I graduated from a private Christian high school where 99% of the students were professing Christians. Somewhere along the way I concluded that many of them were not living their Christianity as they ought to be. They were calling themselves Christians but so much fruit was lacking in their lives. I had the answer for that kind of “Christian”.
I knew the answer was getting closer to Jesus, getting more serious about the faith, and getting more serious about doing good works. I had the chance to speak briefly at chapel one day and this was my message. I subtly, or abruptly, accused many of taking advantage of grace, making it cheap, because it was not costing them anything. By the way, I was doing just fine, thank you very much.
I had no conscious intention to communicate that forgiveness was earned, merited, or purchased. But in my attempt to motivate people to do what Christians are supposed to do I think I completely butchered the Christian message. In my attempt to show them what “real” Christianity was I may have butchered what Christianity is.
At the time, I probably would have summed up what I thought Christians should be doing as (1) being obedient in important areas, (2) having daily quiet times, (3) praying more, and (4) sharing the gospel more (according to God’s Law we should be perfect; I was dumbing it down, ironically). All in all, we should be more serious about Christianity. And I thought the way to get people more serious was to tell them to get more serious…or else. I was really strategic, apparently.
However, it was not just a message to get more serious. It was a message that if you were not more serious, or not evidently getting more serious (again, whatever that meant in my head), then you were taking advantage of grace; you were living in “cheap grace”. The idea was that if your response to grace was poor, inadequate, or not what it could be, then you were taking advantage of grace and maybe, quite possibly, sort of, did not really have grace, or something; not the real grace of God anyways. You had “cheap grace” because it didn’t cost you anything.
I was not saying you should earn grace, but that maybe you should, um, get the real stuff (I guess?). And to do that you had to get more serious about grace.
Ok, that may be confusing; I’m confused too. It is confusing because it is not just that I preached more of God’s Law at the time (summed up biblically as love God and neighbor perfectly; a beautiful law, I must say). It was that I began to mix and mingle God’s commandments with His free gift of grace.
The reality I seemed to be buying into was that if you did not respond radically to God’s grace, you were taking advantage of it, and thus not really receiving it, or maybe forfeiting it. What I was tragically missing, at least on a practical level, was that whether you are a “radical” Christian or a bum of a Christian, grace is free for you. Your radical-for-Jesus life doesn’t earn grace (and by the way, compare yourself to “be perfect” and you will find that you are not radical) and your radical-less life does not lose grace. Grace has nothing to do with you, except that it is given to you for free.
God’s grace does not cost you a dime; it is not cheap, it is absolutely free. That is why Jesus came, to pay the infinite price on the cross you could never pay. God puts no qualifiers on who gets grace; those who find they are unqualified are qualified. It is free for all who believe in Jesus.
The idea that some are “taking advantage of grace” is silly. I take advantage of grace every day! I have to! God gives me grace for my advantage, so that I do not pay the price for my sins. I will get away with all of my sin, because Jesus paid the price for it. No, this does not make me want to sin more. And yes, I do respond poorly to grace. I still sin! So do you. But there is plenty of grace in Jesus for that.
The minute we begin qualifying God’s free gift of grace in Jesus with how well we respond to it with our obedience, radical living, sanctification, and love for God and neighbor we have lost sight of God’s grace entirely. We have made it available for purchase. We have thought up some new, false, empty grace that is received by works, not faith; based on us, not Jesus.
Maybe what all of us bum Christians need is not more, “Try harder or else…” but “You have failed and Jesus did it all perfectly for you. It’s been taken care of.” Our faith can be so weak as we miserably fail to believe this good news perfectly, so we need to hear it incessantly. We are way worse than we think but Jesus is way more gracious than we could ever fathom in our wildest dreams.