart for him. It is a question of how much his life is shaped by that grace, and what steps are most appropriate for bringing us back to a mutual enjoyment of the wonderful gift of being dad and son.

Church discipline in I Corinthians seems to be about a failure of a church to understand grace. Grace loves so unconditionally that it will not abandon a person to his own rebellion and waywardness without a fight. If my son had drugs in his room, and I knew it and said, “That’s OK. It’s normal,” I would be failing to be loving and gracious, something God never fails to do. So Paul is angry that the church has presented God as one who cares so little about whether someone lives in the enjoyment of his grace that he approves of an incestuous relationship. This is a scandal of a higher order than a sexual scandal. It’s the scandal of cheap grace.

This passage isn’t about breaking rules. Sometimes Christians go very, very far down the road of sin’s allurements and dwell there for years. When this happens, we shouldn’t be outraged by such behavior, as if the church is scandalized. The church ought to be a scandal of grace every day, and when it’s not, the Gospel is missing. Go find it. Our treatment of that wayward person, in personal relationships and in the congregation, is all about God’s determination to be glorified in the lives of those for whom Jesus died as a substitute and a sacrifice.

Grace doesn’t approve. Grace just refuses to give up on us. (God really is amazing!)

Who has a problem with grace?

Glad you asked.

Christians who feel responsible for the “growth” of other Christians. When I was a youth minister charged with turning the rug rats into good little Southern Baptists, my “Grace to Works” ratio was about 10/90, i.e. I talked about grace about ten percent of the time, and rattled on about how everyone was supposed to behave decently ninety percent of the time. Yeah, what Jesus did was great, but what did you do last Friday night? Hmmmmm? That’s the real deal. Yuck. (Sorry to all the legalists I produced. Forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing.)

Pastors who want people to _____________ (fill in the blank with dozens of major church projects.) The great appeal of preaching obedience and duty is that it seems to be the best way to get people to do all the stuff that has to be done in a church. Grace is icing and decoration to these people. Obedience is bricks and concrete.

If you’ve ever been around a pastor who has descended to the depths of harping and nagging to get a few bucks in the plate and a Sunday School teacher for the middle school boys, then you know why I am writing this essay. Many pastors don’t think grace preaching will keep their machine running. They may be right. Maybe they ought to look at their machine. On the other hand, I Corinthians 15:10 says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Anyone believe that?

Parents who want their kids to be Christians, and also look and act like it…..whatever that means. Grace as a way of parenting? You gotta be kidding? No. I’m not kidding. Parents need to give up the idea that God is the big stick who is going to bully you if you don’t get rid of that nose piercing. I work at a school with the children of Christian parents. A lot of those parents are worried that their little Joey isn’t going to be a worship team member and might not make it to the mission trip this year. So they’ve brought out the rules, the law, the consequences, the shrinks, the medications, the exorcists, the high pressure tactics and the Christian school with lots of rules.

Guess what? Joey’s not turning out according to plan. He’s hanging out with his goth friends, who say their strong point is that they really accept people without prejudging them on appearance and performance. Sound vaguely ironic? Yep–parents handing out rules, and peers talking their version of grace.

Of course, God is the original grace parent, and the Bible describes the rocky ride He had with his kid, Israel. He never let go, He held him and He loved him through the rough times. Israel saw his angry side, but they met his grace over and over, too. Sometimes they recognized it, sometimes they crucified it. But God eventually got what every parent wants–offspring who love him from a grateful, faithful heart. (Of course, he cheated. He made it happen.) It’s just that along the way, God showed that he had to go beyond the power of the rules–and he had good rules. God used the power of grace to win the battle so many parents are trying to win with little grace and much law.

Christians who equate grace with weakness, permissiveness and excessive leniency. Try this one out at any gathering of evangelical Christians: “Once you are justified by faith, you can do what you want. And if you want to do all the things you did before you knew Jesus, then you just don’t get it.” (Gasp) You’ll immediately notice that some Christians want it very clear that you can’t expect to be saved by grace if you don’t live right. Straighten up and fly right, and you’ll get to heaven. Oh yeah….by grace. Grace has become just a codeword for works in a lot of evangelical minds. The point to see here is that we tend to get anxious about the way God is doing things. If he starts getting all overly generous on us, we want to call him off to the side and see if we can’t add a few rules and expectations in there so WE feel better. God, of course, isn’t changing anything because we’re nervous, but he’s not stopping us from putting out our own versions of the Gospel either. Unfortunately.

Christian young people, who have been brought up in the battle for the moral high ground in our culture wars. Young people are told from birth to be good and do good. They live with rules, grades and expectations. Those who are successful in keeping those rules and meeting those expectations often find grace to be difficult to accept. To them, grace can seem like a covering for evil. They usually think that when the grace talk is over, the behavior is going to be bad, and Christian young people are usually most careful in the area of distinctive and different behavior.

Christian young people who have made different moral choices than the majority may truly not see the wonder of grace. They haven’t sinned enough. Or to be more exact, they don’t see the outrage of their own sins clearly. The foundation of morality their parents and teachers built in their lives may make it difficult to see their own sinfulness honestly. The culture war focus that rages around Christian young people puts unusual emphasis on making choices and “being righteous.” It’s not at the exclusion of the Gospel, but it’s often at the expense of the Gospel.

Anyone in a Christian bookstore. What you can do, not what God has done, is the great theme of most of what is published and recorded in the evangelical world. Grace writers and poets stand out like lighthouses in a sea of mediocre legalism and do-it-yourself religion. Grace is an endangered species, and we all need to celebrate and promote any writer who truly, passionately communicates grace. This isn’t a matter of theological labels. We can quibble about the footnotes some other time. No matter who they are, when they wrote or where you find them, applaud, buy and give away the grace writers and artists. The beauty of what they are saying needs to be heard in a church choking on legalism, moralism and timidity about the Gospel.

One last thought

I’ve thought a lot about grace as I’ve gotten older and lived the Christian life longer. I see and hear young, fired up, Pentecostal preacher boys, full of sermons about what will happen if we will pray more, live holy lives, get extreme, go the distance and all that fizz. It doesn’t get to me anymore. I am slowly living past the point of being affected by all the rah-rah Christianity around me.

I know I am not very obedient. I know my sinful patterns and my perennial laziness. I know where I fall short. I am well acquainted with my lusts, my pettiness and my stupid pride. I may make more progress on these things, but honestly, I doubt it. My efforts at obedience have about run their course. Most of what I am going to be as a human being living as a Christian on this planet, I’ve probably already achieved. I want all the years God has for me, and I want to honor and glorify him, but if I am going to learn about grace, now is the time. I need it now.

There is a passage that I’ve thought about a lot lately.

2 Corinthians 4:7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

And, this little statement, from I Corinthians 15:31: “I die daily.”

Here’s where I am. When it comes time for me to die, I’ll only have one work to do. All the options will be gone. We don’t like to think about that, because we like to see our lives as full of all the options of youth, vigor, work, opportunity to change and the results of effort. We’re going to do better, we say. But in the end, the only “work” we can do will be to trust ourselves to God. Simple. Beautiful, in its way.

Faith will be the only work. Exactly as Jesus said in John 6:28. “Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.””

Scripture says that life now is to be a death. We die daily, scripture says. Not just at the end, not just on our deathbeds. But now, today. Tomorrow. In every moment of time and breath that God gives us, we are to die, to do the one work of faith that trusts God in Jesus to be the all in all for us.

Jesus’ death is a grace to us. In his death we are safe, and in his life we have it all, now and then. Everything that God’s love graciously gives us and Christ’s work guarantees us. None from obedience. All from grace. The grasping hand of work never finds it. The empty hand of faith cannot miss it.

So die daily. Die to the works that we think bring God’s blessing. Die to the works that attempt to steal significance from our own obedience–obedience made possible only because of grace upon grace. Die a little at a time, one day at a time, practicing for the big one when grace will come lapping at your door like a rising tide, and you will have nowhere to go to run away from it. A gracious flood come to take you home from this troubled world to the place Jesus has prepared for you.

Get ready for the time when resting in the arms of God and grace will be all you have to do. And it will be more than enough to see you home.

Choose death to anything but grace, so you can one day be alive in nothing except grace.

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