Coercion and true virtue

Horse with Bridle

Grace, true scandalous 100% forgiveness and acceptance, get-out-of-jail-free fire-insurance easy-believism grace, is the essential foundation for true virtue. Why? Let’s start by reading a few verses:

14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.
15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!
16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?
17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed,
(Romans 6:14-17, NASB).

I have been thinking about an aspect of the gospel that may have been lost in the midst of other arguments, but which I think is crucial to understanding the relationship between grace and behavioral virtue.

Law assumes the heart will not easily or willingly go along with its edicts. It assumes there will be no obedience from the heart, and thus there must be coercion to produce the desired virtue. This is the nature of slavery: a person is pressed into servitude and remains there for fear of punishment. When we do what we do because we are coerced by fear of punishment, we are basically slaves, though we appear to do right. This is clearly contraindicated in 1 John:

18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.
(1 John 4:18, NASB).

If we are to have the possibility of true virtue, we must enter the universe of radical scandalous grace, because true virtue involves obedience from the heart, not under coercion. The only real virtue is the virtue in which the moral good is chosen because it is seen as united with the aesthetic good. The moral good must be loved, not hated and obeyed from fear.

So, whereas the fear of the legalist is that radical grace is an invitation to sinful license, the reality is that the only possibility for true virtue from the heart is under grace. If we are now to have the genuine choice to choose the moral good, we must be able to choose it solely because we view it from the heart as the aesthetic good, because we love it.

Does this mean that there is no effort or work? (Again the question – shall we sin all the more?) Of course not! Look at this passage, which has been put forward as a defeater of radical grace as a foundation for virtue:

5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge;
6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness;
7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.
(2 Peter 1:5-7, NASB).

Under grace, under belief that we are loved and abundantly forgiven by God through Christ, we are able to supply moral excellence, because we choose it from the heart. This does not mean we can’t apply diligence; in fact, all the more, because we have the freedom now, we choose success! It is the same dynamic as when you are an employee vs. owning a business. The employee tends to do only what is required and no more, whereas the owner stands to prosper and has the pride of ownership, and so even though the owner is his own boss, he chooses to work harder than anyone else. It is freedom to choose that engenders excellence and diligence, and not the demand for diligence and virtue that produces it.

In fact, let’s look again at 2 Peter, this time supplying the context for the verse, so we can see the reason for doing all of this:

2 Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord;
3 seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.
4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them you might become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.
5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge;
6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness;
7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.
(2 Peter 1:2-7, NASB).

It is because of multiplied grace, divine power granting us everything, because we are the recipients of his precious and magnificent promises, because we are partakers of the divine nature, because we have escaped corruption, that we apply diligence and supply all of these further virtues. Peter is in fact saying exactly what I am saying.

It is only under radical scandalous real grace, with the possibility of forgiveness and acceptance when we need it, now and in the future, that we are able to be truly virtuous because we love it. Only under grace can we truly regret our sin, not because we are afraid to be punished, but because we missed the party and joy that could have happened under the Spirit’s guidance and leading. We come to truly regret sin and love righteousness when we actually like righteousness better.

Posted in Scandalous Grace and tagged , , , .


  1. Hi Jim,

    I think you hit the issue spot on here. I have heard this line of thinking before laid out by Tim Keller drawing on Jonathan Edwards. I think this is one of the threads missing in the discussion between Kevin and Tullian. Thanks.

  2. Great post. Something I read on here got me to thinking of something similar a couple days ago. It seems that the people who argue against teaching radical grace act as if it has no power to change people and you can’t improve people’s behavior without law and condemnation; also, that it is like saying that God is soft on sin and isn’t bothering with our morals anymore. But, does God’s goodness to us not have any power? Wrath and condemnation are powerful while love and grace are impotent? Does Jesus teach us to handle being sinned against better than the world? When someone sins against you, do you have to resist your sinful urge to forgive and love your enemy? Do you have to remind yourself about Jesus many sermons on how to look out for your own interests, hold a grudge or get revenge? Could it not be that grace and love are the big guns in God’s arsenal and His wrath comes when He’s given up trying? Grace could be the equivalent of rolling up on sin like Dirty Harry while condemnation is out arresting jaywalkers like Barney Fife.

    I remember reading on one site a complaint that some people make God out to be so forgiving that they turn Him into “a cosmic wimp”, and I was really struck by that attitude. Since when is forgiveness a weakness? Sure, I expect that from the world, but not from a Christian who has experienced the power of being forgiven and the positive influence it has had on them. Was Jesus teaching Peter to be weak when He said to forgive seventy times seven times? Or was He being a wimp when He asked on the cross that the people be forgiven? And doesn’t He say that “he who is forgiven little, loves little”? Again, are grace, love, forgiveness and all the other positive treatment we get from God weak and powerless. When I read a section like Luke 6:27-36, I don’t think that Jesus is teaching weakness, I figure He’s teaching me something about the best way to treat people to get positive results; I’ve never failed to follow those instructions because I was too strong. Are those instructions easy to follow? Heck NO; that’s why we don’t live like that, or at least not for long. But, if we follow those instructions, won’t it make us look weak? Sure, to the world who tells us to act the exact opposite way; and most times we probably follow the worlds lead and justify it as being strength. Can my following them be abused or unappreciated? Sure, but, Jesus seems to really push doing good PERIOD; there’s no: “Do good… to the good people, as long as they meet or at least agree to certain conditions, and only up until you feel like you’re being taken advantage of or you just don’t feel like it.” No, its “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” If people looked at God as unconditionally loving, forgiving, gracious, patient, and so on, then “What Would Jesus Do?” would mean a whole lot more than could be said with a cute bumper-sticker.

  3. Thinking back on my post over the night, I wonder if I might have gone off on a tangent a bit. I tend to think about something and end up going from point A to B to C to D, then start talking about it with point D without making it clear how I got there. So, just to clarify, as if my first post wasn’t long enough, I think people tend to treat the positives (love, grace, peace, hope, joy, etc.) as luxuries that are only to give us a fuzzy feeling when we dust them off for a greeting card, but not real legs to stand on. People talk about grace, then a few seconds later they seem to try to backpedal, as if they don’t want to commit to the idea that we’re saved by grace, and risk us going crazy with it, but I think they risk pulling back before it can really take root in peoples’ minds. Or if they talk about joy, they try to make it mean something other than simply joy, lest someone start thinking that they should actually feel good being a Christian. I think that people are greatly influenced by how they’re treated, if they are confident that God loves them, then they’ll more likely love Him back, and that love will spread out to those around them, and they’ll be likely to treat others they way they’ve been treated. Take the weight of guilt off someone and replace it with peace, joy and hope, and they can stop focusing on themselves and look outward to others, and its much harder to be mean or angry when you think about how God has been so gracious to you despite your sins. By trying to coerce people into being good by threats, I think the person is left in an in-between position with God, where they’re not unaccepted, but they can’t really function as if they are loved and accepted, because they don’t know for sure that they’re going to still be accepted tomorrow or even ten minutes from now; like if someone says your forgiven, but you know that if something comes up later, they’ll bring it back out against you, so ultimately you’re not really forgiven. God seems to love them tentatively, so they love Him tentatively.

    Also, I thought someone might think I was suggesting that only positive treatment should be expected from God, as if we won’t see chastening or trials, but what I meant was that I think we need to have a firm grasp on how good and committed God is to us to get the benefit from those things. If we don’t look at chastening with the mindset of being instructed as sons of God, objects of His love and care, then we can get into a bad attitude and not learn or grow; I’d say its the hammer of chastening and trials against the anvil of grace and love.

    Okay, now I’m finished…I think… We all hope…

  4. CKeith,

    Right on! You’ve definitely added to the understanding of this, this is exactly why people think that grace doesn’t “work”. They don’t really quite ever believe it, and it is only rarely truly taught or extended. Great comment, just terrific. Thanks.

  5. We are not under the Law of Sin and Death. We are however under Gods Law which has always included Grace and forgiveness to those who love Him. Sin has always been covered by a blood sacrifice through a God appointed priest. If I am a slave to obedience by grace doesn’t it follow to wonder: Obedience to what? I am not a slave to sin so: What is sin?

    God never wanted sacrifice, only obedience. He has shown His amazing Love by his forgiveness, mercy and grace from Adam to Noah to Abraham to David to Peter to Paul and to me. I never thought Grace doesn’t work in fact it is our only hope! I also believe that there is one God and one God only and when He gave His instructions to Moses He said what He meant and meant what He said. He was and still is perfect and His Torah wasn’t a mistake. He loved us so much that he made sure we knew exactly what was best for us. His Grace provides the only way to avoid the Law of sin which is Death. His Holy Spirit provides the insight and instruction to enable is to obey His Law which is Life! He knew we could do it. (Deuteronomy 30)

  6. I really get confused on how to be saved. What about the Lordship aspect of it? Didn’t Jesus say we had to repent in order to be saved? Didn’t he say we had to be willing to give up everything to follow him? I want to believe the way of Easy Believism but then I listen to John MacArthur and read the Gospel according to Jesus and don’t know what to think. Any help you can give me to end the confusion would be great.

  7. Robert – we’ve been way down this road, of course, you know I love you man. I like what a pastor named Chuck Collins had to say here about the 10 commandments:

    [The] 10 Commandments as prescription for becoming right with God v. a description of what our lives look like when we are in a right relationship with God. One focuses on the Law the other on relationship with God. One is written on stone tablets, the other on our hearts. When the Commandments become prescriptive, it makes us into grouchy Pharisees out to catch people in their sins. Not fun to live with.

    Grace isn’t a mandate for lawlessness. It is freedom and power to live by the Spirit. It is the difference between a kid who has to practice music because his mother put the timer on, and a gifted musician working endlessly on his craft because he loves it. As Christians we are the gifted ones, the ones who act from love, the ones who nail virtue because we are gifted virtuosos of the things of the spirit. Virtuoso musicians may need to practice, may still screw up, but they hate that, they love getting better and better. This is the Spirit-led grace-centered Christian’s take on the law.


  8. Karen, I appreciate the question. Obviously, I am not a big fan of John MacArthur, I think he is missing the real message of Jesus in that book. In fact, “The Gospel According to Jesus” was one of the main catalysts back in the day that caused me to ponder the real meaning of grace, and to reject his short-sighted harsh understanding of this.

    I have a whole post that delves into the Lordship question here: The idolization of the ‘changed life’. It does, I admit, have a bit of an inflammatory tone, so sorry for that. Excerpts here:

    Notice that when people speak of the “Lordship of Christ”, what they mean is that through their own obedience they ‘MAKE’ Him Lord – not that He actually IS Lord. I guess that poor Jesus cannot make Himself Lord unless I perfectly repent. What power I have! I conjure and control God with my ‘holiness’ – until I fall off my little pony!

    In gospels, it is JESUS who is Lord – even terrible rejection and betrayal and abandonment by all of His closest disciples could not stop Him. He raised Himself from the dead, and came back with mercy and grace in His heart for them. I think that for them, the first disciples, the ‘Lordship of Christ’ would mean something very different than the half-hearted dim-witted drivel that most people mean who throw this phrase around.

    In fact, if Jesus isn’t Lord until I “make” Him Lord, it actually reduces the scope and power of His Lordship, right? If MacArthur’s harsh interpretations of Jesus’ life and teachings is correct, why did all the tax-gatherers and sinners throw parties for Him and follow Him around, why did the prostitutes cry and wipe His feet with their tears and hair? He loved them, He saw them for who they really were in God’s eyes, He came not to condemn but to redeem, He saw lost treasure and precious pearls in them, not disobedient swine.

    I say, if we truly believe and own that we are His pearl, His lost coin that He rejoices over, His prodigal that has returned, that He rejoices over and weeps over and throws parties over, we are going to walk around differently, we are going to have a joy and a pep to our step that no tepid brow-beating Lordship message can touch.

    I hope this helps!

  9. BTW, comments ACCIDENTALLY got disabled on this post, there was no intent to end the discussion. If anyone else was intending to respond, I’m so sorry. I actually don’t know how that little checkbox got clicked in the admin screen. I always allow full discussion unless it is an outright spammer.

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