People tend to think that grace is some subtle theological or doctrinal point that you ought to get right to be a good Christian. We tend to think that the subtle difference between law and gospel is the kind of thing that nerdy theologians geek out over. The truth is, grace is not really very subtle at all, it is as different from normal religion (and even from normal living) as life and death, as light and darkness, as pain and pleasure. It is not some personal emphasis of mine, it is the essential core of normal vanilla everyday Christianity. Living under law and living under grace is like living in two universes with completely different fundamental principles.
In the one universe, you begin by assuming you are condemned and rejected. You are born of the knowledge of good and evil, and no one remembered to tell you that the knowledge of evil is knowledge of YOUR OWN evil. Yes, search your heart, and notice that you are acutely aware of how woefully inadequate and terrible you are. Your conscience will not let you be! You know that everyone’s suspicions about you are wrong; you are much worse than they know.
But none of this is surely the real you. Your whole goal, your whole effort, is to become acceptable and worthy of love and trust. You start off as a peon and work your way up to legitimacy. You are a hard worker, a responsible person, and you have great taste in music. You are a sports fan! You are actually a wonderful person, but you still always seem to be a peon. Why doesn’t anything you do seem to work? Surely everyone should like you! You have made some mistakes in the past, you have made some wrong turns, but things are going to change. From now on you are going to follow your heart. You are going to be more disciplined. You are going to make a break. Things are going to change.
But none of this ever seems to fly! You are not the beautiful and shining person you thought you were! Even movie stars who are extremely rich and famous and good-looking and are married to a rich famous good-looking person never seem to be satisfied with their success. Things seem so simple, but they are not. You are actually a lazy addicted ugly failing mess. Your pleasures seem so fleeting and shallow. You are swimming in an ocean of condemnation constantly swimming against the current to get to a little reef of someone’s nod of approval, some little life raft of support. It is all so amazingly conditional. At every turn you seem to be drowning, you constantly fall short and have to start all over proving yourself. There is no rest from the critical gaze of the people around you, nor of your own soul, nor even of God. Your secrets, your desires, your thoughts, your honesty, is all made of shame, founded on guilt, which you make every effort to eradicate. You are ashamed of your most honest desires, you try desperately to pretend they are not real. When you enter a new group of potential friends, you start off unproven and unaccepted. When you do your job, you work with the constant threat of failure. When you play, it is never as fun or cool or as wildly free as in the movies or the commercials. In this universe, where you start out condemned, you spend every effort and spin every thought trying to disprove the criticism and judgement and failure and unfairness hanging over you at every turn. There is no rest, ever, not ever, you are constantly and forever judged.
In the second universe, an alien and different universe altogether, you start off accepted and beloved. When you succeed in this universe, it is celebrated. When you fail, it is forgiven. Where you are sick at heart, twisted and shamed, confession and knowledge of your secrets is sought without judgement in order to heal you. Remember, you start off accepted. You do not need to worry about being rich and famous and good-looking and successful, because those are shady and clumsy attempts to grasp at what you already have – real legitimacy. You are significant and blessed and favored despite your mistakes. Your mistakes serve not as points of judgement and rejection, but points of healing and strength.
You do not have to worry about finding the real you, because the real you is the accepted you. You do not need to work to become beautiful, God has so definitively declared you beautiful that nothing in the universe could be declared more powerfully. You do not change your life from one level of shame to a slightly better level of shame, but rather a level of love and beauty and acceptance to even more love and beauty and acceptance.
The gospel is not about how well you are or are not equipped to do right. For now, you are bound to do wrong in either universe. When you start off accepted and beloved, it is easier to dig down into the heart of the causes of this, but it is a known and accepted fact that you will still sin and do things that you wish you hadn’t. In the first universe, the universe of the knowledge of good and evil, your sin is what defines you. If you sin once, that is who you are – the one who is capable of evil. In the second universe, your sin is an anomalous peripheral to the real you, the one who loves Christ and bears righteous fruit. The gospel of Christ is about evacuating the first universe and taking up permanent residence in the second universe. The shame and guilt and judgment of the first universe are nailed to the tree in Christ, who is the door to the second universe. When you enter this second universe, you start off accepted and beloved, legitimate and belonging to the family of the accepted. In the second universe, you sin in an environment where you can actually acknowledge it and find help to change. It is not as threatening to confess sin in the second universe, because it is readily acknowledged that your sin is not your true identity. The gospel is about leaving behind the constant feeling that you ought to be better than you are, and entering a world where you are already who you are supposed to be from the outset as a gift. When you enter the new universe, you find you are suddenly becoming a new creature who looks at the world and at yourself and at God in an entirely new way.
People whose minds and spirits remain in the universe of law look at the words and actions of people under grace and judge them. That’s what you do in the universe of law, you judge. You parse out the thing that is wrong and point it out. You measure people. You measure yourself. You constantly parse out the fairness of things, the level of deservedness of blessings and pain that people experience. People under the law look at the liberty of people under grace, at the lack of criticism that the person under grace is willing to receive, and they are scandalized. They look at the idea that you start off accepted and beloved without earning it, as blasphemy and horror. They look at freedom from condemnation as license to sin. The threat of condemnation, to them, is the only defense we have against our own wickedness. They must press that the law is still binding to the redeemed, that somehow there is still condemnation and punishment, scriptures to the contrary be damned (Romans 6:14). Surely it is too simplistic, too good to be true, to say that we are completely accepted and beloved right up front.
You cannot live in both universes. You cannot serve the Spirit and the law. You must leave behind the judgement and requirement of the law, the boasting and self-righteousness of man, the passing pleasures of the flesh that we grasp in the face of our illegitimacy and torturing conscience. You must be diligent to enter the rest of pure mercy, pure forgiveness, pure and unadulterated grace, if you want to leave the hell of only getting what you deserve, to be born into the heaven of getting everything as a gift.