But I Am Not Doing Anything

“The Ten Commandments have no right to condemn that conscience in which Jesus dwells, for Jesus has taken from the Ten Commandments the right and power to curse us. Not as if the conscience is now insensitive to the terrors of the Law, but the Law cannot drive the conscience to despair. ‘There is now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1). ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’ (John 8:36).

You will complain: ‘But I am not doing anything.’ That is right. You cannot do a thing to be delivered from the tyranny of the Law. But listen to the glad tidings which the Holy Ghost brings to you in the words of the prophet: ‘Rejoice, thou barren.’ As Christ is greater than the Law, so much more excellent is the righteousness of Christ than the righteousness of the Law.”

(Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians)

Answering Radical-less Christianity

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.

Beware of Licentious People! (Pt. 3/3)

I have addressed our natural skepticism that we have towards the radical grace of God, and especially those who talk a lot about grace. We often believe that those who talk a lot about grace devalue God’s law and devalue obedience in the Christian life.

Let me admit that I do believe there are people who use “grace” as an excuse to live sinful, rebellious lives. Jude 1:4 says, “For certain people have crept in unnoticed…ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

This idea of claiming grace as an excuse to live sinful lives is real. However, many, many church leaders and pastors make it seem like these people are running rampant in our churches. I don’t think they are.

When I was in college, I talked to hundreds of students on my university campus. I went to school in the heart of the Bible belt at the largest Baptist university in the world. If there was a place you would think students understood the gospel, it was there. But out of the hundreds of students I talked to over my years there, I can probably count on two hands how many understood the grace of God.

Many of them seemed to live unrepentant lives, and they claimed to be Christians. But they did not seem to be using grace as a license to sin. They didn’t even understand grace! Actually, they walked in rebellion because they felt secure in themselves, not in grace. Many thought they had done, or were doing what they should be doing to earn God’s acceptance. And yes, they believed in Jesus too! They were living by works + grace, not grace alone.

How do you use grace as a license to sin if you do not even understand it?

These students, and all these people we think are “using grace as a license to sin,” need to be told exactly what the grace of God is. Then, and only then, will we see if they use it as a license to sin.

We need to put to rest our fear of the licentious people. It seems many churches do not even preach the grace of God to produce those kinds of people! And this is what is so interesting, and infuriating: talk all you want about obedience, sanctification, growth, transformation, discipline, getting better, and killing sin, and hardly anyone, if anyone, will tell you to be careful, otherwise you will become a legalist and lose sight of God.

Yet this is the most clear and present danger! Christian or not, our natural tendency is to doubt grace, not believe it. We need more, much more preaching of the gospel of grace, the heart of the Bible, not less. Let’s not be scared, let’s be thrilled with what the Spirit will do when we preach the good news of Jesus! 

Grace Alone Motivates True Obedience (Pt. 2/3)

In part 1 of this brief blog series on our skepticism of grace, I addressed how we often think that those who talk a lot about grace devalue God’s Law. In reality, it is only those who value God’s Law as it should be valued who are thirsty for the grace of the gospel.

There is a second ugly head of skepticism that arises when we hear a lot about grace from someone. The skeptic in us cries out, “This person must devalue sanctification. If they focus a lot on grace, that means they do not have much motivation to obey God, or they do not think obedience matters anymore.”

Again, I think this is an illogical conclusion, biblically speaking. We make this conclusion because we do not naturally understanding what true obedience is, and how it comes about.  We should logically conclude that this person is more obedient than most (yes, even us!).

If you think you still must earn God’s grace, love, and acceptance through good works, your works are not for others at all. The Law is summed up in saying we must love God and love others. Without grace, our good works are for ourselves, motivated by our need to make something of ourselves. They are done out of love for self, not God and others. That sounds sinful, right?

On the contrary, if we are secure in ourselves in the grace of God, we can genuinely care for other people, expecting nothing in return. Grace-motivated works are done out of thankfulness to God and love for others. That is true obedience to the Law, made possible only by grace.

We naturally think that if we do not have to do anything to earn God’s love, then we won’t do anything. But Jesus said the exact opposite. Jesus taught that we only love God to the degree that we think we have received His grace. If we think we only need a little bit of grace, then our love for God will be little. See Luke 7:36-50

So, let us put away our skepticism of the grace of God. After all, it was His idea.

Are You Skeptical of Grace? (Pt. 1/3)

I find in myself, and in others, that we are naturally skeptical of the grace of God. Tullian Tchividjian says that objections to grace always come from inside the church, not outside. People outside the church have no problem with the idea of grace; well, at least to a certain degree, because most people outside the church do not believe grace is all that is needed from God. Rather, they add some of their own “goodness”.

Within the church, we naturally think much of the same way, for we share the same sinful nature as anyone. We hear in the gospel that we are loved by God on the basis of grace, and grace alone, and at times we believe this strongly. But we often have a nagging sense that we must add our works, goodness, or obedience.

We are skeptical, and our skepticism raises its ugly head quickly when we encounter people who talk a lot about Jesus, his finished work, and grace. A red flag goes off in us saying that this person must devalue God’s commands and obedience. “They probably use ‘grace’ as a license to sin” is our favorite accusation.

However, this is the exact opposite conclusion we should make. There are two totally different, logical conclusions we should make. In this blog, let’s talk about the first.

Firstly, we should think this person values the commands of God more than most, more than us! I conclude that because it is only those who take God’s Law seriously who are desperate for grace.

The Law of God demands absolute perfect obedience. Not only in outward behavior, but in your motives and thoughts. Guilty of sin in your heart? Me too. If you take the word of the Law seriously, the word that says you must be perfect or else you are condemned, you will thirst desperately for grace.

We should first conclude that if someone talks much of Jesus, His cross, and His grace, they agree with the Law and have come to the conclusion that they are super-sinners and need abundant mercies from Christ. And that my friends, is Christianity.

That is not devaluing that Law, that is valuing it and listening to it as we ought to. God really does demand absolute perfection. By grace alone in Christ alone, we are given a perfect record; Christ’s record. Let us put away our skepticism of the grace of God. After all, it was His idea.

(Part 2/3: Grace Alone Produces True Obedience)

The Law Won’t Save You

It would seem one of our great faults in American churches, and one of the greatest faults in my personal thinking, has been believing the Law has the power to change me. On top of that, my natural reasoning says that once the Law changes me, then I will be acceptable to God. I naturally reason that God gave us the Law to change us.

This simply is not biblical. When we hear the commands of God, we act as though we can fulfill them, as though we can please God, win over His favor, work our way into His love and grace. We act like this is the ultimate point.

But this is not why the Law was given. The Law of God was given to show us how far short we have come, and will always come, to being righteous (Gal. 3:21-22). Think about it this way: think about someone you love.

Got someone in mind? Now, listen closely: Dislike them. I am telling you, no, commanding you, to dislike them.

Do you dislike them now? Of course not!

Does my command to “dislike him or her” affect your heart of love for them? Not at all. Commands do not provide the change necessary to obey. God does not look down on sinful people who don’t love him, thinking that His command to, “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’…” will give them a heart of love (Mk. 12:30-31). The Law of God simply has no power to do that, and is not designed to.

And even if it could, that would not help us sinners be acceptable to God! For God accepts only a perfect record, and all of our records are filled with sin and imperfection. No one is saved by works.

The function of the Law is not to show you that you are righteous, or give you righteousness. The function of the Law is to prove your sinfulness and utter inability to make things right with God. The Law shows you that if you will be righteous, it will be on the basis of someone else. And His name is Jesus.

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Let the Law that shows you all of your sin all of the time, the Law that drives you to despair, drive you right into the arms of your Savior, who loves you, forgives you, and died for you. Never go back to listen to the threats of the Law that say you are condemned for your sin, because through faith in Christ, you are safe.

Does Grace Contradict Commands?

How does the reality of grace in our lives change the way we view God’s commands? Does it at all? Does grace make obedience irrelevant? These are questions many of us ask, consciously or not. Our default mode is to believe that grace must change the way we view the commands of God, namely, that they do not matter anymore.

Often, it seems people naturally treat grace as something that creates in us a spirit of rebellion to God’s commands. The idea is that if we are totally forgiven, if Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and if salvation is all by grace, not by works, then what is left to motivate us to obedience? That kind of thinking will make us lazy and rebellious. This is our natural way of thinking, because we recognize that a powerful motivator to obedience is fear; fear of consequences. And grace removes fear.

The “logical” inference we make is that if God has forgiven us our sin, and we will for sure be saved in the end, doesn’t that mean obedience does not matter anymore? Does that mean I don’t need to obey the commands of God anymore?

Here is my answer: If were are talking about the requirements for God’s free love and acceptance, then no, you don’t need to obey the commands of God. Actually, God loved you in the midst of you not obeying his commands. You don’t need to obey the Law to receive God’s love and favor. On the contrary, it is those who know they do not obey the Law who look to Christ and receive full and final forgiveness. So no, you don’t need to obey to have God’s love.

Now, does that mean God does not care about His commands to you, as a Christian, anymore? Does that mean we shouldn’t care about God’s commands anymore? Of course not. This is an illogical inference. Nothing about grace turns God’s commands into suggestions. Think about it this way: If a man cheats on his wife by having sex with 100 women in their first year of marriage, then confesses his rebellion, and the wife completely forgives him, does that mean she no longer cares about adultery? Does that mean adultery is no longer hurtful and stupid? Of course not. That is the weirdest logical inference you could make. 

Adultery is still destructive, personally hurtful, and stupid. Whether you receive grace for it or not. Think it about it another way: If a man sky dives with no parachute, and survives, does that mean he should no longer respect the law of gravity? Of course not. Keep breaking the law of gravity and it will keep breaking you (paraphrased from author Steve Brown).

In a similar way, grace does not mean that God’s commands, which in one sense can be seen as describing how the world works, have changed. Gravity is still gravity. Murdering is still destructive to society, stealing is still hurtful to neighbors, lying is still a relationship-killer, and worshipping false gods still begins to unravel the way things are meant to be.

But here is the gospel-kicker: while the earthly consequences for rebellion still stand, the eternal do not. The Law of God can no longer condemn those who are in Christ through faith; it has no right to tell you that you are damned by God, for Christ took the curse and death of the Law for you. The earthly consequences of breaking commands still stand for Christians, just not the eternal consequence of losing God’s love. That can’t happen in Christ.

Grace should never, never be pitted against God’s commands, or treated as though we no longer have motivation to obey God as our Father. Quite the opposite. Grace removes the threat of the Law, so there is nothing to fear. In doing so, grace frees us to obey out of thankfulness and genuine love for our neighbor. We begin to obey spontaneously, without compulsion, threat, or fear. We obey enthusiastically, with creativity for how to best love people. We don’t obey to appease God, but rather to love those around us. We will never obey enough, and we will never have to. The demand the Law makes on you of perfection as been satisfied by Christ’s perfection. Enjoy.