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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cheap Grace is Dead Wrong, but NOT for the reason you might think. (Repost)

I ran into someone the other day who pointed out that within this post, I became a little too pointed and a lot too personal. I thought a lot about it, and reread what I had written. It was true. I didn't mention any names, but I attacked with way too much specificity and zeal. I had no call to say some of the things I said. I apologize. That said, I firmly believe in the truth of this article as it stands now. I've made changes that better reflect the argument and reasoning...rather than the anger I was feeling when I originally wrote. So, if you're a Christian, and you're stuck on the not-so-merry-go-round, read on and discover just how amazing God's grace really is. --WtB

Cheap Grace

I am an angry man right now. It's not the simple anger of a bad call in a football game. It's not the reactive anger of stubbing my toe or stepping on a kids' toy left in the wrong place. No, this is the kind of anger that comes from years of mistreatment at the hands of the unjust. This is waking up after years in the Matrix, realizing for the first time that you've been a slave.

That's how angry I am.

You see, my Pastor (Joe Duke, Lifepoint Church) is preaching out of Romans (my favorite book of the Bible). And his sermon this weekend, "A Matter of Life and Death," finally rang some much needed bells in my head. And I woke up. You can listen to the sermon here by the way: A Matter of Life and Death, Joe Duke, Lifepoint Church.

And when I woke up, I became angry. I'm not just angry for myself. I'm angry for generations (maybe centuries) of Christians who have been mistreated or misstaught or misled on two key areas of Christianity:
The Grace of God
and the Nature of Justification

So what's the problem? What has imprisoned me and so many Christians for generations? What is it about some teachings related to Grace or Justification?

The problem is that there are those who consciously or unconsciously teach that people can only be saved from hell by Grace plus something. It's the plus something that murders humanity.

The problem is that there are those who consciously or unconsciously teach that Justification can be proved or disproved by a person's behavior, implying that the only people who are really justified (who are really Christians) are the ones who live a virtually sinless or actually sinless lives. This imprisons humanity behind bars of ice. 

And when someone like me comes along and says: "Wait a second! The Bible tells us that salvation is FREE. The only thing that must be true of us is that we believe that Jesus died for our sins and confess Him as Lord. And by God's amazing Grace, we are saved! We are justified which means declared ultimately righteous. And it's a free gift." When someone like me says something like that, there are those who would accuse us of me of teaching, "Cheap Grace."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who spoke out against Nazi aggression during World War II. Bonhoeffer was arrested and eventually hung for his faith and his relentless criticism of Nazi evil. He was a great man, a brilliant man, a man who no-doubt inspired thousands, if not millions to become Christians or follow after Jesus. I have no right to speak against him, but I do believe some of his teachings are either somewhat errant or have been horrendously misunderstood. In his treatise "The Cost of Discipleship," Bonhoeffer wrote this:

"Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace."

"The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ."
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We read those now out of context, of course, and that's why I think, perhaps Bonhoeffer didn't mean what it sounds like he means. When you read this, part of you wants to raise a fist and yell, "ROCK ON!" But there's this nagging suspicion that something's a little off. In the first quote, do you see the pair of oxymorons? "Cheap Grace" and "Costly Grace." Neither of these things are possible. Not if we understand the Biblical definition of Grace.

In the second quotation, do you see the issue? If you are justified by grace alone, how can leaving everything behind be a PRErequisite? How can there be any other condition if you are saved by grace ALONE. There cannot be. Not if we understand the Biblical definition of Grace.

Ephesians 2:8-9

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

Romans 3: 21-23

 21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;

Romans 4: 1-6

 1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works..."

Romans 5:1

 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ..."

Romans 5:15-17

  15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. 

Galatians 3: 1-11

 1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
 7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
 10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 6:23

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

God gave His life up for us. He ransomed us, paid our debt, and saved us. He GAVE us forgiveness. He gave us salvation. He gave us life. And He gave us eternity in Heaven. 
Grace is defined as unmerited favor. We didn't deserve it. We didn't earn it. We have nothing to boast about. We have no byline, and our names are not in the credits of Grace. It is God's gift. Do you see how many times the scriptures declare it is a gift? A pure gift, uncorrupted by any puny deeds we might manifest? You just can't have "cheap" or "costly" grace. It cannot be costly and costless at the same time. It's free. Do you hear me? IT IS FREE.

Now, there are some who distinguish the cost of Grace to God from our own cost. Yep. I get that. Jesus had to leave heaven and put on mortal flesh. That cost Him. Jesus has to muddle through human existence for 33 years. That cost Him. Jesus had to endure the taunts, the spit, the torture, the humiliation, and death on the cross. That cost Him...dearly. Perhaps even more than all of that: Jesus had to experience a span of time where He was completely cut off from God the father. I often wonder if that wasn't the moment where Jesus experienced the blow from the bearing the sin of the whole world--that in those moments, Jesus took the sum total of all humanity's sin and separation, the sum total of all humanity's eternity stay in hell--upon Himself. Grace cost God more than we could ever tally or imagine. Frankly, we're just too limited to go there. But for us, the recipients of Grace, it is free.

Believe: It really is that simple

What is the one word used the most in the New Testament to explain how a person gets saved? You guessed it. Believe. BELIEVE and you will be saved. For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that any who would BELIEVE. John wrote his whole gospel to encourage folks to BELIEVE.

Now, you might be thinking that the word "believe" in the Bible has some double-secret probationary meaning. Maybe in the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic there's some extra complication to the word "believe" that Western readers wouldn't understand today. Nope. It meant then just what it does today. It means to be persuaded, to understand and agree with, to trust as true, or to pledge faith in as reliable. How can it be that simple?

I think that's the real problem. We stubborn humans just can't accept something as free. There's got to be a string attached somewhere, right? Maybe we think we'll be more spiritual if we do something to get it. Maybe we think we're helping God out. Maybe we rightly know how screwed up we are, how big a debt we owe, and then wrongly assume that, therefore, we owe some kind of penance before we can be truly saved. Maybe we were raised to be independent, can-do people.

But sorry...what do the scriptures tell us? Jesus did it all. And He gives it to us for FREE.

And the cool thing is that God knew all along how screwed up we are. He knew all along that there was NO WAY we could save ourselves. He knew our natures and knew we needed an utterly complete, simple gift--or we'd all be toast. Literally.

"For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?" Romans 5: 6-10

See there, God's absolute brilliant generosity. God wasn't about "Go clean up your act, and then come see me about salvation." God wasn't about "Go do more and more sacrifices, and then come see me about salvation." God wasn't about "leave everything behind, and then I'll save you." No, God said, "Let me make this easy for you. Believe." 

John expressed what kind of simple belief was necessary when he compared Jesus to something Moses did back in the OT:

"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

This hearkens back to Numbers 21 where God sent poisonous snakes to bite some sinful folks who just wouldn't listen. Then, in their misery, they cried out for help. Moses held up a bronze serpent (the symbol of the AMA) and all who looked at it were saved. Jesus, John says, is just like that. He was lifted up so that all of us miserable folk could look to Jesus for salvation...and be saved. It's just that simple. Look on Him. Believe He can save you. Boom, it's done. 

Modern Pharisees
So who's trying to sell Grace with a string attached? I won't name names, but you've probably heard of many of them. You've read their books, heard their sermons, etc. They will use all kinds of interesting phrases for it: full surrender, Lordship, absolute repentance, sinless perfection, instant sanctification, and so forth. And each one of these tells you to believe in Jesus for salvation, BUT...  There's something else: some level of repentance, some activity, some attitude--some something necessary to really be saved.

According to many of these groups, especially the sinless perfection folk, a person who calls himself a Christian, who then sins often (or even at all, in some extreme teachings), must not be a Christian at all. Never was one. Or maybe was--but lost salvation. (Don't get me started on "losing salvation." Hello, it's called ETERNAL life for a reason!) These folks clearly have x-ray soul vision and can see an unregenerate heart. They will say in one breath, Grace alone, but in the next--so long as you don't sin, believed in this certain way, or add this to belief. And they would then accuse me of teaching "cheap grace." 

These folks are like modern Pharisees, trying to add to God's work on the cross. Remember the Pharisees? Of all the folks Jesus met on earth, the Pharisees earn the prize for being ripped up one side and down the other by the Son of God. He called them serpents, hypocrites, white-washed tombs, and more! Why? Jesus didn't like that these mere men were adding rules, adding restrictions, adding ANYTHING to God's way.

I'm sick of it too. Seriously. SICK OF IT. My problem started way back when I first became a Christian. The dude who led me to the Lord was one GLOW IN THE DARK believer. Based on the person I assumed this guy to be, I assumed that as soon as I believed, WHOOSH, there goes all my issues with sin.

Well, there were some neat changes initially. I stopped cursing. I quit drinking. I dumped tons of things that might have been temptations. It was kind of a cleansing. Was I completely sin-free during that time? I don't think so. It was 20+ years ago, so I can't really recall. But I don't think I was ever sin-free. At the very least, I remember getting really angry playing a video game and throwing the controller so hard against the wall that is put a hole in the drywall. So, yeah, I probably sinned still during that time. And yet, it was a change.

But it didn't last forever. Even though, I was in the word more than ever, praying more than ever, and active in church more than ever, sin crouched at my door and I stepped in it like is was a pasture full of manure. Decades went by. Some days, months, years were more pure than others. But, if I am honest, there were periods where I sinned more as a believer than I did during certain periods as an unbeliever. So what happened? Did I lose my salvation? Was I never a Christian to begin with? And for those who might teach such things: just how much sin is necessary to show I never was a Christian? One sin a day? Twelve? 17.5? 

As you might have guessed, I noticed the discrepancy between my status as a Christian and my behaviors. And honestly, the first fifteen years of my Christian life were characterized by frequent terrors of hell, by questioning my salvation, by repeated altar calls and sinners prayers, etc. etc. Eventually, I came to a kind of stasis. I just kind of said to God that I don't know how to be more sincere. I don't know how to have more genuine faith. And I need help.

I led Bible studies week after week. And I could argue apologetics with atheists, mormons, Jehovah's witnesses, evolutionary biologists, etc. But the sins didn't always stop. Neither did the fears. I became a bit of an insecure Christian. I clung to Jesus and felt a desperate need for His touch, but I also couldn't seem to let go of the fears. And those fears made almost EVERY single act of Christian service feel hollow and insincere. I could witness to people, but like CS Lewis said, it felt like I was handing out brochures to a place I had never visited.

Holy Facepalm, Batman!
But, over time, and with the help of some pretty amazing apologetics-meisters, and especially with God's grace, I came through and utterly dismissed that errant belief system. So when my pastor began preaching out of Romans, it just connected. It was like a Holy Facepalm! How could I fall for that utter nonsense? How could I listen to this false teaching and remotely entertain the thought that I might be cheapening grace.

You know who "cheapens" Grace? It's these folks, these false teachers. As if God's grace can't cover all sins. As if God's grace can't save you unless you...blah, blah. As if God's grace just isn't powerful enough...unless we help.

You who try to add clean living or baptism or full sacrifice or total repentance or anything else to grace: STOP IT. Who can supplement the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross? Does Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection NEED anything to supplement it? Is it not enough? Was Jesus kidding on the cross when he cried out, "It is finished"?

To those who see other Christians who sin, and in your minds judge them as people "who can't possibly be saved," is it not you who, in judgment, are serving the devil? Do you know that person's soul? Are you finding a label for these people out of a desire to comfort your own discomfort? Are you troubled by the incongruence between the name Christian and obvious sin? And since you can't make heads or tails of that, do you then comfort yourself by a wholesale declaration that sinning Christians aren't really Christians at all?

Matthew 23: 13 and 15
But woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You keep locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! For you neither enter nor permit those trying to enter to go in. 

Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You cross land and sea to make one convert, and when you get one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves!" 

What you do is drive away the lowly, broken Christians who have blown it, making them think they never were Christians to begin with. And since they never were, they despair that they never can become Christians because they simply don't know how to muster more sincerity with which to believe. 

What you do is frighten whole generations of new believers into keeping a desperate, tragic secret. By your falseness, your legalism, and superficial holiness, you have made these new believer think that as soon as they become Christians, POOF, all troubles, all sin issues are instantly resolved. So now, these new believers, confronted with the reality of their own sin, inwardly cringe. Who can they tell and not be worried about rejection? And everyone else at church looks so great, like they've got the world on a string and the tiger by its tail. How can I possibly admit...that I mess up?

What you do is chase away the nervous unbeliever who comes to church one day, hoping against hope that maybe someone knows what they are going through. But instead, he finds a sanctuary filled with plastic people, perfect smiles and glad-handing glee-meisters…and if he digs deep enough, he finds hypocrites. 

I can't possibly know the motivations of teachers of such doctrines. I imagine that for a great many of them, they have the best of intentions. They want to steer people toward holiness, and that's not a bad thing at all, is it? No, not in essence. And I know for a fact that at least some who teach these troubling doctrines do a LOT of good, helping believers through many of life's difficulties and so on. They steer a great many people to Jesus...and that is fantastic. But, once a believer begins to mature and explore the theology, he/she will discover a troubling and often crippling set of disclaimers like: 1) You have faith, but need ___ as well  OR  2) You believe, great, but you must be sinless now or you weren't really a Christian  OR  3) You believe, but have you left all behind? Etc. etc.  

How dare we sell grace short by attempting to a) add something of human effort to it OR b) by claiming that Grace covers only a finite amount of sins (just the sins committed prior to conversion).

Priceless Grace
But, you may say, what about those people who claim to be Christians but sin...or even sin a lot? Well, maybe they are Christians and maybe they aren't. Maybe they are just walking out of fellowship with God. Maybe they have never been discipled properly or never had a good church...or even a friend good enough to teach and sharpen them. Isn't God's grace powerful enough to save them? Of course it is.

What if they sin a little? How do you define "a little?" What if they sin a lot? How do you define "a lot?" Do you see the problem? It's a problem of YOU, finite man, trying to define something that only the infinite mind of God has any right to define.

And I ask again, isn't grace powerful enough to cover those sins? Of course it is. You cannot out-sin Grace. Don't take my word for it. God has a lot to say on the matter. Check out Romans.

"The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more,  so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Romans 6: 20-21

Grace always trumps sin. ALWAYS.

God took a magnificent risk in dying for sinful people. He risked that once we believe in Him and receive the gift of eternal life, we might at some point, just walk away. You've seen it, and I've seen it. We might as well stop denying it or trying the old "never was a Christian dodge." My first pastor was as godly and wise a man as you're ever likely going to meet. On fire for the Lord for thirty plus years. Smart as a whip. Taught at an accredited Bible College, led hundreds maybe thousands to Jesus. The man's faith was no doubt Grade A bonafide true. Ten years later, gone. Left his wife. Left the church. Struggling. Let every man be a liar and God be true. God has saved this man. Yes, even him. Or even me. I still sin too. And I say, there but for the Grace of God go I. See, I look at the picture below and see a sacrifice so great and so comprehensive--an ocean of agony to rescue broken mankind. Grace trumps sin.

Please understand, I am not advocating any kind of universalism thing here. Jesus' sacrifice is powerful enough to save mankind, but it did not save everyone. Some will reject the gift of Eternal Life. Some will reject the Grace of God. It's a free gift, but people still have to accept it.

Sinning Free for All?
At this point, you might be wondering: does that mean that I can become a Christian and just go sin all I want? Paul addressed that question in Romans too.

"What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" Romans 6: 1-2

Here, God is saying, you no longer have to live that way. Sinning hurts nonChristians. There are nasty natural consequences to sin. But for the believer, I think it's tenfold. You get the natural consequences plus some. You may lose the assurance of your salvation--the feeling that you are saved. You may be driven practically mad by the disconnect between your inner man who is alive with Christ and the outer man sinning madly. You might even just die. The wages of sin is death. And one thing that's definite is that you'll lose reward in heaven. That's another topic for study. Seriously, there will be glorious rewards in heaven, but not everyone will earn them.

Salvation--Justification--the Grace of God is FREE. Discipleship is costly. Sanctification is costly. Growing to be more like Jesus will refine you through Holy Fire. Christians have lots of work to do. Jesus Himself prepares good works for us to do. That's kind of a cool thought. But please get the point: all this is once you are IN THE FAMILY. Once you are saved, then the works come. But not automatically. You need the power of God each and every day to follow after Him.

Get off the not-so-Merry-go-round
Do you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay for your sins (past sins, present sins, and future sins)? Do you believe He is the Son of God who rose again to defeat death once and for all? Do you believe Jesus loved you enough to give his life for you? You do? Great. You're saved. God saved you.

But the thing is, you really have to SETTLE IT. You can't go back and forth on this. Trust me. It is a never ending cycle of futility. Am I saved? Yes, but I sinned. Maybe I wasn't saved. Lord, save me. Oh, I must be saved now. Crud, I sinned again. Maybe it didn't take. Lord, save me.

See where that leads? I'm convinced that the "Am I saved or not technique" is one of satan's greatest ploys to keep Christians from doing God's work. If you're not convinced you're saved, all you'll do is pine over that. You won't be much good to the cause of Christ. SETTLE IT.

Jesus paid your price. You are saved. If you sin again, confess it, move on! Ask God to give you the power to turn from sins. Look for the way of escape God provides us for every temptation. It'll be there. Seriously. Get a friend to hold you accountable. Pray for each other.

One more thing: be real. Stop trying to act more put-together than you are. Remember the broken sinners, Christian and nonChristian alike. Maybe they need an ear and an arm rather than an eye of judgment.