- Do you think that you have ever abused the grace of God?
- If so, how did you abuse it?
- If you were only pretending to abuse grace, would you want to know?
I suggest that you were only pretending to abuse God's grace. Read on to discover what you were really doing when you were pretending to abuse grace.
The Abuse of Grace: an Important Concern
Does the abuse of grace concern you? Have you heard anyone express concern about the abuse of grace? I have read this concern in books and heard it in sermons. Mostly I have heard it in my many hundred annual conversations about grace with non-Christians.
The Reason for Concern about the Abuse of Grace
When I have declared that a person's forgiveness with God is guaranteed by the the sin-bearing death of Christ apart from any personal works, my non-Christian hearer has more than occasionally responded with concern that such a guarantee would give a person a license to sin. We Christians commonly emphasize our point with non-Christians by quoting Paul's declaration "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." (Ephesians 2:8-9).
It is common for non-Christians to continue their objection and declare that guaranteed forgiveness would mean that God doesn't care about good works. At this point it is common for a seasoned evangelist to respond that God actually does highly value good works and indicate such by quoting the next verse, Ephesians 2:10: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." This has generally not persuaded my non-Christian hearers. After many hundred such conversations I have concluded that the critics of guaranteed forgiveness are not really concerned about good works—though they declare that they are and I suspect that they honestly think that they are. But in listening closely to those who disagree on this point, it seems clear to me that what they are really concerned about is human effort. Since it is good to do good, they unwittingly think that good works are sourced in human effort—in trying to do good.
Many true Christians have expressed to me a concern about specific non-Christians, Christians, pastors, or authors—that these people are abusing grace. Have you ever wondered if another Christian might be abusing grace?
- Have you heard a non-Christian declare that Christians are abusing grace?
- Have you heard a Christian express concern that some Christians are abusing grace?
Who is Concerned About the Abuse of Grace?
My conclusion from much reading, discussion, and meditation of scripture is that God is also concerned about the abuse of grace. Who do you think is the most concerned about this issue: you, me, your pastor, your favorite theologian, the apostle Paul, or God?
I find that framing issues in terms of questions helps me to notice my confusion. Let's go back to the beginning and apply some questions to the assumption that you weren't pretending but were actually abusing grace.
- Is it good to abuse grace? Yes or No
- Can you abuse grace? Yes or No
- How can you abuse grace? Pause and write down your understanding of how grace is abused and how you have done it. If you are unsure then write down what you have heard other people say that it means. Note: Jude 1:4 may be the scripture you have heard used to explain this issue. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
- What prevents you from abusing grace? Pause and write down what you understand or what you have heard. Note: Romans 6:1-2 may be the scripture you have heard used to urge people not to abuse grace. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
- Are you meeting the standard you set in your answer to question 4? Write down the name of one or two people you think might be meeting those standards. Write out your understanding of the proper standard for evaluation of abusing grace or preventing the abuse of grace. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Who is Responsible to Prevent the Abuse of Grace?
If it is not good to abuse grace, then God must have a way for grace to not be abused.
- Who is responsible to carry out God's way? Write down your understanding of who is responsible. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
- Is God's way being successfully carried out by whomever you named. Explain if necessary. _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
In all your pondering of my above questions, did you consider God as the person who might be responsible to prevent the abuse of grace? Let me ask the question more clearly.
- Who is responsible to prevent the abuse of grace: God or humans?
James Denney's Insight: God Guarantees that Grace Cannot be Abused
James Denney was a Scottish theologian and pastor. I. Howard Marshall called Denney the theologian's theologian. I find reading Denney to be like Jeremiah's experience of having his heart on fire while seeing the Lord as our dread champion (Jer. 20:9-11). Denney saw all of life and theology to be about the sin-bearing love of Christ. In 1894 Denney gave a series of lectures at a seminary in Chicago. The lectures were promptly published as Studies in Theology. Currently there is one review of the book on Amazon Kindle. It is a very long review in which the pastor author declares: "I want to explore this point further to attempt an answer to a perplexing and disturbing question: Why has the evangelical church in America refused to embrace wholeheartedly this uniquely gifted pastor/theologian whose passionate expositions of the Gospel far exceed anything that has been written or preached in the entire twentieth century?" The author ends by urging saints to read Denney with an honest heart.
Here is Denney's bold and surprisingly simple declaration that God is the only one who is responsible to prevent the abuse of grace and He does it perfectly. At the end of this post is the quote in a lengthy context that is full of light and life.
"But in the death of Christ, and in faith laying hold of that death, we have the security against such abuses of the grace of God." page 146
Here are four explicit or implicit declarations in Denney's sentence.
- God is responsible to prevent the abuse of grace.
- God guarantees, secures, and enables that grace cannot be abused on any condition.
- Thus it is impossible to abuse God's grace.
- God's way to perfectly prevent the abuse of grace is through the death of Christ, and the faith that lays hold of that death.
According to Denney, God's grace cannot be abused; therefore no human has any participation in abusing or preventing the abuse of grace. This should make us sigh with relief. Points 1 to 3 are equivalent statements that God makes it impossible to abuse grace. Point 4 summarizes how God does it. Is his meaning clear to you, even if you disagree with him?
Reading Denney takes some getting used to. It isn't that Denney uses too much academic language or lacks clarity of style. The exact opposite is the issue. We are the problem. First, we are not used to Denney's clarity. We are used to talking in circles and fooling ourselves into thinking that we are saying something useful. Second, we are used to using words in artificial ways that are disconnected from real life. Denney chooses his words so very carefully and roots them so deeply in the reality of life, that we feel intimidated. How can life be that clear and simple? Denney declares in the book "that the more we reflect upon it [the sin-bearing death of Christ] the more we shall be convinced that it is as simple as it is great." Wow! The great scholar declares that the atonement is very great and very simple. Can you explain how both are true?
- Thank the Father often that grace cannot be abused.
- Thank the Father often that the sin-bearing death of Christ is the door into freedom.
- Thank the Father often that true faith lays hold of the sin-bearing love of Christ.
If Grace Cannot Be Abused, Then Why is there a Problem?
First, we need to notice our common confusion about grace. If grace means unmerited favor, then why do we so often use it as a synonym for kindness or leniency? My Mormon culture has much helped me notice my confusion. In my culture grace has two common definitions: God's help to keep the commandments and God's additional chances to keep the commandments. These are both moralistic and un-scriptural. Let's remove more potential confusion from unmerited favor by sharpening our definition of grace as a relationship of total freedom from merited favor. This clearly implies that there is zero pressure from any source of obligation, duty or rules. Unmerited favor is not like an empty jar that used to contain law, though for many years I was trapped in that confusion. Unmerited favor is like a jar full of the performance of Christ, which always honors the perfection of the law. Every true Christian is full of the unmerited favor of God—of the performance of Christ, which is the life of Christ. Have you been tricked to seek to live your old life better rather than to live the new life? Paul declared in Galatians 2:20 that "you no longer live, but Christ lives in you and that the life that you now live in the flesh [the realm of human faithfulness] you live by the faithfulness of the Son of God."
Second, the apostles speak much about forgetting and remembering and the power of both. Let's use Peter's letters. In the first letter he commands his readers to set their hope completely on the unmerited favor brought to them in Christ (1:13) At the end of the letter he commands his readers to stand firm in unmerited favor (5:12). Every word in the letter is an explanation of the power of unmerited favor. In 4:1-2 Peter declares that unmerited favor frees a person from sinning—from doing evil. "One who has suffered [experienced strong emotion with Christ] in the flesh [the realm of human faithfulness] has ceased from sin [rebellion against goodness] so as to live in this world for the desire of God." Let's be honest. Do you agree with Peter that unmerited favor frees a person from doing evil? If this seems unrealistic to you, then I suggest that you don't understand the simplicity and power of standing firm in unmerited favor. Christ's life is yours to live now, but Satan seeks to trick you to try to live your old life better. Read Peter's second letter and notice in the first chapter his triple declaration of the call to remember unmerited favor, which is the performance of Christ. Also notice that Peter declares that bad fruit is the result of forgetting unmerited favor. Can life really be this simple?
The Problem is Forgetfulness of Christ's Performance
You can't abuse unmerited favor, but you do have a problem. It is a problem of vision. Your every sin has been a natural result of disregarding Peter's commands to stand firm in unmerited favor—to set your hope completely on the performance of Christ—to resist the devil by standing firm in the faith [which means Jesus' faithfulness] (5:9). When you expect a person to be perfect and for Jesus' sacrifice to be enough for that person, it is impossible for you to be surprised and upset by the person's failure to perform. But when you lower your expectations from Christ, you are on your own. You are seeking to manage or control life your way and God doesn't support that way. This is not your job and you should not be surprised by your bad reactions. Also, since it is wickedness to lower God's expectations, why do it? This means that all the sins of people result from the disregard of Peter's commands. Let's get over ourselves.
I have discussed this with many hundred people [Christians, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, agnostics] in the past two years. Recently I discussed these matters with an old Chinese woman who didn't believe in God. She had heard of the Bible and Jesus but knew nothing about them. She was surprised to hear that Jesus had never done evil. She said that she should always do good, never do wrong. She feels bad when she does wrong. We started there and laughed together much as we talked about the power of comparing ourselves to perfection and the evil of lowering expectations to control other people. By the end of the long conversation she was surprised to understand the reason for her bad reactions, the importance of always judging life compared to perfection, which is Jesus, and her need to be free from having to obey her conscience. It made sense that God wanted to take her place in death to free her to do good without pressure. She gladly took a bilingual New Testament and materials I have written on this topic.
What Were You Pretending When You Thought You Were Abusing Grace?
As you began reading this article, were you worried that you might have abused grace? You may even have been a bit worried about God's reaction against your possible abuse, but God knew that you were only pretending to abuse grace, even if you didn't know. This should be a relief and comfort for you about yourself and about all other people. God has guaranteed that grace cannot be abused, but He hasn't guaranteed that grace cannot be forgotten or neglected.
Pause to let that sink in.
All evil has already been put away by the sacrifice of Christ (Heb 9:26). Why not embrace God's way of sin management? All evil is a result of neglecting, forgetting, or losing focus on God's way of managing life. Distraction from the simplicity and purity of Christ is Paul's great fear (2Cor. 11:3). Are you familiar with Paul's words here? Have you ever heard a sermon on this passage or matter? This is Paul's introduction to his description of Satan and his helpers as counterfeiters of righteousness. I suggest that we need imitate Paul and make his concern ours.
Context for the Quote from James Denney
James Denney's words are simple and piercing. They cut through human pretenses, discomforting our pride. But is it possible that you have some blind spots that you need help to notice? Below is some context for Denney's declaration [in green] that God guarantees that grace cannot be abused. The passage is multicolored to facilitate meditation. I plan to write soon a post on his last sentence about miserable theology.
"This suggests the last remark which I would make on the subject. Reflection on the atonement, a recent theologian has observed, has in our time proceeded mainly under two impulses: (1) the desire to find spiritual laws which will make the atonement itself intelligible; (2) the desire to find spiritual laws which connect the atonement with the new life springing from it. The legitimacy of these desires no one will contest. There is certainly work for theologians to do under both of them. It has always been too easy, referring to this last point first, to treat the atonement as one thing, and the new life as another, without establishing any connection whatever between them. It has always been too easy, in teaching that Christ bore our sins and died our death, to give conscience an opiate, instead of quickening it into newness of life. It is a task for those who hold such a doctrine of Christ’s work in relation to sin, as I have just been asserting, to show that there is a natural, intelligible inspiration to a new life in the acceptance of it, and that it cannot be lodged in the heart, in all its integrity, and leave the life, as it was before, under the dominion of sin. Even in New Testament times the gospel which Paul preached was accused of antinomianism; and so will every gospel be accused which makes pardon a reality. But in the death of Christ, and in faith laying hold of that death, we have the security against such abuses of the grace of God. To accept the forgiveness so won is to accept forgiveness which has in it God’s judgment upon sin, as well as His mercy to the sinful; it is to have the conscience awed, subdued, made tender and sensitive to the holy will of God, and the heart bowed in infinite gratitude to His love. It is not the law which can secure its own fulfillment; it is not by gazing on the tables of stone that we are made good men. It is by standing at Mount Calvary, and taking into our hearts in faith that love which for us men and for our salvation bore our sins upon the tree. It would be a miserable theology that by any defect in this direction gave room to think of Christ as the minister of sin." pp.148-9