Grace is about Christ and His death and resurrection
What is the message of grace really about? How come it can have a bad reputation? Sometimes its because we are not all talking about the same thing. When I am preaching about grace, you may be relating that to the experience you had once upon a time from another individual who taught grace in a different way. Grace can be abused. When a person separates the message of grace from Jesus on the cross it looses its power. Instead of receiving it in gratefulness the “idea of grace” can be used as an excuse to promote sin. God isn’t giving us grace because he’s gone soft on sin. God doesn’t withhold punishment because he’s changed his mind about sin. He still hates it. But, he doesn’t punish our sins today, because he’s already punished them in Christ. And God cannot punish the same sin twice, that would be unjust and it would nullify the work of his son. Sin angers God, but now God sets aside his wrath, not because he has changed his mind, but because he has observed, dealt with, and put away sin at the cross. He has fully released his wrath towards sin on Christ. Now when he turns to you there is nothing but favor. God forsook Christ so that he could accept you. He cursed Christ so that He could bless you (Galatians 3:13). He punished Christ so that he could reward you. Christ became poor so you could become rich! (2 Corinthians 8:9) The message of grace is all about the work of Christ and how it changed everything. It changed the basic wisdom of the world, it changed our standing of God, it opened the doors for such glory! How did it change the basic wisdom of the world? The world’s wisdom says if you do bad, you will get bad, but if you do good you will get good. You reap what you sow. Karma. But Jesus defied that law. He did the ultimate good but received the ultimate bad. Why did he receive bad if he did good? Because he was carrying your sins and he was receiving your bad. What does this mean? It means even when you do bad you can expect God to still do you good, not because what you did was ok, but because God has provided you favor through his Son.
A license to sin?
Those who claim they are in grace but use it as an excuse to promote sin have not actually received grace. “You are willing to receive grace good! But did you realize that Jesus had to be brutally killed to give it to you?” This does not make you want to promote sin. Instead in your heart, you find an awe and overflowing gratefulness and love inside you because of the kindness you were shown. That is always, always, always why the message of grace will produce the fruits of the gospel in your life. The message of grace is not a doctrine or idea, it is the very description of Jesus on the cross and it is the overflow to us from the gospel. Therefore honor his grace by receiving it freely, just as he gives it! Grace is not a license to sin, it is a license to be loved. And God’s love will take all roots of sin out of your life.
Luke 17:47 – “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven–as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
When you receive your forgiveness, you will find love you did not create out of your fleshly strength there, quite by accident. If you were 1 million dollars in debt and someone came to you a paid it off, what would be in your heart? Awe and gratitude overflowing in love or “I want to go teach people that debt is a good thing?” Jesus ate the feast of sinners so that you may eat at the tables of his righteousness. I want you to be able to hear what this gospel is all about and not get caught up in the error of immature teaching. The gospel of grace is the gospel of life and if you embrace it you will find life. Grace is not against obedience. Obedience is important, but we must put it in its context. Your salvation, position before God, blessings, righteousness, identity, pleasingness, are not conditional on your obedience. Yes, doing good is pleasing to God, but God separates his pleasure in us from our deeds, so that he can take pleasure in us while even more rejoicing over the good we do.
A healthy tree produces good fruit
Imagine a healthy tree. You know it will produce good fruit if it has plenty of water, sunlight, and good soil. Obedience is like the fruit of a good tree. Grace is like the water, soil, and light we give it. When you teach grace, you will see good fruits grow. However, sometimes people have it backwards. They think, “Unless the tree produces fruit, we will not give it water! God will not bless you unless you seek and love him.” They focus their teachings on how much God “demands” of us. Knowing what God desires is good and healthy, but these people not only focus on good works, they deny or neglect grace in the process. They say things like, “When you worship you are thinking about what God can give to you and instead you should be thinking about what you can give God. You shouldn’t treat God as a Santa Clause just asking for whatever you want. You should be giving God more and asking how you can give him more. God’s favor doesn’t come to those who rest, it comes to those who strive! You should not expect blessings unless you’re promoting his kingdom!” However the scripture says,
1 John 4:19 “We love because he first loved us.”
If receiving God’s love is not foundational, not matter how hard you will to love God you will find yourself burnt out and dry. Loving God is good, but it is only possible through constantly receiving his love and focusing on that. So do not separate receiving God’s love from giving it back. Those sayings are essentially saying, “You plants have been thinking about how you can get water, but you should not be asking for water, instead you should be producing fruit.” Do you see the absurdity! As soon as you discourage people from expecting good from God and made them slaves to their work, no matter how good or sincere they are, you have turned those deeds into law and you have negated God’s love. Plants that don’t have sustenance cannot produce fruit!
But if you focus on giving the people water, you will see them produce fruit, even when you have not told them to do so. Just like you don’t command a tree to produce fruit, when you water it, it will produce what is in its nature to produce. And God has given us a new nature that desires to do good. Granted, part of that nature is obedience and therefore we do need instruction. But, He has written his law on our hearts and minds and that nature comes to life when we receive God’s love. Whatever you were called to do, to preach, teach, give, love… that gets released when you drink in and fully receive his grace.
Romans 7 “4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.5 For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
You see, dying to the law and bearing fruit to God go hand in hand. Usually when people are teaching obedience there is nothing “technically” wrong with their words. However the understanding and meaning they put behind it often smells of “flesh.” The word flesh in the greek not only means “that part of human nature that desires sin,” but it also means, “human effort.” This is the definition I believe he is using here. You see living in the “realm of the flesh” is to live according to human effort. The law inspires human effort not the “new way of the spirit.” But when you are free from the law and receive God’s love and grace, good works are produced in you, not through your human effort, but through the spirit.
Does this mean we need to be paranoid of our motives, introspective, and worrying about whether we are doing deeds out of religion or grace? Not at all! The message of grace does not produce paranoia. It is not focused on the motives of your deeds. It is focused on receiving God’s love. And if you are properly receiving God’s love then your motives will change as well. This is another stumbling block in christian circles. Immature teaching on grace has reduced it to a backwards form a legalism. Now instead of trying to do good deeds, you are trying “not to do” anything religious. This my friends is not the fruit of grace, they are promoting an outward form of it, but they have missed the heart of it all together. Grace is about letting God be God. Letting Him love me, bless me, give to me, without me telling him He can’t. It means, I no longer try to deserve or earn his goodness. I no longer try to merit “unmerited favor” (grace means unmerited favor). I let Him bless me freely and I glorify him for that and that when I teach, I teach others that they to can receive freely. If you are pushing for good works, good! But if you are turning those good works into law by reducing God’s kindness to them, then you are living in human effort. We are not talking about human effort to achieve good behavior. We are talking about human effort to achieve grace.
Grace + Flesh = Still Flesh
The opposite can also be true. Others teach grace as this… an impersonal power that God gives you… that enables you to no longer sin. There is some truth to this, but there’s more than meets the eye. Paul doesn’t want us to think that our human effort has somehow become adequate. Let me clarify. Grace will stop sin in your life, but through the kindness you are shown, not through the condemnation of the law or by promising punishment and rejection.
Romans 2:4 “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”
2 Corinthians 3 “7Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! 10For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!
12Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplatea the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
You see, when are receive our freedom, and get rid of that which hinders it, setting our eyes on Jesus, our actions begin to reflect his character. But when we are focused on ourselves, trying to earn what’s freely given to us, sin becomes attractive and our efforts are never enough. When you take God’s kindness out of grace and reduce it to this idea that somehow your efforts are enough to achieve God’s kindness, then you have taken the power out of it and turned what was meant to be life giving into another demand. This belief is damaging, instead of giving up on their human effort and receiving God’s love, they double their trust in their efforts.
Phillippians 3:3 “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh”
Paul does not want us to put our confidence in our ability to do right before God. Grace does not change this. So do not limit God’s favor to what you deserve. Grace is an empowerment that stops sin, but I want you to see how it does this. Let me read a scripture.
2 Peter 1 “5For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8For 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. 9But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.”
You see, it is not their strength alone that is producing these praiseworthy deeds. It is knowing that they are forgiven. When I say living through human effort, I do not mean that you don’t physically do any work. I mean that you do not limit God’s love towards you to how well you obey. You can do all the right stuff and miss receiving God’s love.
Missing God’s Love
God wants works that are done from a sincere and willing heart. However when you are not receiving God’s love, what you find is that even though outwardly you are doing all the right things, inwardly you are regretting it, finding no pleasure in it, and wishing you could stop. Your hands are doing what’s right but your heart is betraying you. However, if you know God’s grace, your heart will agree with your deeds and you can rejoice in the good you do, even deeds that take effort.
Revelation 2 “To the angel[a] of the church in Ephesus write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.3 You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
4 Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.5 Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”
These people were doing all the right things outwardly, but they had drifted from the foundation of their faith which is all about God’s love for us. Because they weren’t receiving his love, their deeds were dry. This passage is not saying they need to redouble their efforts and try to muster up love for God and prove to him their love. They are like dry withering plants. Instead they need to come to a fresh revelation of how much God loves them, and then they will find love for God in their hearts. This is a picture of what happens when you separate obedience from grace, rejecting grace and demanding obedience. You fall from your first love.
John 15 “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
You see, it is not our dedication that is achieving God’s love. It is God’s love that is making us dedicated. That is why in all of Paul’s letters he always taught grace first and then taught on good works. Good works must always be taught in context of grace. They have little power otherwise.
Can you agree with me on these matters? We are to focus on God’s love for us and make that the primary thing, letting obedience fall into its place, the blocks, not the foundation. I am to water plants before expecting fruit and when I preach I emphasize the kindness of God, not the stubbornness of man. I certainly do not turn those works into law by saying, “You will not be forgiven or blessed unless you obey.” Or “You must focus on giving to God not receiving.” That drains the gospel of its power.
When Paul preaches on good works he peaches them as a result or a urged consequence of receiving the gospel, never as a requirement.
“Knowing the good news of salvation (indicative mode), believers are to live a life clothed with love (imperative mode; 3:14). The command follows the proclamation of the good news as a consequence and never as a condition. This order is not reversible. Reverse it, and the gospel is turned into a new law” (Andrew Purves, The LIfe with God Bible – New Revised Standard Version p.358 [commentary on Colossians]).
“Spiritual formation is being formed by the Spirit into the image of Christ. It is the Spirit’s work, in the Spirit’s way, and in the Spirit’s time. The Spirit keeps us free and fruitful. When we draw our life and strength from the Spirit, we are freed from the sinful desires that arise from human weakness (5:16). When we are led by the Spirit, we are freed from the need to earn and perform (5:18). We are even freed from trying to be virtuous by the guarantee of fruitfulness (5:22 and note; John 15)” (Howard Baker, The LIfe with God Bible – New Revised Standard Version p.325 [commentary on Galatians]).
So do not be misguided or discouraged every time someone teaches you that instead of expecting from God you need to give more. Or that you must keep doing good in order to keep receiving. God’s giving will never stop because it is based on his glory not yours. And your giving will flow out of your receiving and you will even put their deeds to shame by the genuineness that flows from your relationship with God. Keep the roots strong and deep and the tree will be steady! Make sure you are drinking good water and fruits will grow. Always let your deeds be seasoned with life and love overflowing from a heart full of gratitude. Don’t let your deeds grow stale by rejecting or trying to earn what’s freely given to you.
For more on this subject visit my friend’s article on Distinguishing Us From Our Works.