Misunderstanding the Nature of Grace

I had a discussion in a men’s group recently where I discovered that several of our “band of brothers” grew up in a rather legalistic Christian background where grace was the theory, but law was the practice.


“Don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do,” became the moral mantra. As long as you tipped the scales of God’s judgment in your favor by being religious and not heathen, you would squeak into heaven and bypass hell.


No wonder some of these guys grew up living in fear of condemnation, judgment, and the wrath of God.


However, I also understand the counter concern of cheap grace entering the discussion any time we start moving the needle away from the reality of God’s judgment. If we emphasize too much of God’s love, so the argument goes, we can teeter off the cliff of a free-for-all where truth, righteousness, and holiness are swept under the carpet of God’s grace.


Possible? Yes. Probable? Only if we begin at the wrong starting point. 


The Apostle Paul speaks about the interwovenness of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). John records that Jesus is “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Grace and truth are not opposites on the spectrum of faith; they are two sides of the same coin of the embodiment of Jesus Christ. 


Therefore, grace becomes the motivation for obedient surrender in the Christian life. If we make our starting point religious dogmatism, though, we will never arrive at grace. As Johnnie Moore writes, “When we keep grace at an arm’s length, religion will always deconstruct into duty motivated by obligation” (Dirty God, 76).


In other words, if your starting point for an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ is duty to somehow flow into His extension of grace, you have a misunderstanding of the nature of grace. Grace, by default, is that which is not earned. Grace is that which is given. Once we receive God’s grace, we step into the Good News of redemption and forgiveness leading to joyful surrender and obedience. 


What did the angel announce when Jesus was born? “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Tim Keller wrote about the historical significance of the phrase good news in his book, King’s Cross:


There is an ancient Roman inscription from about the same time as Jesus…. It starts: “The beginning of the gospel of Caesar Augustus.” It’s the story of the birth and coronation of the Roman emperor. A gospel was news of some event that changed things in a meaningful way. It could be an ascension to the throne, or it could be a great victory. When Greece was invaded by Persia and the Greeks won the great battles of Marathon and Solnus, they sent heralds (or evangelists) who proclaimed the good news to the cities: “We have fought for you, we have won, and now you’re no longer slaves; you’re free.” A gospel is an announcement of something that has happened in history, something that’s been done for you that changes your status forever (14-15).


Hallelujah! The gospel is good news that grace kills guilt with joy! The good news is about life “and not bad news about how disappointed I should be with myself and the grueling experience it is to be a Christian” (Dirty God, 76). The good news motivates us to live a life of holiness for God, not to somehow erase our sinful past, because Jesus has already done that for us. A life of holiness springs out of God’s grace like a racehorse jumping out of his gate on race day. We do so with joy. We do so with praise. We do so out of celebration of God’s relentless grace. 


So, now let us go live this grace-filled life, “for [we] have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer [we] who live but Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:20).