Grace or Disgrace?
I recently just had lunch with longtime friends and we got around to talking about God’s grace. They told the story of one of their friends who started teaching Sunday School in a new-found Church that showed great potential. Everything went smoothly until they began teaching curriculum on the “crucified life”. Because of the church’s view on grace, it resulted in them being asked to leave. Though this may sound strange or excessive to some, it isn’t really anything new.
There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun.There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun. There is no new thing under the sun.
There is no new thing under the sun.
Since the inception of the Church, every generation has suffered its own version of distorted Grace. There were the antinomians during Paul’s time. “Antinomian” means lawlessness – the condition of being without law; or having contempt for law. Sometime after Paul’s time, an influential church leader named Marcion believed that “the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament” and he rejected the Old Testament scriptures in their entirety along with portions of the New Testament,” Brown, Michael L. (2014-01-07). Hyper-Grace: Exposing the Dangers of the Modern Grace Message (p. 167).
Church leaders like Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, A.W. Tozer, D.L. Moody, John Wesley, George Whitefield and others all descried warped grace teachings in their time with rebukes too numerous to site in this short article. And today, we have the modern day “Grace Movement”. This new/old teaching has moved spiritual ancient boundary stones by arguing that some of what the church has taught through the Church Fathers for the past 500 years is wrong. To find out more about these teachings in more detail, please reference Dr. Michael Brown, Hyper-Grace: Exposing the Dangers of the Modern Grace Message. And Joseph Matterra’s article: 8 Signs of HyperGrace Churches.
It should be noted that whatever differences the forefathers of the Church had, they always agreed on some basic things. They all agreed that you must confess and repent of your sins and put your faith in Christ, and that after you are declared righteous by Christ, you submit to the process of sanctification that produces fruit. These were always non-negotiable – until now.
It is my hope in this article to simply state that we need both Grace and Truth together. Both are intertwined and only collectively give a complete picture of what grace is and does. Randy Alcorn underlines the Grace/Law conundrum every generation grapples with.
“Grace and Truth found their perfect union in Christ, but the rest of us tend to gravitate toward one or the other. Truth without Grace breeds self-righteousness and legalism.
Grace without Truth breeds deception and moral compromise.” Grace and Truth Paradox
The Letter that Kills – Truth without Grace
First, why do we need the law when so many of us have seen its destructive effects apart from Grace? Most of us have been down the road of trying to do the law and have failed in spectacular fashion. In fact, in today’s world, NOT having boundaries is popular and anything that hints at moral directives is scoffed at. Popular movies often feature the lone cop or agent who breaks all the rules to accomplish the mission.
There is even an unspoken mindset that says rules are uncool and restrictive to our individuality. Any rules are seen as prison walls that cramp our style and limit our freedom. So along with Frank Sinatra, we seek to do it “our way”.
How things work.
Yet these cultural sentiments are at dissonance with the fact that everything in the universe has boundaries. Gravitational and magnetic fields keep galaxies, stars, and planets in place. Water is kept within the bounds of its shores. All living creatures have boundaries and territories. These are based on physical laws that maintain a cosmic rhythm of cause and effect. They work thoughtlessly and unforgivingly as they define for us the parameters of how things work.
Here comes the letter.
When God created Adam and Eve, He defined spiritual boundaries for them. He did this in one seminal phrase:
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:16-17
This was the mankind’s first introduction to The Moral Law, which would later be defined as Ten Commandments. These boundaries protect our relationships, ourselves, and our property. In Exodus 20, we find each Commandment and its purpose.
1. Protects priorities. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Exodus 20:3
2. Protects against fantasy or idealistic worship – “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath
or in the waters below. Exodus 20:4
3. Protects against hypocrisy. “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name.” Exodus 20:7
4. Protects against burnout (your body, soul and spirit). “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” Exodus 20:8
5. Protects your longevity “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12
6. Protects life. “You shall not murder” Exodus 20:13
7.Protects marriage and family. “You shalt not commit adultery,” Exodus 20:14
8. Protects property. “You shall not steal” Exodus 20:15
9. Protects against false accusation— “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16
10. Protects against greed. “You shall not covet.” Exodus 20:17
These comprise the moral law and are fitting to the way we were created. Our souls and bodies are attuned to live by these as a standard of Truth -This is why we are happy when we do the right thing and miserable when we don’t. With all the beauty and perfection the Bible lavishes on The Moral Law, no flesh can withstand it directly (without Christ). “The letter kills” (2 Corinthians 3:6). When we attempt to follow the letter of the law, it looks something like this:
“Process” (Sanctification) becomes the center of our religion. Life is cooked down to what “I am doing or not doing”. It becomes all about obeying the rules and avoiding sin – A cold transaction complete with a “pass/fail” warning light. Without Grace, we have a closer relationship with the rules (The Law) than with God.
This leads to Legalism. Legalism is an over-emphasis on discipline of conduct and following the rules. The law-driven legalist is judgmental of others, strict, rigid, and performance-based. Their relationship with God tends to be superficial as there is outward compliance with the law but little inward conformity. Extending mercy can seem outrageous to a law-driven person. But most of all, there is no closure with your conscience (that delicate barometer that gages your behavior). You never feel forgiven. In fact, you feel like that character in Charlie Brown “Pigpen”, followed by a cloud of condemnation. This is life under the letter that kills.
The Grace that disgraces. Grace without Truth.
The opposite extreme to law without grace is grace without law and is equally dangerous.
The wonder of Grace.
First, a note on the wonder of grace: The message of grace is mind-blowing, humbling and life-transforming. Without it, we would feel the full-force of the law coming down on us like an avalanche. We would be condemned to striving in our own strength, futilely fumbling and inevitably falling. In short, WE WOULD BE LOST. Grace takes the carnal striving out of obeying God and navigates a way through the killing letter’s demands indirectly through Jesus.
I have lived under the tyranny of the law without Grace. I was a Pharisee who am becoming a son in my long journey from legalism to freedom. Like an onion, God has peeled off layers of hypocrisy, striving, condemnation, fear and the smugness that accompanies self-righteous living. Grace to me is truly an indescribable wonder.
The blunder of Grace. In my journey out of law-driven Christianity however, I discovered another extreme: Grace with no parameters or standards. I knew instantly that this too was wrong – That the Spirit gives life not license. To their credit, most modern grace teachers would not condone sin under Grace and in truth there are those who have been blessed by this message who don’t abuse grace, however the extremes to which these teachings go are the danger. Any medicine is life-giving in small doses but can be lethal in larger doses.
This modern day expression of grace has all but banished the Moral Law with such an overdose of grace that people have been placed into a spiritual coma. It looks something like this:
“Process” (A major building block of character) is Bi-passed. What took the mystics and fathers a lifetime to accomplish in spiritual development can now be had in an instant by being both justified and sanctified simultaneously, and with zero effort. Promise without process is like giving a spoiled child your inheritance without any requirements or expectations.
No Closure. Because this movement has (among many things) done away with the need for conviction of sin and repentance, there is no confession and soul-catharsis that comes from being forgiven. Yet even unchurched business leaders and psychologists insist on the mental, emotional, and even spiritual need every person
has to confess their wrongs to each other when navigating workplace issues. In Acts 2:37, it says that after Peter spoke, “They were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”
I shave with a straight razor. The blade is so sharp that you can cut yourself and not even know it until you see blood. I believe that that is exactly what much of the modern grace teaching has done. It has cut the heart out of the gospel without even knowing it. It has done so by removing the incisive process the Holy Spirit uses in convicting us of sin. False closure can be the result when we ignore our conscience and continue on our path believing that Grace covers ongoing sin or irresponsible living.
Cold transaction. It turns our relationship with God into an aloof transaction that is all “God-sided” with absolutely nothing for us to do. Imagine the reaction I would get if I told my wife the first day I married her, “I will offend you, hurt you, say and do stupid things, but I will never have to apologize or make it right because I am already forgiven for all future sins. I won’t ever have to lift a finger to make it right with you”.
Spiritual “Conscientious Objectors”. It creates people who are opposed to any kind of action or effort in regards to their maturity. Yet the Bible is rife with warlike Scriptures that present the believer with full armor, speak of being a “good soldier”, taking up your cross, and enduring to the end. “A Christianity that costs nothing, does nothing” (Leonard Ravenhill).
The Faith that works. Why we need both.
We need both Grace and Truth in our lives. Having one without the other is fatal to our spiritual walk.
The qualifying “But”
For the law was given through Moses; Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ. John 1:17
Some versions of this Scripture interject “but” in between Moses and Grace. Numerous people have used this to argue that Grace and Law are opposites. But some New Testament scholars hold that the better translation leaves out the distinguishing “But”. This is because Jesus upholds and celebrates the law.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Matthew 5:17
The standard is still here.
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross does not does exempt anyone from living out the standard of the Moral Law because there is no real freedom without parameters. To abolish the Moral Law (Ten Commandments) is to remove the boundaries that were created for us.
“The alternative to law is not Grace but lawlessness” Rousas John Rushdoony
This is not be confused with the ceremonial law, the over 600 laws rules observed by the Hebrews. The ceremonial law was annulled in Christ, but not the Moral Law.
God abolished the ceremonial law, not the Moral Law.
Michael Brown has pointed out that things like circumcision (Rom. 3:30; Gal. 5:1-2) and animal sacrifices (Heb. 9:12-14), and other ceremonies are always mentioned whenever Paul spoke that the Law had being done away with in Christ.
The Moral Law is a different story however.
For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous (burdensome). 1 John 5:3
Grace only works against the backdrop of what the Moral Law exposes in us.
What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law (Moral law). For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’. Romans 7:7
Justification and sanctification are two separate things.
It is impossible to avoid process. Salvation is a process that involves Justification and Sanctification. In justification, God claims the garden of your heart; in sanctification, God tends to the garden. In justification, God saves you while you are in the hole, in sanctification God changes you so you won’t end up back in the hole. The sanctification process contains the building blocks of character. Peter in showing us how to avoid being ineffective and unproductive says:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 1:5–8 (NIV84)
Both are married in Christ. The Law/Grace tug of war finds rest in Jesus.
Jesus never hesitated to give Grace where it was needed and Truth when needed.
He demonstrated Grace in dealing with the woman at the well and the women caught in adultery, and when washing His disciples feet. He also showed Truth to the hypocrite, a sign to the skeptics, and a whip to the opportunists.
So how do we combine Grace and Truth in our lives when we lack the capacity to hold them together in our own strength? There is something specific we must do in the process. Andrew Murray in his book “Abiding in Christ” said:
“During the life of Jesus on earth, the word He chiefly used when speaking of the relations of the disciples to Himself was: ‘Follow me’. When about to leave for heaven, He gave them a new word, in which their more intimate and spiritual union with Himself in glory should be expressed. That chosen word was: “Abide in me”.
Reading the Bible isn’t enough, we must feed on Him at every moment. This is why
Jesus describes Himself as the vine we must partake of in John 15.
Andrew Murray continues by saying, “The connection between the vine and the branch is a living one . . . the life, the sap, the fatness, and the fruitfulness of the vine communicate themselves to the branch”.
This is the only way the two seemingly dissonant notes of Grace and Truth resolve into one chord. It is in Christ. To attempt to hold one without holding the other is a disaster, and to try it without being in Christ is like trying to take satan by the tail.
A dear friend who lives out West told us an incident that happened with a friend of his who lives deep in the country. “John” woke up one day to find an opossum in his “burning barrel” he used to burn trash. After his initial “Oh No!” reaction began to evaporate, John’s eyes brightened as a brilliant idea popped into his head. “I will get my shotgun and kill it”, he thought. He got his shotgun and aimed it and was ready to pull the trigger when he heard a voice behind him ask, “What are you doing?” He turned around to the inquisitive gaze of Alice his neighbor, a hardened country women who had a short fuse for nonsense. After explaining his idea, Alice said, “I have a better idea. I will put my work gloves on and hold him down by the neck and you do the same and get hold of his tail and we will pull him up and out”. He thought for a moment and decided it was a great idea. So Alice grabbed the opossum by the neck and John grabbed him by the tail and the plan was working perfectly when suddenly the opossum’s tail coiled tightly around John’s forearm and wouldn’t let go.
For one brief moment, John didn’t know if he had the opossum or if the opossum had him.
We can be like John thinking we have satan by the tail with our latest bullet-proof doctrine when in reality the tail has us. May God open our eyes as to “who has who” in these treacherous times!