But Isn’t Grace Dangerous?
For several months now we have been hammering home the notion that salvation is by grace, not by works, not by law-keeping, and not by adherence to religious rules and regulations. But I suspect more than a few of you have paused to wonder, “If one accepts the notion that salvation is by grace, and if one rejects the law as instrumental in either salvation or sanctification, isn’t there a danger that people will become lawless and conclude that anything goes?”
At the height of the scandal involving Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, one of their so-called Life Partners told Ted Koppel of ABC News, “I wish you guys in the media would leave Jim Bakker alone. What’s his personal sex life have to do with anything?” The German poet and journalist Heinriche Heine was asked by a priest on his deathbed if he thought God would forgive him for his sin. He is reported to have responded, “Of course God will forgive me; that’s his job.” Attitudes like this tend to generate the question I want to address today, “Isn’t Grace Dangerous?”
I have decided to take a week off from our verse-by-verse study through Galatians to try to answer this question. It seems obvious that grace has gone to seed in some people’s lives. Can you conceive of Paul, the Apostle of Grace, saying regarding a Gospel preacher, “What’s his sex life have to do with his ministry?” I can’t. Can you imagine Paul saying, “Of course God will forgive me. That’s His job?” I can’t. Those statements may appear to reflect grace, but they actually reveal an attitude of moral lawlessness. Paul asked in Rom. 6:15: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” And his answer was a categorical, “God forbid! May it never be!”
I have two answers to the question, “Isn’t grace dangerous?” Yes and no. Yes, grace is dangerous in much the same way that democracy is dangerous. There are always some who are ready and willing to take advantage of democratic freedoms and act irresponsibly. But hardly anyone here would opt for dictatorship just because there are some who rip off the system.
But the answer I prefer is this one: No, grace is not dangerous.” Phony grace is dangerous; cheap grace is dangerous; but real grace is not. And I would like to demonstrate that by means of 3 propositions:
1. Grace doesn’t take law lightly.
2. Grace doesn’t take sin lightly.
3. Grace does develop an appetite for holy living.
Grace doesn’t take law lightly.
When I say that, I’m personifying grace. What I really mean is that the person who lives under grace and genuinely believes in grace, doesn’t take law lightly. There’s a verse in the first chapter of John’s Gospel that is powerful: “The Law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17). Obviously a contrast is intended there. God once dealt with His people as a man might deal with a slave–primarily on the basis of laws, rules and regulations. But with the coming of Christ He began to deal with them more as sons–primarily on the basis of grace, employing more principles than laws. But the dichotomy between law and grace is not absolute.
There was grace under the Law and there is law under grace. That is, there was grace in the OT and there is law in the NT. Think about the 1400 years between Moses and Christ, known often as the period of the Mosaic Law. Laws regulated nearly every area of the lives of God’s people, but that does not imply an absence of grace. People were saved in that day the same way they are saved today, namely by the grace of God. Just listen to Psalm 103:8-12:
The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
The only difference in the way of salvation is that in the OT believers were saved trusting God’s promise that He would send a Lamb who would once and for all deal with human sin in a way that the blood of bulls and goats could never do. We are saved looking back at the fulfillment of that promise on the cross.
If there was grace in the OT, and certainly there was, by the same token there is law in the NT. In fact, as we have previously mentioned, nine of the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses are repeated in the NT as mandatory for Christians. In addition, there are numerous regulations and standards referred to by Paul as “The Law of Christ,” which are given, not as suggestions or options, but as expectations for the believer’s behavior. For a sample list you might turn to Galatians 5:19-21. Here we find a number of forbidden acts–laws, if you will–that regulate the behavior of a NT believer living under grace:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Now the rules and regulations for us are considerably fewer than those for the OT believer, and NT laws deal principally with moral and spiritual issues rather than dietary or ceremonial issues. Nevertheless, law is an important part of the grace life, and the believer who understands grace will never take God’s laws lightly. Why? Because they are God’s laws. Furthermore, he will not take them lightly because he realizes that . . .
All of God’s laws are, in the final analysis, gracious. What do I mean by that? I mean that God’s laws are not capricious, but rather are given to protect us from ourselves and others, to protect society from disintegration, and to help us make wise decisions even in the face of strong temptation. I think you would be hard-pressed to think of a single law that God has given that isn’t for His people’s benefit.
Grace doesn’t even take human laws lightly. The Christian who wants to live by grace won’t demonstrate that by ignoring speed limits, by cheating on his income taxes so he can give more to the church, or by thumbing his nose at those in authority over him. The Bible makes it clear that the believer is to be obedient to the laws of man, and there are only two exceptions mentioned in the Scriptures.
The first exception is when human laws specifically contradict the laws of God, There are several notable examples in Scripture of justified civil disobedience under such circumstances. The Hebrew midwives refused to practice infanticide, as ordered by Pharaoh; Daniel disobeyed the Babylonian king’s edict to stop praying; and Shadrach, Meshach and Obednego refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol.
The other exception is when spiritual leaders offer legalistic additions to the laws of God and demand that other believers obey them. In Colossians 2:16‑23 Paul challenges us,
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ . . . . Why do you submit to such rules as, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
It is clear from this passage that we are not only not to impose legalistic regulations on others; we are not even supposed to allow others to impose them on us. I assume that the presence of such legalism to any major extent might actually justify leaving a church or organization to seek fellowship where biblical freedom and grace are practiced.
But except for these two situations, Christians are called to be law-abiding citizens–obedient to God’s laws and to human laws. And they should not consider such obedience to be a denial of their freedom in Christ. A. A. Hodges compares the Law to a rudder on a ship:
Two ships are at sea, one without a rudder. It might be called a free vessel but actually is at the mercy of the wind and the currents, and so drifts helplessly to and fro. The other ship has a rudder and goes where the commanding officer of the vessel directs it. Clearly the ship which has a rudder and can be steered in a purposeful way is the one that is really free.[i]
Likewise, the person who observes the law is like the ship with a rudder. That’s real freedom; that’s living by grace. Grace doesn’t take law lightly.
Grace doesn’t take sin lightly.
Some people think grace pays mere lip service to holiness. But with all the force I can muster I assert that real grace never takes a cavalier attitude toward sin. In fact, grace is seen as the beautiful thing it is only when God’s holiness is seen as absolute and our failure to measure up to it is seen as inexcusable. Only then does grace appear as the glorious, liberating, life‑changing fact that it is.
To show that grace doesn’t take sin lightly, all we need to do is show the lengths to which God has gone to provide a solution for human sin. He sent His one and only son to the Cross to die an excruciating death that our sins might be forgiven. The price for our sin was enormous! That’s the provision that enables us to become God’s children in the first place.
But I want to turn our focus to God’s provision for sin in the Christian’s life, i.e. for sin committed after a person has become a believer by grace through faith.
1. The solution for personal sin is confession and forgiveness. 1 John 1:9 reads, “If we (and this is addressed to believers) confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” That verse raises a question in some people’s minds: “Does it mean that if I don’t confess my sins, God will not forgive me? If I die with unconfessed sin on my record, will I go to hell?”
The first thing I would say is that this verse is not dealing with our relationship with God at all, but rather our fellowship with Him. Sin in a believer’s life, whether confessed or unconfessed, cannot interfere with his relationship with God, but it certainly can and does interfere with the believer’s fellowship with God. And if one analyzes I John 1 carefully he will find that it is indeed the believer’s fellowship with God that is in view, not his salvation.
Consider the analogy of a father and son. As we noted last Lord’s Day, if a son is insolent and disobedient to his dad, he doesn’t cease being his son. But the disobedience certainly can erect barriers to their fellowship. There’s tension where there was once fun. There’s silence where there was once conversation. What’s the best way to resolve the issue? Well, clearly it is for the son to go to his father and say, “Dad, I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” And likewise the way for a sinning believer to restore fellowship with God to its fullness is to confess sin and accept forgiveness. Grace doesn’t take personal sin lightly–it utilizes the solution of confession and forgiveness.
2. The solution for sin in the home is parental discipline and tough love. Ephesians 6:4 tells parents to bring their children up in the training and instruction of the Lord. The gracious home doesn’t ignore disobedience in the children. It provides clear boundaries and applies discipline when the boundaries are violated. Note the choice of the word “discipline.” A legalistic home punishes, but a gracious one disciplines, with the goal or purpose being correction for the one disciplined. If someone claims to have a gracious home where the children are allowed to do whatever they want, I would beg to differ with them strongly. They are practicing anarchy, not grace.
We don’t have time this morning to offer a full biblical philosophy of discipline, but I will say that to be effective, discipline must follow biblical guidelines, and it must be done in love, sometimes even with what we call tough love. That is, there are times when a parent must hurt a child in order to help the child, just as a surgeon must hurt a patient in order to heal him. Children, of course, aren’t the only ones who sin in the home. Mom and dad sometimes sin also, and the discipline in that case must be self-discipline or, by default, it will become the Lord’s discipline.
3. The solution for sin in the church is church discipline and, when possible, restoration. (Matt. 18, 1 Cor. 5) This is another entire area that would take much more time than we can devote to it today. Suffice it to say that a grace-oriented church does not ignore sin in the lives of its members. Jesus in Matthew 18 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 and Galatians 6 talk about a process of church discipline. The ultimate goal is a holy church.
Our church has had the sad duty of exercising discipline on a number of occasions over its 60 years of existence. Some have been public and some have been private, depending upon the circumstances. Some of the individuals disciplined have, thankfully, repented fully and remain in the church, functioning well and serving faithfully, but some have rebelled at the discipline and have gone their own way. Frankly, church discipline issues are some of the most difficult situations I have ever faced in the ministry, but some incredible trophies of grace have emerged from it.
Let me say it again: Grace doesn’t take sin lightly–not in our personal lives, not in our homes, and not in the church. Rather it accepts and practices the solutions God has provided.
Grace does develop an appetite for holy living.
The only motivations that work on the legalist are motivations like fear, guilt, and pride. But the one who desires to live the grace‑life opens himself or herself up to a whole new world of motivations for godly living.
1. Through the motive of love. Paul said, “The love of Christ constrains me (or compels me).” 2 Cor. 5:14. I think what he is claiming is that the key factor that helped him determine any course of action is that Christ loved Him first and gave Himself for him. Always he was asking himself, “Would this choice I’m about to make please the One who loved me to the ultimate degree?” There’s an old chorus that expresses this well:
After all He’s done for me.
After all He’s done for me.
How can I do less than give Him my best
And live for Him completely
After all He’s done for me.
That’s not a legalistic motive; it’s the motive of love.
But I think there are three other ways in which grace develops an appetite for holy living.
2. Through self‑discipline (I Cor. 9:24‑27). I trust no one has interpreted the denunciation of legalism in Galatians as meaning that effort and discipline in the Christian life are somehow unimportant. They are actually complementary to grace. Consider 1 Cor. 9:24‑27:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
The legalist is motivated by the perishable wreath–the prize of recognition and acceptance from others. But grace has as its motivation the prize of God’s pleasure in faithful service.
Paul further says in Philippians 3:14, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” I would say that the prize motivating Paul was the privilege of standing before the judgment seat of Christ without shame, having been a faithful servant and having avoided disqualification in the ministry he was called to do. That is a legitimate motivation for every Christian to live a godly life, and it doesn’t entail legalism at all.
3. Through self‑sacrifice (Romans 14). In Romans 14 we read about the importance for a believer to avoid becoming a spiritual stumbling block to a weaker Christian, i.e. to someone who doesn’t understand his freedom in Christ. The apostle discusses certain gray areas in the Christian life where we should be willing to sacrifice our personal freedom for the sake of a weaker brother.
A curious thing has happened in regard to this matter of gray areas, or doubtful things, as it is sometimes referred to. Legalists are prone to talk a great deal about the danger of becoming a stumbling block. When I was a kid, I used to hear them say, “Christians should never attend movies because a young, immature Christian might see them go to a theater and assume that all movies are OK.” On that same reasoning taboos were placed on many other freedoms a Christian might enjoy. However, despite all the talk about the need to limit liberty out of love for the weak brother who might stumble, the legalist can’t really limit his liberty because he doesn’t really have any to limit.
The one who understands grace, however, and who realizes the truth that all things not forbidden in the Word are lawful; that nothing is unclean in itself; and that everything created by God is good, and nothing to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude, can legitimately say with Paul, “Take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” The person who understands grace can make the level of sacrifice Paul made when he said, “If what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
Isn’t it interesting that Paul, who talks more about God’s grace than all the other biblical writers put together and is even called the Apostle of Grace, also talks more about not letting freedom become a stumbling block to others than all the other biblical writers put together? Grace develops an appetite for holy living through self‑sacrifice.
4. Through the indwelling Spirit (Gal. 3‑5). This is really the key to holy living–the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. But I promise you that the brief comments I make this morning on this matter are only an introduction to this rich topic, for we are going to return to it in detail when we get to chapter 5 of Galatians.
The Holy Spirit is mentioned some 16 times in the book of Galatians, the principal treatise on grace in the New Testament. The burden of these references, taken as a whole, is to impress upon us that grace develops an appetite for holy living as the Holy Spirit empowers the believer’s life. If one tries to pursue the godly life without the Holy Spirit’s help, the result will be miserable failure. In fact, it will probably result in legalistic bondage. But when we open up our lives to the Holy Spirit’s power we find we are able to pursue godliness without legalism, to avoid worldliness without condemning others, to practice love without expecting anything in return, to be obedient without exalting self or trying to earn God’s favor.
2 Corinthians 3:17 reads, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty, there is freedom.” Without the Holy Spirit we are doomed to living lives of either worldliness or legalism. But with the Holy Spirit we can live lives of grace, freedom and holiness.
I want to speak to the young people especially this morning. Freedom is very important to you. Nearly every time over the past century when a nation has rebelled against a dictatorship or a communist government, it’s been the young people who were willing to put their lives on the line and demand that freedom. But I cannot tell you strongly enough that the only freedom worth going for is the freedom to do right.
In the political world there are those who are always talking about freedom–freedom to display decadent art, freedom to live with whomever they want, freedom to substitute the religion of evolution for real science, freedom to fill the Internet with pornography. But they have no interest in the freedom to do the right, the noble, and the eternal. Some are only interested in the freedom to do evil. That is not real freedom and it is not grace. It is slavery to worldliness.
The freedom to do wrong will destroy you, will eat away at the moral fabric of your life, and will cause you to look back 20, 30, or 30 years from now with deep regret. Consider Ecclesiastes 12:1? “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.’”
Conclusion: I would say that if you want to know whether someone is advocating phony grace or real grace, look at his life. What seems to be the driving force, the principal motivating factor in his life? Is it to advocate and practice his freedom or is it to be all things to all men that he might by all means save some? Do you see more concern for doctrinal details or more love for Jesus Christ and the people of God? Do you see a greater motivation to seek the prize of acceptance from peers or to press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus?Grace is a better way, but there are all kinds of phony spiritual counterfeits claiming to be grace that are no more than worldliness in disguise. May God save us from them. I lay a challenge before myself and before you today: If we have accepted this message of grace and claim to be living by it, then there should be an ever‑increasing zeal for holiness in our own lives, our homes, and our church. Is there? If so, no one will think it’s dangerous.
[i]. A. A. Hodges. Unfortunately, this citation has been lost.