It wasn’t all that long ago. I was a young mom, a Bible teacher, a believer in the grace of God that saved me from the wrath of God against sinners. In fact, I was reading a book about that very thing, grace, and when I turned the last page and shut the book I thought to myself, “That can’t be right.”
Which is, as I think on it, the response of every true legalist to the message of God’s free favor. Who once remarked that true gospel grace hasn’t been preached unless accompanied by the charge of the heresy of antinomianism (lawlessness)?
I had grown up loving the Lord Jesus and wanting so very badly to belong to Him. I knew my sinfulness and my wickedness; I knew it so well that I prayed the so-called sinner’s prayer many times, desperately pleading, begging the Lord to save me. However much I had misunderstood grace I did know two things well: that I was a sinner and that Jesus saves sinners like me.
I remember as a girl attending a revival service at my church. The evangelist was adamant about the need for repentance and I suppose he must have been rather insistent that genuine repentance would be marked by a public admission. I had fallen under conviction (again!) and prayed alongside his prompts for the Lord to save me (again!) but hesitated to walk the aisle. I worried and I fretted in the days following. In fact I earnestly feared for my soul. I contemplated sending him a letter–if only I had his address!–telling him of my decision to repent (again!) and follow Christ, thinking that such an admission perhaps would serve to assuage my anxiety and grant me peace about my eternal security in Christ. I believed, wrongly, that my acceptance before God depended on what I–and the evangelist–did or didn’t do.
This makes me sad and yet it is a fitting picture of much of my spiritual journey. I loved Jesus, I wanted to be His and He to be mine, I knew I was a sinner and I could never be good enough, and yet try as I might I could never be “good” and thus I remained convinced my persistent failure and sin kept me from the Lord I loved so. I could find no security, eternal or otherwise, only a vicious cycle of trying harder to do better and be better.
So I’m sitting on the patio in the back yard reading a book about grace. Not because I thought it a message I necessarily needed to hear or heed but because a bible teacher I admired quoted this particular author and this particular book. I certainly wasn’t expecting my understanding of the gospel to be shattered! Yet…when I read that there was nothing I could do to make Jesus love me more nor anything I could do to make him love me less I protested. My entire life was comprised of a subtle and not-so-subtle system of weights and balances, good and bad, right and wrong, and now it doesn’t matter? What about quiet times and church attendance and not drinking and avoiding “R” movies? All meaningless? That can’t be right!
We legalists, we moralists, we worry so about those who may take advantage of the gift. If we teach grace, if we preach grace, if we live grace, then won’t we become antinomians? Would we not continue in sin, doing all that we want, whatever we want, because grace abounds?
May it never be, Paul says quite emphatically in Romans 6. Grace is not license to sin; grace sets me free from sin! Because of grace, I am no longer dead but alive and sin has no dominion over me; instead I am a slave to righteousness! I cannot earn His favor but I cannot lose it either. Christ has forever purchased for me my righteous standing before the holy God of the world and He did so apart from anything I have done or didn’t do. While I was yet a sinner, He died and His death not only granted me forgiveness of sin but also extended to me the favor, the pleasure, of God. He took my sin and gave me His righteousness. He died and I live. He rose again and now I have the promise of eternal life with Him.
Do not misunderstand: what we do matters. Of course it does. The Bible is full of commands to holy and righteous living. But my security and my freedom are drawn from Christ and not from myself and my behavioral rightness and wrongness. It’s all Christ. He is all my righteousness. Not me but Christ.
It’s not the book I was reading that afternoon so many years ago but I really like what Matt Chandler says here about grace in his book The Explicit Gospel:
[U]nless the gospel is made explicit, unless we clearly articulate that our righteousness is imputed to us by Jesus Christ, that on the cross he absorbed the wrath of God aimed at us and washed us clean–even if we preach biblical words on obeying God–people will believe that Jesus’s message is that he has come to condemn the world, not to save it.
But the problem is deeper than that and more pervasive. If we don’t make sure the gospel is explicit, if we don’t put up the cross and the perfect life of Jesus Christ as our hope,t hen people can get confused and say, “Yes, I believe in Jesus. I want to be saved. I want to be justified by God,” but then begin attempting to earn his salvation.
He’s telling my story! Chandler goes on to say this about grace-driven effort:
The marker of those who understand the gospel of Jesus Christ is that, when they stumble and fall, when they screw up, they run to God and not from him, because they clearly understand that their acceptance before God is not predicated upon their behavior but on the righteous life of Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death.
I stumble. I fall. I mess up royally. Before I began to understand true grace I saw these failures as indicators that I needed to pull up my boot straps so to speak. I turned inward, to myself, attempting to muster up enough determination or discipline to do better tomorrow. It was a vicious, desperate cycle. But because of the glorious grace of a good and merciful God, I am free. I am accepted before God. I am His and He is mine and all because of grace.
Do you know this grace? Are you weary of the try-hard, be-good life? Your only hope is Jesus. Repent of your sin. Believe His promise to save. Know that through His death He purchased forgiveness for your sin! Run to Him. He lived a sinless, perfect life, and yet He became sin so that through Him you might become the righteousness of God! There is no condemnation–none!–for those who are in Christ Jesus! His lovingkindess never fails, glory to His name!