Too Much Grace?

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One of my projects for the summer was to read the New Testament out loud with my son. We finished a couple days after summer ended.

I’ve read through the entire Bible a few times, and through the New Testament more times than I can remember. But I had not read straight through the New Testament in perhaps five years. That was certainly too long, but we have a tendency in the Church to break down everything into acceptable chunks rather than dealing with larger wholes, so I suspect my failing is more common than not.

This time through the NT, one theme kept hitting me in the face. John sums it up:

Everyone who has been born of God does not commit sin, because His seed remains in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.
—1 John 3:9 MKJV

Whiter than snowWe Protestants love to talk about grace. At one point, we loved to talk about holiness too. Today, we don’t talk much about that second one at all.

What struck me hard in my read-through of the NT this time was that every writer of every book warned the Church about sin. Believers were commanded not to sin. Believers were warned of the consequences of sin. The writers were pretty darned serious that Christian faith and sin cannot coexist. The Book of Revelation holds nothing back regarding what happens to those who sin and those who do not.

The Bible makes it clear that we believers are commanded not to sin. We are also commanded on the flip side: to be righteous. If this is a command, then it must be something we have some control over.  If we are told, “Don’t do that!” or “This you must do!” then some means exists for us to take action or else the command is pointless.

Some might argue that these commands sound too much like New Testament Law. Maybe. But they are there in the pages of the NT nonetheless.

I see Christians today excusing all manner of bad behavior under the blanket of grace. We seem to have room for all manner of grace for all manner of sin. I’m not sure we have the same room for holiness though.

When Jesus says that calling your brother a fool is murder, and the Bible says God won’t let murderers inherit His kingdom, do we take that seriously? Do I even have to ask that question? Because the answer today seems to be that we don’t. At all. Or else we believers would look more distinct from the unrighteous hordes who have chosen the wide, sin-strewn way that leads to destruction.

14 thoughts on “Too Much Grace?

  1. Nate

    Being the lifelong protestant that I am, I’ve struggled with the prevalence of this kind of language in the New Testament. I still don’t know if I get it entirely, but it seems like Jesus and the apostles were so serious about it because the whole reason for an ongoing narrative of God’s work and faithfulness was to propel the world (and we who inhabit it) toward it’s original intention- perfection.

    Dallas Willard made the point that Jesus was not announced as “the Lamb of God who takes away the GUILT of the world,” yet that’s how many of us interpret it. But if Jesus’ work was to forgive AND make us holy, that’s actually a much bigger Gospel, and one that isn’t prone to just unloading all of its efficacy into where we’re going when we die or something. In other words, the life of the church, here and now, is governed by the Gospel, and that means it’s holy, or “separate” from the life we previously lived.

    • Good words, Nate. Thanks!

      The voices out there on this topic are confusing. I have always struggled with the view that throws all the work onto God and yet blames people for their personal sin failures. Well, which is it? Working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling takes on such a mysterious quality that I’m not sure they can explain what that means and have it all fit together nicely. Then there are the voices that talk Christian perfection in this life and those that vehemently claim such a thing is impossible. Paul seemed to grasp this so well, which is why I wish that he were still around for us when we run into the things we can’t understand!

  2. Good post Dan, and a fair challenge. I think it comes down to a misunderstanding of grace. I think the NT authors understood grace not as divine leniency that excuses sin but as divine empowering that enables us to live free from the clutches of sin.

  3. I think, Dan, we have lost sight of grace that also says, “Change.” I refer to Romans 6 where it says, “Shall sin increase so that grace may abound? God forbid!” This is also the problem with saying, “I can do whatever i want since I am under grace.” Wrong! Jesus still wants changed lives. Good point.

  4. Linda

    Hi Dan,
    I wouldn’t want to be those teachers and preachers of the gospel who have distorted and misrepresented the grace of God in our day and times. There are several major personalities and many, many more that came onto the bandwagon over the years. Almost every church that I have attended. The Bible states that if we ’cause one of these little ones to stumble it would be better for us if we had a millstone around our necks and we were thrown into the sea’. Very serious stuff. Does this mean that we try not to offend anyone? No. Do we hold back truth because it might convict someone who doesn’t want to face being convicted by God’s word? No.

    It takes courage from us in our day to confront error. This is when we can call upon the grace of God for strength and courage. We also want wisdom, which the Bible says that God will more than provide what is needed if we ask him for this wisdom. Not the wisdom of the world but the wisdom that comes from above, from God. The world has no comprehension or understanding of this kind of wisdom.

    We emphasize our human failures and provide our excuses and excuse ourselves for our sins. This is exactly what is occuring today in the church. Why do we need the Holy Spirit if we can commit sin with impunity? What is he for? He convicts us of our sin. And offers the power of God so we can refuse sin and walk in uprightness and honor.

    • Linda,

      I wonder if the problem doesn’t come down to more of an issue with exalting some parts of doctrine while diminishing others. When I see failure in Christian teaching today, most times the issue is one of being out of balance. Almost every Christian book I have read that has been released in the last five to 10 years has suffered for this problem. They are all very nearsighted, amplifying what they do see and ignoring everything else. This is why I read almost no recent Christian literature anymore. I got tired of a few simple “flip side of the coin” questions dismantling entire books. I wish contemporary authors were better equipped to say, “Here are my ideas. This is what is right about them, and this is how they might be wrong or have problems with implementation.” We no longer live in an age when someone can put forth an idea and NOT point out that idea’s flaws, yet that is what happens all the time anymore. Unfortunately, such carelessness cannot pass as genuine scholarship, and we need genuine scholarship if we are to fix the many problems we now face in the Church.

      • Linda

        Hi Dan,
        I agree with the great need for genuine scholarship in our day. Leaders ARE HAVING great difficulty rightly dividing the Word of Truth. Why is this? Because they are in human wisdom mode and not in Godly wisdom from above. This is why they can pick out one truth such as grace, and distort and misapply it in our walk with God today. Getting that balance is very difficult for many leaders.

        Our situation is ungodly leaders, and an absent Holy Spirit in many ministries of North America today. I believe these ministries may not have started out this way, but over time worldly ways and wisdom has come into their teachings and beliefs.

        This is a broad brush stroke because we know that there are some good, godly ministries out there in North America. Believers are just having a hard time finding out who they are, and where they are.

  5. Interestingly enough, this very issue has surfaced in my Twitter feed today. Scot McKnight (whose opinion on matters biblical and theological I very much respect) tweeted a link to a recent interview with Tullian Tchividjian (http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2013/10/02/tullian-tchividjian/) about Tullian’s new book One Way Love. In the interview, Tullian sets out his argument, which is basically, as far as I can see, that we need more grace and less law. In his tweet, Scot said “If Tullian’s right, Jesus preached the wrong way.” In the ensuing Twitter conversation, Scot clarifies what he meant: in his teaching, specifically the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did indeed call for us to “do things”. In Tullian’s book, that seems to be defined as “performance” and is therefore out.

    It seems to me that what is needed is balance. Tullian’s teaching is in some ways a much-needed corrective to excessive legalism that leaves no room for grace. But I fear Tullian may have unwittingly gone too far to the other extreme, and risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    I also found this slightly older post, in which David Murray challenges some of Tullian’s writings, very helpful: http://headhearthand.org/blog/2012/12/11/tullian-keeps-digging/

    • Rob,

      Here’s my exaggerated version of how it seems to break down today:

      Reformed/Calvinist (Modern YRR Variant) – I’m covered, man. What I do doesn’t matter because I’m covered. By grace. G-R-A-C-E. Love me some grace. Bartender, more scotch.

      Reformed/Calvinist (Modern Puritan Variant) – We’re all just wretched sinners. Miserable, sin-soaked wretches. The cross, the cross, the cross. Oh no! I had a wicked thought!

      Arminian (Modern Wesleyan Holiness Variant) – I’m a saint and getting more saintly each day. Sin? Hardly touch the stuff. Vaguely remember it.

      Arminian (Modern Pentecostal Holiness Variant) – Here’s my list of things I must be doing (and must NOT be doing) to be a Christian. If I fail one, well, I guess there’s grace. But I better not fail one! And if I do, I’ll need to work harder not to fail next time.

  6. Dan, I am hoping the TULIP has not got you gripped.

    Do (one and all) get this key book:

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Normal-Christian-Birth-Believers/dp/0340489723/ref=cm_cr-mr-title

    Problem is, a standard Western believer has been fished in a binitarian dragnet; and then given an OSAS or TULIP ticket to heaven.

    As one reviewer of the book says (J McM), “There are still too many shallow conversions, for example lacking repentance or the power of the Spirit – or both. Until these things change, this remains one of the most important books of the last 50 years.”

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