It is strange but true that one of the biggest objections people have to the message of radical grace is that it doesn’t seem to emphasize holiness and repentance. This is due to several factors:
- They think grace and mercy means that justice is ignored.
- They think grace and mercy means means that sinful behavior is glossed over.
- They think grace and mercy means there is no use for the law, such as the 10 commandments.
This all boils down to believing that grace implies that we ought to sin more and more that grace might increase. I’ve been all over this for years now, for example Repentance Under Grace.
Let’s clarify what I am talking about when I say “grace”. In the parable of the pharisee and the tax man who go up to pray (read it here), the tax man only confesses, and does not promise to change, yet he goes away justified. Radical grace says, he could come back for the next 10 years, confessing, and walk away justified. He trusts in mercy, not in his own righteousness, and thus walks away justified. The pharisee is grateful he is not like the tax man, because the pharisee has FRUIT! Yet, the tax man walks away justified.
Notice some things here. This does not imply that tax man ever says, I suppose God likes my sin. Nor does he say, God justifies me, so he must not be a God of justice. He does not think, God cares about me more than the people I’ve harmed. It does not mean that the tax man prays, “I thank You God, that I know the secret, that the 10 commandments are of no consequence.” None of these things are a part of his prayer. When he says he is a sinner, and asks for mercy, he acknowledges the rightness of God’s justice, and the truth of his own lawlessness. He never says that his sin is right, this is not part of his confession. When you ask for mercy, you acknowledge that you have offended justice and that you have transgressed the good law. Grace does not say you are right when you are wrong. It says you are justified at great cost.
Yet, change is good. Our behavioral sin is destructive. It is, as Jesus has said, slavery:
31 Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;
32 and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You shall become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.
35 “And the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever.
36 “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.
(John 8:31-36, NASB).
Slavery is an undesired position in life. It means we are forced to do things we do not want to do, that our personal choice does not enter into the matter. It is interesting, is it not, that we do not think of someone with habitual sin with compassion, but with blame and loathing? We do not think of them as slaves, but as choosers of sin. Yet Jesus agrees with Paul that sin is slavery.
Notice also, that it is not the choice of the sinner to set themselves free. This is not the picture of change that Jesus paints. It is the Son who makes us free. His freedom is true freedom! If He puts on us again the obligation to abstain from sin, if He presses us again into law, if He promises punishment, this is not freedom. In freeing us from the slavery of sin, He gives us back our autonomy. He gives us, not a new form of slavery, but freedom to do the thing we were wanting to do all along – which is to live as we were meant to live!
Now, if someone really is a slave of sin, this means their sin is habitual and ongoing. No sinful act lives in isolation, one sin opens the door to many possibilities and much knowledge and puts harmful hooks into the desire. How we can possibly think that someone could make a once-for-life decision about something like this is beyond me. Our understanding of grace and mercy must be strong enough to expect failure from ourselves and from each other. This does not mean we condone sin, it means we understand that sin is slavery.
If we believe in strong grace, that God has a great love for us that is unbreakable, and that His throne remains a throne of mercy and grace to which we can boldly return and expect help, a new dynamic begins to form. If we believe there is wrath and condemnation waiting there, and waiting in the fellowship of other believers, then when we sin, we have no holy place to go for help. There is no comfort besides the dull pain of our beleaguered conscience. So, we go back to the comfort we know – our habitual sin. This is a great part of how it became habitual! On the other hand, if God’s throne is a throne of grace, when we sin a little, we can know that we can go back quickly, and receive help cleaning up our mess. We can get Jesus’ help, we can ask Jesus to set us free. Our forays into the forbidden land can become smaller and shorter, because we have a place of comfort and beauty to return to. We can go to God for help quickly before things get out of hand. If they do get out of hand, we can still go back to God, and He is going to help us in love to get to the root of things, and set us on the hopeful and beautiful path. He loves us, and sin destroys.
Next post, I want to look more closely at this dynamic in terms of Christian community. For now, that is enough!