GRACE GONE BAD
by Robert Tarr

The “grace message” is a good thing.

The revelation that humans rebelled against God and that all people are born with a depraved sin nature sets the stage for grace.

This sin nature cannot be overcome by will power or by culture. Obviously humans differ in the degree that they disobey God, and some cultures are more stable and healthy than others, but all humans are far distant from the original design.

Even God’s creation of a “people” chosen by Him to know His ways and demonstrate to the world that following God would make for a better world than the current one failed to produce a nation of righteous people. Thus, even though Israel was given the Law and the Prophets they could not do right.

Then enters grace. God Himself would solve the sin problem by coming to earth die in place of guilty humans, satisfy His justice, defeat Satan, and make a people for Himself who were given His Spirit; people to be given God’s nature. He would “write His Law on their hearts”.

These gifts of forgiveness and empowerment were given to unworthy humans as a gift. No one could earn it. No one could obey His Law on their own, without this new life in them.

Jesus died for sins and His work on the cross was final and complete.

This is summed up in Ephesians 2: “And you he made alive, when you were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,7 that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

But, today, in the Evangelical Protestant Church, there is a problem with the grace message. Many Evangelical Christians have received a truncated and heretical version of the grace message. As detailed in the Monkipedia essay entitled “The Difference between Legalism and Obedience” the issues of repentance and obedience have been removed from the grace message.

This alteration has slowly developed over time. The unintended consequence of softening the real grace message has been to weaken the dedication of countless Christians and leave many weak in morals and faith.

In a sense this was unintentional. It seems logical to move from “you are saved by grace and not by your effort” to “you don’t need to make any effort”.

But, if we are not careful we can follow logic rather than scripture and reach conclusions about grace that are not true. Thus we turn a good thing into a bad thing.

Let me give you an example. Here is a quote from the book “From the Sanctuary to the Streets” by Charles Bello and Brian Blount. Now, this is a very good book. It teaches us how to go from an inner intimate relationship with God to the world outside that needs Jesus. It explains how to have Christ formed within you and then how to have the Holy Spirit flow out of you in the mission of evangelism. It is a great book. But, it does contain a very common error about grace. Here is a quote from this book:

“As redeemed ones, we must rely on the goodness of God toward us. It was His act of love and mercy which brought us to salvation and it is His goodness which sustains us as well. We did not do anything to earn salvation and right standing, and we cannot, now, do anything to maintain it.”

That sounds reasonable, but is it true? Does the Bible teach that we cannot “do anything to maintain right standing with God?” Let’s go on with the quote:

“Through the atonement, we are ‘at one’ with Christ. This justifies us (making it just as if I never sinned), and we are declared by God to be not guilty. No amount of striving, no amount of doing, no amount of self-regulation can make me more righteous than I already am. My perfect church attendance record, my list of memorized Bible verses, my timecard of hours in prayer, and the number of people attending my bible study cannot make me more righteous. In Christ and through Him alone, we have become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Again, this is very logical. We are justified by grace alone, and we cannot do anything to make our right standing with God any better. But does the Bible really teach that we are stripped of any ability to add to the righteousness given to us through Christ?

The grace message has been hurt by confusion between what God has already done for us in the finished work of Christ and what He wants us to do in response to this atonement.

So, we are going to look at 2 things: first, is our “standing with God” fixed and final or can it change, and second, do we, or do we not, have an ability to add to the righteousness given to us through Christ?

Now, the answer to both of these questions depends on whether we are talking about our imputed standing and righteousness or about our manifest standing and righteousness. Confusing imputed righteousness with manifest righteous has disastrous results. It is certainly true that in heaven, for now and forever, that through faith in Christ, we have perfect standing and righteousness. These have been made ours even though we haven’t deserved them. They are “imputed” to us. It is a legal issue. But, it is not true that we therefore automatically manifest righteousness while we are still on earth or that our relationship with God is independent of our actions. The atonement not only imputes righteousness to us, it releases power to manifest righteousness in us right now.

The reason that it is so important that we clarify whether we are talking about an imputed state or a manifest state is that because since these get confused many Christians are failing to gain manifest righteousness and to please God while they are still on earth. That is, when they hear that all they need is grace they fail to do the works that God wants them to do. Misunderstanding of grace has led to apathy and neglect of God.

Let’s look at a couple of examples before we proceed. Imagine a Christian man, one who believes in Jesus, who has had a conversion experience years earlier, who believes he has been born again. He is employed and responsible at work. He is a regular church goer, gives to the church and is well liked by his neighbors. However, he is having an affair with a woman that he knows from work. He feels distant from God, has not confessed his affair to anyone and rarely prays or reads the bible. What are we going to say about this man? What are we going to do? What if he said this to you: “We did not do anything to earn salvation and right standing, and we cannot, now, do anything to maintain it.” Or this: “No amount of striving, no amount of doing, and no amount of self-regulation can make me more righteous than I already am…. In Christ and through Him alone, we have become the righteousness of God.”

Worse yet, now imagine another man with the exact same story and response, only this time substitute “addiction to pornography” instead of “having an affair”. What would you say in this case?

We better look at some bible teaching on this subject:

1. 2 Peter 1:3-11: “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Peter! What are you saying? Don’t you know that “effort” is wrong? And how can we add anything to our faith? And why should I worry about confirming my election!?

2a. 1 John 3:18-22: “My little children let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and truth. Then we will know that we are of the truth, and can assure our hearts before him.20 For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. 21 Beloved, if our heart condemns us not, then have we confidence toward God. 22 And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.”

2b. 1 John 3:3: “When Jesus returns we will become like Him, because we will see Him as He is. And every man who has this hope in him purifies himself, even as He is pure.”

2c. 2 John 8: “Look to yourselves, so that you don’t lose those things you have gained, but that you receive a full reward.”

2d. 1 John 2:28: “ And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”

What!? This is too much; John too?

3. Jude 3-4: “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For admission has been secretly gained by some who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness.”

4. James 2:14-26: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was made perfect by works, 23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”

Well, I’d expect something like this from a guy like James. Certainly Paul wouldn’t say anything like these other apostles would he?

5. Romans 8:3-4: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

Hmm. Maybe when Paul says “walk according to the Spirit” he just means “believe.” Let’s see. Let’s list some of his statements: Colossians 3:1-2: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth”…. Colossians 3:5: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, idolatry, etc”… Ephesians 4:22-24: “Since you are saved put off the old man that is corrupt according the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, putting on the new man which is created after God in righteousness and true holiness”… Ephesians 5:3-20: “But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints.”

Opps. Sounds like even Paul thinks that we Christians need to do something.

Paul even has a shocking warning in 1 Corinthians 10: “Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; 2 And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; 3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat; 4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. 5 But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 6 Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. 7 Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written, the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. 8 Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand. 9 Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. 10 Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come. 12 Wherefore let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. There isn’t any temptation taken you that is not common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

The effects of Paul’s preaching is described for us in Acts 24: “And as Paul preached to Felix about justice and self-control and future judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity I will summon you”.

I’m afraid it won’t do any good to appeal to Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. Even though some people want to reduce the Beatitudes to a social justice gospel the truth is that His gospel stresses repentance from all sin. Here are just a few passages to illustrate how radical the true gospel really is:

1. Matthew 28:19: “Go and make disciples from all groups of people… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

2. Luke 21:34-36: “But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; 35 for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. 36 But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.”

3. Luke 13:1-5: “There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? 3 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Silo′am fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

4. Matthew 7:24-27: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; 25 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; 27 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”

So, when you talk about the way a Christian should live, and the consequences of not obeying God you can’t just rest in your imputed righteousness. Our imputed righteousness can reassure us that God will help us change, but we have to do our part. For a detailed discussion of “our part” see the Monkipedia essay entitled “The Difference between Legalism and Obedience”. See also “The Final Judgment” in the Writer’s Club section of this web site.

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