The Grace of God
by Nigel Day-Lewis
The following text is a continuation of the series “The Grace of God” or Some thoughts on grace, Part 2:
TWO THINGS GRACE IS NOT
- Soft on sin and weak on holiness
Some of the teaching on grace is so one-sided that it leaves you with the conclusion (if it doesn’t actually make it for you) that, because of grace: sin in the believer’s life doesn’t really matter, or is somehow less serious (and a Christian never needs to repent of sin); and holiness in a believer’s life is desirable but in effect an optional extra.
Nothing could be further from the truth! If this is how we understand grace and its consequences, then we have totally misunderstood what we have been taught about grace – or we have been taught wrong. Because of grace, sin is even more serious and holiness even less negotiable. Let me explain.
A verse frequently thrown out by supporters of this view of grace is Romans 6/14: “you are not under law but under grace” – meaning (supposedly) ‘it doesn’t really matter if I sin because I’m not under law but under grace.’ Never has there been such a glaring case of ‘a text out of context is a pretext’ (for error). Just look at the context.
The immediate context is the rest of verse 14: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace.” Clearly, this is not a license for sin – or for regarding sin less seriously.
The intermediate context is the paragraph (v11-14). Here the same message is underlined repeatedly – that sin is not only unacceptable but unnecessary: “count yourselves dead to sin” (v11); “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (v12); “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wicked-ness” (v13). Conversely, we are told three times to offer ourselves / our bodies to God for righteous living.
The wider context is the whole passage (v1-14). Here the teaching is clear: that when we became Christians and died to our old lives (symbolized in our baptism), we died to a life of sin and rose to a new life of righteousness. Not (as we shall see later) that this means it is impossible for us to sin, but that it is possible not to. This is because of all the changes wrought in us at conversion (not all in focus in this chapter): our old self (our body of sin) has been rendered powerless (v6: see NIV fn) and we have received both a new heart (nature) and the indwelling Spirit – i.e. both the desire and the enabling, the motivation and the means, to live a new life of holiness. So, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (v2) Now, “just as Christ was raised from the dead…we too may live a new life” (v4); “we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin” (v7).
The widest context is the whole of chapter 6. Paul seems to be countering false conclusions people are drawing from his teaching on grace, which mirror exactly those we find in contemporary false teaching. He ends chapter 5 with the marvel of God’s grace: where sin ‘increased’ through the introduction of the law, and resulted in death, God’s grace (in the death of Jesus) increased “all the more” (enabling God to forgive sin) and results in life (v20f). “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” (6/1; I can almost hear the extreme end of current ‘grace teaching’ [so-called]). Paul’s reply? “By no means!” (v2a) Grace does not mean continuing (let alone increasing) sin. “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer.” (v2b)
Similarly, at the end of the passage, having stated that we “are not under law but under grace,” he asks (again anticipating the wrong conclusion that could be drawn – and is being so by some in our day): “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” Again his reply is emphatic: “By no means!” (v15) And so he continues in the same vein, reinforcing his point: “though you used to be slaves to sin…You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (v17f) The consequence of this is (or should be), as stated in the previous paragraphs: “Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness” (v19); “now that you have been set free from sin, and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness” (v22).
Having laid the foundation of God’s incredible grace in justifying us (3/21 – 5/21), Paul begins the pericope on the outworking of this grace in the believer’s life with this insistent call to leave sin behind and live holy. How anyone could take Romans 6 as a license for taking sin and holiness less seriously is nothing short of bizarre!
Far from being a phrase which allows us to lower the bar, Romans 6/14 is one which raises the bar! Why is this? The law was powerless to save us – either to sanctify us (make us live holy) or to justify us (make us righteous in God’s sight); we could not live righteously so we could not be declared righteous. But what the law was powerless to do, God’s grace in Christ is powerful to do – it saves us in both ways, in reverse order: by grace he declares us righteous (justified) on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice for us; and by grace he enables us to now live that out – i.e. to live righteously.
Being under grace (and not under law) is thus not an excuse for sin but a reason for holiness.
Paul’s letter to Titus also shows us that people were drawing the same wrong conclusions from grace then as they are now. Immediately after a verse we have already quoted – “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” (2/11) – Paul finds it necessary to add: “It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (v12). If this is what grace teaches us, then what some people have found and are calling ‘grace’ is not grace. Paul goes on to say Jesus Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness [how meaningless then if, because of ‘grace’, we continue to flirt with wickedness] and to purify for himself a people that…are eager to do what is good” (v14). He enjoins Titus to “Remind the people…to be ready to do whatever is good” (3/1); so that those who have been “justified by his grace” (v7), “who have trusted in God” (v8), “may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good” (v8,14).
What is implied in Titus (that some people were turning grace into an excuse for sin rather than a reason for holiness) is made explicit in Jude. Jude is so righteously angered by this that he changes the content of his letter: “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality…” (v3f). He spends most of the rest of his letter describing and condemning these men and their teaching. Little wonder that false teaching on grace is something we should take seriously!
Paul was so conscious of God’s grace in his life and ministry, and wrote more about grace than anyone else, yet saw no contradiction between that and calling for uncompromising holiness:
2 Co 7/1: Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
Ep 4/22ff: You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. [Read v17-21: it is almost as if Paul is addressing believers who think that, because of grace, they can carry on living as they were: ‘Surely you didn’t hear about Christ in that way’
He 12/14: Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no-one will see the Lord
Conversely, note Paul’s many warnings to us not to be deceived into thinking that a sinful lifestyle is acceptable to God or compatible with salvation: Ga 6/3f,7f; Ep 5/5f; 1 Co 3/18ff, 6/9f; Ja 1/26. You would think this is obvious, but fallen human nature is such that it’s very easy for us to embrace this deception (as some ‘grace’ teaching shows).
In fact, the revealing of God’s grace in the coming of Christ comes together with a call to a holy life:
2 Ti 1/9f: God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus…” (cf. Tt 1/1: “the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness”)
The NT contains some 600 commands, instructions, exhortations and admonitions about how Christians should live. In the light of this plain teaching of the Bible, it is quite incredible that some extreme forms of so-called ‘grace’ teaching tell us that believers no longer have to obey any commands because they ‘are not under law but under grace’, and that God places no requirements, expectations or obligations on believers. For example, the blurb I saw on the back of one ‘grace’ book (I haven’t read the book so it might be more the publisher than the author) said: “His central tenet is that instead of trying to live up to other people’s expectations, it’s a relief to discover that God loves us just the way we are”. (The implication is that God doesn’t have any expectations of us, or that any desire to meet his expectations is a denial of grace.) Well, we don’t have to live up to people’s expectations, but what about God’s? Every one of those 600 instructions in the NT is an expectation that God has of us – an exhortation from God is more than an optional extra for us to take or leave as our fancy chooses! Did you spot the half-truth in the blurb? (A half-truth left on its own becomes a lie.) To only say ‘God loves us just the way we are’ leaves people thinking they can stay as they are. (Strictly, God loves us despite the way we are, not just the way we are – but because of his love he accepts us the way we are as the starting point of the journey he will take us on.) We need to be careful when we bandy about phrases like ‘the unconditional love of God’ which are not actually Scriptural. However, this phrase does reflect the biblical revelation – if we give it its full application: the love of God is unconditionally accepting (no matter who we are or what we’ve done) but also unconditionally transforming. God loves us so much he accepts us just the way we are but he loves us too much to leave us the way we are! So there are commands for, and expectations and requirements of, believers under grace – but they are both possible and for our good. “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation – but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.” (Ro 8/12) Our ‘obligation’ is to live according to the Spirit, “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (v4; justification and sanctification are tied together in those two phrases). When we live holy we fulfil God’s moral law (we reflect God) in a way that under the OC and its Law we were powerless to do.
Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that he was raising, not lowering, the bar of righteousness: six times he said, “You have heard it said…But I tell you…” (Mw 5/21-47), and then raised the standard. He concluded, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (v48) But he was not a torturer: he wasn’t calling for something that is impossible but a kind of living that in the NC is possible. Later, Peter directly quotes the overarching OC requirement of God – “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Pe 1/15f q Le 11/44f, 19/2, 20/7) – so making it quite clear that God’s requirement of his people (of how they live out their salvation) has not changed. What has changed is that we can.
So grace is not soft on sin and weak on holiness: sin is serious and holiness is non-negotiable – and grace both motivates and enables us to die to sin and live for holiness. John, in a letter which contains many tests of salvation (whether someone is truly saved or not), says “No-one who lives in him keeps on sinning…he cannot go on sinning” (1 Jn 3/6,9; see v4-10). By this he does not mean it is impossible for us to sin, because earlier he has written, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (2/1) John is saying it is still possible for us to sin, and we may do so, but our lives should not now be characterized by sin as they were before (if they are it calls into question our salvation). This agrees with Romans 6 and the entire NT, which preaches neither a ‘sinning religion’ (where we are powerless not to carry on sinning, or where it doesn’t matter if we do) nor ‘sinless perfection’ (where it is impossible for us to sin, or where it is possible for us to attain this) but holy living: by the new nature and indwelling Spirit God has given us, we are able to live as God wants us to, to live out what we have become in him – righteous (not absolutely, but generally and increasingly: there will be marked change at and soon after conversion, and further gradual change throughout the rest of our lives).
Because so much current ‘grace’ teaching focuses on justification to the exclusion of sanctification (it has to, to maintain its position), it results in the absurdity of implying (if not actually teaching) that God only sees (or cares about) our status (in heaven) as justified and righteous sons and not our actual state (on earth), i.e. how we are living. Firstly, this contradicts the mountain of Scripture I have already quoted or referenced; secondly, it contradicts logic: why would God go to such extremes to make us righteous and then be happy for us to live un-righteously? This failure to appreciate the biblical (and common-sense) distinction between our status and state (between salvation gained in the past and salvation outworked in the present, between positional and progressive sanctification) – or the dismissal of the latter as unimportant – is demonstrated by ‘grace’ teaching’s application of Matthew 3/17: “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” We are told that because we are now sons of God, these statements apply to us just as they did to Jesus, and therefore that God is pleased with us all the time no matter what we do or how we live. Really? On at least a dozen occasions the NT exhorts us to find out and do what is pleasing to God:
Ro 12/1: offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God
Ro 14/18: because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God
2 Co 5/9: So we make it our goal to please him
Ga 6/8: the one who sows to please the Spirit
Ep 5/10: find out what pleases the Lord
Pp 4/18: They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God
Co 1/10: And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way
Co 3/20: Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord
1 Th 4/1: Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God
1 Ti 2/3: I urge that prayers be made for everyone…that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour…
1 Ti 5/4: caring for their family…for this is pleasing to God
He 11/5f: Enoch…was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God…
He 13/16: And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased
1 Jn 3/21f: Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him
If God is perfectly pleased with us all the time, as he is with Jesus, surely such exhortations are meaningless? But Scripture is not meaningless. Clearly, even as justified sons, there are things we can be and do which please God our Father; and, by implication, there are other things we can be and do which displease him. This is not difficult to understand. Think of a human father and child. A father has a son – nothing can change that identity. The father loves his son – a love based on the boy’s identity as his son, not on anything the boy does or doesn’t do. But is the father equally pleased when the boy behaves (does as he’s told) or misbehaves? Definitely not. The identity and so the love is constant, but there is additional pleasure when the boy honours his father in obedience. So with God and us: we are his son or daughter, and he always loves us as such, but we may not always please him. Hence the NT exhortations: find out and do what pleases him – and this should surely be our desire. The reason why the Father could say in an unqualified way about Jesus, “with him I am well-pleased”, is given in John 5/30 and 8/29, where Jesus says, “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” and “I always do what pleases him.” Who of us can say that? Yes, the Father always finds pleasure in me simply because I’m his son, but he is not always pleased with my behaviour as his son. (What we are saying is that there is nothing we can do or need to do to make God love us or be gracious to us, or do these more than he already does, but there are things we can do that increase his pleasure over us.) So Matthew 3/17 is not a reason for being comfortable to compromise with sin. God sees and cares about my status and my state; it is important to him that I live a life on earth that reflects my citizenship in heaven (indeed, it will evidence that I truly do know and love him): “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ep 4/1); “Only let us live up to what we have already attained” (Pp 3/16). It would be impossible for God to only see our status (and not our state), and nonsensical for him to only care about it. When he looks at us he sees both a forgiven and adopted child and (at various times) an obedient or disobedient child. (And God will love us, as any father would, in both discipline and blessing). If you don’t believe me, just ask Ananias and Sapphira, and the Corinthians who ‘fell asleep’, if God only saw or cared about their status (and not their state)!
[P.S. Mw 3/17 shows that we need to be careful with applying statements about Jesus to us. The Father doesn’t say to any of us “This is my Son” with a capital “S” – Jesus’ sonship, and his relationship with the Father, are unique (Jn 20/17). The 3 statements in Mw 3/17 do apply to us as sons (little “s”) but in a secondary and different way.]
It is a sad thing that in so many Christian contexts today (such has been the general lowering of moral standards in the world and church, but also because of the effects of false teaching on grace), people who set a high standard for Christian living are accused of legalism, and leaders who raise the bar of discipleship in the church feel they have to extricate themselves in advance from a charge of being legalistic. Two things need to be said about this. Firstly, having high standards and seeking to live by them is not legalism: legalism is seeking to justify oneself (to become righteous in God’s sight) by one’s high standards. If one knows one has already been declared righteous by God’s grace on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, and then one seeks to live this righteousness out in one’s life in gratitude, obedience and a desire to please him, this is not legalism. It’s just biblical Christianity, just Christian holiness. Secondly, the opposite of legalism is not grace. The opposite of legalism is licentiousness. Grace is not even the midway point on the line between these two; the midway point is liberty. Grace is the magnet above the middle of the line that moves our magnet (lives) on the line below to the closest point to it, i.e. out of both legalism and licentiousness to liberty. Grace delivers us from both legalism (trying to obey rules to be accepted by God) and licentiousness (I can’t help disobeying all the rules, or God doesn’t mind if I do) into liberty (freedom from both). Christians/churches: do not lower your high bar (which is simply the Bible bar) on sin and holiness in the name of ‘grace’; and do not let anyone undermine your high bar with the false and emotive accusation of legalism. You are upholding grace – true grace, biblical grace (v greasy grace), for true grace is not soft on sin or weak on holiness.