The Lie: Grace Means That Sin Doesn't Matter Anymore
Have you ever heard the accusation something like, "So you are telling me that because of grace sin doesn't matter anymore?" I hear this commonly when witnessing in my openly religious culture. What is interesting is that I have heard it many times from true Christians. Why would a Christian say this? I suggest that Satan is very real and continually slanders God's character and seeks to get people (like me) to swallow that slander. Once I swallow it I become confused and then can easily speak that confusion about God to others. I suggest that we Christians do this far more than we admit. The above lie is really just the fruit of a much bigger lie. That lie concerns the meaning of the word grace. God is full of grace. My religious culture declares this but then quickly adds two restrictions: 1) but you can't just do what you want, and 2) it is important to realize that God doesn't require perfection now. What is meant by these two limitations on grace is that God's grace doesn't really free a person from the authority of the law [the obligation to keep it], and that God is lenient and the giver of many chances for a person to become a law keeper by personal righteousness. This attitude surrounds me.
The Foundational Lie: Grace Equals Leniency
Leniency is the lowering of standards. It keeps the possibility of success still within reach. Expectations remain manageable and control remains in human hands. Motivation to do good retains a significant aspect of pressure to perform--the obligation of some form of law. And some kind of judgment still hangs in the air in case of failure--even just the possibility that God will be displeased with you as a person. My jail bird friends never want grace from the judge; they want leniency. They don't want the judge to be fully honest about their failings and what their failings deserve. They want the judge to cut them some slack, to lessen the seriousness of their wrongs, and minimize their punishment--five months of probation instead of five years in prison. They don't really like probation as it isn't freedom, but they do prefer it to prison. Satan and human religion both preach leniency. They hate true grace and so counterfeit it with leniency which results in manageability. So what is true grace?
The Foundational Truth: Grace Always Honors Perfect Love
God is love. To declare this doesn't mean that God compromises His standards of perfection in order to honor the prideful human desire to find hope in human performance. God is perfect love and "is well pleased for righteousness sake to exalt the law and make it glorious." (Isaiah 42:21) God thinks in terms of goodness, which includes perfect law and perfect love. He can compromise neither. Earthly judges may compromise, but God cannot. He always thinks and acts in a way that honors the perfection of both law and love. To compromise perfect love is not grace but rather leniency. In the Old Testament this is called idolatry and spiritual prostitution. God is not an idol. He is not a prostitute. From the beginning people have perverted their understanding of God's goodness and sought to relate to Him as if He were an idol or a spiritual prostitute. They sought to manage their relationship with Him by cheapening standards. Freedom with God comes with seeing perfect love clearly. This includes seeing that both grace and sin are unmanageable and out of our control.
Honesty About Grace
Grace always says several things. First, that only perfect love counts with God. Second, that sin is so serious that no human can manage it. Third, that Jesus is the only good sin manager and He managed it fully at the cross. And fourth, that a vision of perfect love is a more than sufficient motivation to good works. I suggest that if you are seeing grace as a relationship of total freedom from merit because of the merit of Christ, then you will also speak these things. Since Jesus declared that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, we can trust that what comes out of any of us flows from the set of our heart in the moment. Sinful words or behavior as well as words of leniency overflow from a heart distracted from true grace.
Grace in Practice: an Example
Let's say that you sin against me and that I notice it. Let's now add to the mix that in the moment you mistreat me I happen to be meditating on grace as explained above. It is also important to assume that in that moment I don't get distracted from grace by the voice of the world (James 1:14, 25). What will be my reaction when my mind is on true grace? I suggest that my response will be quick and multi-faceted. I will notice your specific failure and that you didn't love perfectly. I will notice it with compassion rather than self-protectiveness, being aware that I am also a failure who doesn't love perfectly. I will be at peace realizing that Christ has taken care of your sin fully at the cross. In not having a plank in my eye (Matthew 7:1ff), I will be able to see clearly to help you with the speck in your eye. I will know that the speck is forgetfulness of perfect love (required and given freely by Christ). Any words that I speak will gently point you back to perfect love revealed in the finished work of Christ. You may embrace those words or resist them. My role is to see you as a brother and not lose focus myself, remembering together grace, with the goal of restoring your vision--as long as it takes. Restoration to a vision of grace (perfect love and perfect law revealed in the finished work of Christ) will bear the fruit of the Spirit and free flowing admissions of failure.
Seeing Past a False Impression of Grace
Sometimes a Christian can give the impression that since grace is true sin doesn't matter anymore. But this is a false impression. Here is the cause. The world is all about being the sin manager for self and all others. Some people are simply more lenient than others at their scorekeeping and don't appear to be keeping score, but they are. A vision of perfect love takes the scorecard out of human hands. For some saints it is a huge relief--a real burden lifted--to be free from being the sin manager of self and others. Sometimes their expressions of grace flows from that sense of relief and they want to communicate that sense of relief not realizing that their words can be misunderstood by hearers who don't yet appreciate that grace includes the understanding that nothing but perfect love is acceptable to God. Such a hearer can get the false impression that the person is saying that sin is no big deal, all the while the speaker is actually thinking 1) that sin is such a big deal that only Christ can handle it, 2) that He handled it completely at the cross and doesn't need our help, 3) that only perfect obedience counts with God, and 4) it is wonderful freedom to not need to pressure self and others to try to stop sinning. The speaker may also be thinking that sin is caused by being distracted from grace. The speaker is feeling such relief at number 4 that that may be all that is mentioned. The speaker has rightly maximized sin, but the hearer may judge wrongly that the speaker is minimizing sin--being lenient. In drawing this conclusion, the hearer is being lenient himself, because if he had maximized sin by thinking perfect love, he would have realized the first 3 points and gladly requested clarification rather than jumping to conclusions. We all fumble with words at times. Let's give others the benefit of the doubt and learn to ask clarifying questions.
Responsibility to Communicate Grace Clearly
Grace is glorious and powerfully motivational. The adversary is real and actively seeking to confuse and obfuscate the message of perfect love. We Christians need to take our responsibility as God's ambassadors of reconciliation seriously and learn to express the nuances of grace for the benefit of our hearers. They can't hear our thoughts, but only our words. Communication of grace is a spiritual battle very unlike a chemistry lecture. In realizing this, I plan to be alert to seek to always preface my explanations of grace with some form of the following words to reduce potential conflict and the slide into leniency.