Letters from Theophilus

" A Blog About Practical Theology. "


The Gospel of Grace

Grace. We know it’s amazing. Sadly, we may know it too well. Many of us have been inoculated to its potency because of its all-too-familiar touch in our lives. One of the greatest things that can ever happen to people, churches and movements is the revival of grace’s ability to amaze.

All the while, grace remains amazingly difficult to define. Discuss a different denomination and you’ll soon find that the root of their differences often lies in their understanding of what exactly grace is. We may all agree on some words, such as ‘unmerited favor,’ or ‘the free gift of God’ but, what those words mean to us, why and how they are applied to our lives, and how we live out of that truth as a result... THAT is not something we will all agree upon as easily.

For some, grace is simply the key that frees us from the consequences of sin. For others, grace doesn’t stop there, but becomes a teacher that frees us, not only from sins penalty, but also from sin’s reigning power in our lives. Still for others, grace is the very extension of God himself into our lives, both allowing us to go through trials and temptations, and allowing us the strength to bear them. To some it’s a license to sin, while to others it is the reason we must pull so far away from sin, that we hide on the other side of our monumental rulebooks. For many today, grace is an amazingly complex enigma.

I have two pastor friends in my hometown. Both seem to love God as best I can tell. Both teach about grace constantly in their churches. Both would disagree strongly with each other regarding what grace is, why it’s given, and what it means to live grace-filled lives.

The first of my pastor friends strongly asserts that it is by God’s grace that he has obtained special revelations regarding salvation... that only a few will experience this particular process of salvation because of their misreadings of the Scripture… that very few of the so-called Christians in the world are even saved. He asserts that it is by God’s grace alone that he and his people are able to follow the “standards of holiness” he sees in the Bible. He feels grace is both teaching them these technical measures and enabling them to walk righteously without falling away or backsliding.

The other pastor is an openly gay man. He lives this lifestyle unashamedly because he feels that God’s grace has freed him from the bondage of such legalistic requirements on sexuality as found in the Scriptures. Those ‘rules’ were for different times, he asserts, and they don’t apply to our culture. To him, grace is God’s favor upon all and no man can judge what is wrong or right for another… grace is given freely to all, and most people in the world today are living lives that reveal this.

Who is right? Both? Neither?

The two perspectives of grace that my friends represent have tugged many Christians back and forth for years. We vacillate between legalism and lawlessness. Sometimes we do this over years. Sometimes over days. Some people eventually just set up camp in one or the other…sometimes entire groups of people.

We go to retreats and determine to “go for it in God,” getting rid of any thing in our lives that resembles a lifestyle of worldliness. Within weeks though (sometimes only a few hours) we find ourselves riding the pendulum back the other way, unable to will ourselves into our newfound strict adherence to our idea of rigorous morality. "Forget it! I’m sick of trying! Where is that old familiar thing I gave up for God?" We think we can manage our morality only to realize it’s too great a task for our double-minded hearts. So the pendulum swings back and forth as time ticks on, and we end up missing out on the very thing Christ came to bring us… Life. Abundant life.

My life mirrored this dance for years, and I must admit I’m still not immune to its charms. The movement of the pendulum is hypnotizing. Frequently, I find myself momentarily forsaking the abundant life for a taste of the abundant lie: that I can be in control of my own happiness by either self-justifying or self-atoning. I forget that I’m not God. I forget how amazing grace truly is. It is in these times that I must remind myself of the most practical and potent of truths…

I am a sinner. I am broken within. I want to do good but I fall short. I’m a victim of a downward movement within my soul, spiraling more and more out of control as long as I sit in the driver’s seat. I have no hope within this heart.

God is Holy. He will judge my sin. His righteous wrath will be poured out against all rebellion. There is none that will escape this cup of wrath stored up against all the sin of the entire created order from Adam to us. We are right to stand in awe of Him.

God is Love. He will have mercy upon whom He wills. His wise providence set all things in motion including His plan of redemption. His Son drank the cup of His wrath upon the cross and didn’t leave so much as a drop for us. We are right to stand in awe of Him.

The cross is that place where these two, seemingly irreconcilable traits of God collide: His Holiness and His Love. At the cross, His righteous wrath is poured out upon the only righteous one who’s ever lived, crushing him, along with our sin under the weight of furious holiness. At the cross, His passionate love is mercifully given to all who willing receive this gift though none deserve it. Grace is the result of the cross. Grace is unfair. It is scandalous. It is awe-inspiring. It is amazing.

Until we grasp the depth of our brokenness & the height of God's holiness we will never fully understand the amazing expanse of God's grace. The more I walk in the faith, the more my eyes are opened to this fact. If you want grace to become amazing to you again, look at two simple things. First, begin to imagine God’s radiant transparency and holiness. His glory and splendor. His awe-inspiring majesty and power. He does not allow sin to remain within the purity of His presence. Nothing and no one can approach Him. He is God alone. Next, just take an honest look in the mirror of your mind. Think over your past. Your brokenness. Your hurt. Your concealed wounds never properly healed. Look into the darkness of your heart…the desires you’ve never dared to share with others. Things you’ve done and are ashamed of. Don’t do this to delight in evil, or to heap condemnation upon yourself. But, think on these things as a momentary and honest self-assessment. When you do… When you see yourself in the light of a Holy God... and the more frequently and intensely you see this image, the more you will fail to restrain yourself from praising God for His work of grace within your life.

Grace is grace because it is from a holy God given to unworthy sinners like you and I, changing us into His image. If we forget that we are unworthy, grace will lose its luster. If we fail to recall that it comes from God, we will once again fall prey to the time-wasting dance between legalism and lawlessness (for we will make ourselves the bankers of grace, allotting it out to ourselves as we see fit). Another way of seeing it is this: If we forget that grace changes us into His image, we will either settle into some lesser image (lawlessness) or we will forge ahead with our stubbornly-fickle wills, trying to change ourselves into His image through formulas, rules and regulations (legalism). But when we understand this image of reality, grace will begin to empower our lives.

Thank God that in His grace he has given us the gospel. The good news is that I am broken and can’t do this by myself. The good news is that I don’t have to…His love is great enough to overcome my destructive path. The good news is that His finished work on the cross has made me a new creation, with a new, God-given identity. He sees me through the cross…Through Christ. He sees me as “His beloved son, whom He loves, in whom He is well-pleased.” Begause of grace, THIS is who I am.

My problem then is not my brokenness and my inability to overcome it. My only problem now is my unbelief in this truth of WHO God is, and WHOM He has made me to be. When I fully receive this truth into my heart by God’s grace, I will live out of this truth and my actions will be the actions of a new creation. But, if this is true there is a problem! I'm not perfect yet! Where is the disconnect? Why am I not living like a new creation if I am one? I’ll tell you! I know what God says is true in my head…but I often don’t really accept it in my heart. I can acknowledge all kinds of abstract truths about who God is and who He says I am… I can sign and date a card that affirms those truths… I can even preach them, and never truly believe them at a heart level… never truly be changed by them. Grace enables the gospel to change my life. Grace gives me a new heart. Grace enables belief.

By God’s grace, I will be transformed more into the image of Jesus Christ as I walk in faith. I will find times I’m falling short, and not living out of the identity that is mine in Christ, and I will realize that in those moments I’m not believing. So, I will repent of my unbelief. As God’s grace makes me aware of the unbelief and allows me to change, I will close the gap between what I know to be true in my head and what I believe to be true my heart. By God’s grace I will trade my illusions for His truth. Instead of aiming for my behavior, I will believe. I will allow my doing to flow from my being. This is the gospel. This is a picture of a life being restored to the Father. Salvation. Sanctification. Reconciliation. This is grace.

So what of my two friends? Who is right? I’ll tell you… The one who continually allows grace to reshape his heart and realizes his need for God… and in so doing… in his ever-growing reliance upon God’s grace, begins to see that he can do nothing on his own… that he needs God’s grace to move him beyond his self-dependence, that has landed him in the terrifying lands of legalism (self-atonement) or lawlessness (self-justification). THEN Grace will move him into the land of Gospel-centered, abundant life. The one who captures grace is the one who truly allows grace to capture his heart and rapture him away from the tyranny of self, and into the presence of a gracious father. A new identity awaits… a grace-empowered, blood-bought, gospel-soaked identity. All you need to do is believe.