The problem with grace?
(This is Part 1 of “God’s Grace is the Nature of Your Christian Life”)
Paul was a man who could proudly boast in his personal and religious credentials (Philippians 3:4-6). He was a Jewish Pharisee who lived a very, very long time ago Who were the Pharisees?. Like his fellow Pharisees, he was convinced he had a special relationship with God. They knew that out of grace, God chose from among humanity a special group of people: Israel (Deut. 7:6-11). Yet, Pharisees were the most special among the special because of their rigorous compliance with God’s Law, as they interpreted it. They were Bible students and teachers who were the evangelists of Israel. They were convinced that though God was gracious, it was imperative that they be the most upright, pious and holy people by doing good works and being super moral. No one could ever fault them for their sincerity in doing everything they could to honor and please God.
Paul was one of them. The absolute best, he says. But then he had a radical, life-changing encounter with God through Jesus Christ (Acts 9:1-9). He came face-to-face with Jesus Christ. That experience changed everything. He would come to a deep understanding that approaching God was by grace, knowing God was by grace, and living for God was by grace. This understanding was what he would call meta-knowledge (epignosis in the original language). God changed him from a proud Pharisee to a humble servant of Christ. That was by grace.
This life change came from a mind and heart change. The same is true for us. The entirety of living in and for Jesus is by God’s grace. This was essential to the good news Paul preached, and was central to the doctrines he taught. However, his life, preaching, and teaching put him in conflict with his former Jewish friends and peers. It also put him in conflict with some other followers of Jesus. You see, they said there was a problem with Paul’s grace teaching. They opposed this mercy, grace and freedom talk because they were concerned about honoring and pleasing a holy God. They argued, “If you preach and teach grace then people will take advantage of that and live for themselves. If they live for themselves they will live immoral, lazy and lawless lives!” Paul was not the only one to deal with that charge. Sound familiar? It’s been an on-going protest in Christianity ever since.
Paul addressed this serious concern in his letter to the Romans. In Romans, chapters 1-5, he explained the tension and challenge between law and sin versus grace and holiness. Yet, after all his explaining he knew people would still object. Paul asks what his opponents were thinking, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may about?” (Romans 6:1). The right way to understand this life of grace is found in chapters 6 and 7. The rest of Romans is dedicated to answering, “How, as believers in Jesus Christ, do we live by grace?”
This ambassador of grace even had to confront the matter head on with the Apostles Peter and James (Acts 15). He came down pretty hard on “saved by grace, but life by law” in Galatians. As you may know, in that letter Paul stands against those people who claimed to believe in Jesus but claimed though we come to God by grace we remain with God by works of the Law.
As the Church moved through history, this tension between Law and Grace continued. Every now and then God would raise up men who set the story straight: all of the Christian life, from start to finish, is by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. This was the key debate that sparked the Reformation of the church (and European society) starting in the 1400s and lasting into the early 1700s.
Here’s the crux of what Paul and the New Testament clearly teaches about the Law: the Law of God is the model for holy living, but it is not the mode for holy living. The Law of God is the measure, but not the means for the Christian life. How do we live as holy people? God’s Law shows us. How do we know we are holy and righteous enough for God? The Law tells us. Failing to keep every single, itsy bitsy speck of the Law means we have failed. This is what it means to be a sinner. Sin is the lack of conformity to and stepping over the bounds of the perfect, high moral standards of God. The Bible is clear that there is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s favor because we are sinners. There is nothing we can do to purify ourselves. All that we are without Christ is poisoned by sin. This pollution corrupts our
• Hearts (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Isa. 64:6-8; Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:21-23; John 12:40)
• Minds (Eccl. 9:5; Rom. 3:11; 8:7; II Cor. 4:3-4; Eph. 4:18)
• Wills (Prov. 8:36; John 3:19; 5:40; 8:44; Eph. 4:19)
• Abilities (Prov. 20:9; Jer. 13:23; John 6:44; Rom. 3:11; 8:8; I Cor. 2:14; II Tim. 2:24-25)
• Souls (Eccl. 7:20; Psa. 51:5; 53:1-3; 58:3; Isa. 64:6-8; John 3:19-20; Acts 26:18; Rom. 3:9-18)
This pollution is a spiritual and physical “DNA” problem that goes back to Adam and Eve (Psalm 51:5; Job 14:4). We can never be pure enough for God’s perfect holiness. This pollution is worse than the Ebola virus in the sense that it contaminates everything we are, all that we do, all that we have, and every relationship we have with God, others and the planet. Actually, the picture the Bible presents is more like the fictional virus that turns people into zombies – the living dead (Eph. 2:1-3). It eventually kills us.
When Adam and Eve failed to live perfectly (they only had one law to fulfill), the result was the infection of sin that resulted in judicial death (Rom. 5:16), spiritual death (Eph. 2:1-5) and psycho-social death (Gen. 3:19). The effects of this sin-virus are seen everywhere: in our own lives, in history, in the world around us, and in the Bible’s descriptions (Rom. 3:10-18; 8:6-7; 1 Cor. 2:14).
Since then, men and women have attempted to cure this sin disease on their own terms. How? By creating new standards and ways. If we only redefine the virus then it will not affect us. Yeah, right. If only we fulfill God’s Law we’ll get better. Nope; ain’t gonna happen. Some even took God’s Law and added to it believing that by our efforts we can remove sin and make ourselves uncontaminated and acceptable before God. This is like taking medicine that doesn’t work and adding snake venom to make it better! Take two bottles a day. Forever! The fact is, we have a total inability to remove sin and become perfectly holy and righteous before pure God (John 1:13; 3:5; 6:44; Rom. 7; 8:7-8; 2 Cor. 3:5; Heb. 11:6). Any use of the Law or any new law is absolutely ineffective as a cure.
This is where God’s grace comes in. Before the history of mankind, God took the initiative to be gracious to you and me. By grace he chose to save us from sin’s viral effects and to make us whole again. He did that in order to bring us home as his long-lost and once-diseased sons and daughters (Eph. 1:4).
For more, check out: Exodus 33:19; Psalm 65:4; Isa. 43:1-2; 45:5; 64:6-8; Jer. 1:4-8; Ez. 18:4; Matt. 1:21; 11:27; Luke 4:25-27; 18:7; John 5:21, 40; 6:29-40; 63-65; 10:14-16; 27-29; 15:16; 17:1-2, 6-9; 24; Acts 9:1-16; 10:39-42; 13:48; Rom. 9:11; 19-24; 11:1-6; 11:18-23; 8:28-30; Eph. 1:1ff; 2:10; Col. 3:12; I Thess. 1:4; II Tim. 1:9; I Pet. 2:9f.
Grace comes from God (Rom. 1:1-2; 5:8). And it come freely! God demonstrates his grace by sending Christ to the live a perfect holy life for us, and then sent Jesus to the cross to die in our place (Matt. 1:21; 1 Pet. 2:9-10).
For further study: Isa. 53:1-12; Psalm 11:9; Matthew 1:21; 18:11; 20:28; 26:28; Luke 19:10; John 6:37-40; 6:63-65; 10:14-16; 27-29; 17:1-2; 6-9; 24; Acts 9:1-16; 10:39-42; Rom. 9:11; 19-24; 11:1-23; Eph. 2:10; I Thess. 1:4; II Tim. 1:9; I Pet. 2:9-10.
It is by God’s grace that Jesus saves us from God’s purifying fire and from our guilt and disease (Eph. 1:1-2:7). By grace Jesus paid the price to purify us of our sin disease (Psalm 41:4; 103:3; Isa. 53:5; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 John 1:9). By grace Jesus paved the way for us to come to his loving Father-God. Trusting in what Jesus has done and is doing for us makes us whole and holy.
So, you see, there is no problem with God’s amazing grace. Like the Pharisees of old and many others throughout history we should be convinced that God is gracious. He is gracious to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). God’s grace through Christ makes us holy and pronounces us righteous. At the same time, we should be equally convinced that God’s grace keeps us cured and gives us the desire and strength to live unpolluted lives of purity (Rom. 5:15; Rom. 5:21; Eph. 1:4-6; Phil. 1:6). Like Paul, we should come to a metaknowledge (truth driven deeply into the core of our being) that approaching God is by grace, knowing God is by grace, and also living for God is by grace (more on this in Part 2).
By grace alone;