But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved… For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”Ephesians 2:4-5; 8-10
If one of the major besetting sins of the conservative American church a generation ago was that of legalism – an unbiblical reliance on law or moral formula – the pendulum has swung too far the other way so that one of the major besetting sins of the church in our day is license – the neglect of biblical standard in the name of God’s grace. Both misses are anti-gospel, anti-grace. And in fact, many Christians at some point or another will be tempted on either side. The following is a glimpse into how I missed it, and how God’s grace put me back on the right track.
The first couple years of my Christian life were a see-saw, at times teetering to legalism and other times to license. Both will lead you further away from the Lord and vaccuum your joy, which I suppose is why I waffled back and forth. For a while I would be rigidly moralistic – quick to impose my standards on others – which was highly hypocritical because I was fumbling my way through the Christian life as much as anyone. At other times I would relax the moral standards and “give my myself grace” justifying whatever sin seemed appealing at the time, sexual immorality and drunkenness among the favorites. Yet this too left me miserable because I now had an active conscience and knew the Lord was not pleased. There were good days mixed in between and there was a real faith in the Lord, but I really needed to better understand how to walk in his ways. As I told Tiffany just before our wedding, “I just don’t think I understand God’s grace.” I’m no prophet, but over the next few years the Lord would fill in my understanding significantly.
Tiffany and I spent the first two years of our marriage in a little church called Lagniappe, which was started to participate in the material and spiritual restoration of the small coastal towns of Bay Saint Louis and Waveland, MS after they were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. When we moved there I was in my 3rd year of being a Christian (Tiffany her 2nd) and I like to say that Lagniappe was the rehab I always needed. The Lord heard my cry and began to deepen my understanding of his grace. Specifically, it was the doctrines of justification and glorification as seen in Romans 8:30:
“And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”Romans 8:30
To understand our justification in Christ it is helpful to think of a courtroom scene, with God (Father, Son, and Spirit) as the Judge and me (or you) as the defendant. Our sins are the key witnesses, Satan is the ruthless prosecuting attorney, and there is no defense attorney. There are so many sins they can’t all fit in the courtroom and they are all screaming GUILTY. The case is clear and the Accuser is pleading his case gleefully. There is seemingly no defense, until God the Son leaves the judge’s bench and makes his case to the Father in my defense. He points to every last one of my screaming sins and commands both them and the Accuser to be silent. He speaks to the Father and says that his righteous life was lived for me and the full penalty of all of my sins was paid in his death on the cross. The gavel comes down and the verdict pronounced… not guilty but righteous, justified in the courtroom of God.
And notice in Romans 8:30, those that he justified he also glorified. Past tense. Now, it makes sense that my justification is past tense. That is the moment I was made right with God at the beginning of my Christian life (the moment I first believed). But my glorification is still future: when I enter the holy perfections of glory for all eternity on the other side of the grave. Yet the fact remains that in v30 God speaks of his people’s glorification in the past tense just as he does our justification. Why is this? The message is that just as surely as we have been made right with God in Christ, we will make it all the way to the end in Christ. Just as surely as we have been justified by faith in Christ, we will be glorified in Him.
I still remember where I was sitting in a 20s&30s Bible study on a Monday night in “the Bay” when this clicked for me. Our pastor said he could see it on Tiffany and I’s faces. I had been a believer for 3 years, but my faith was now invading my affections and for the first time I felt right with God and knew that his commitment to me was irreversible. It was like being born again again and was a major part of the foundation for significant growth and maturity into the future, but unfortunately it was not without misapplication.
No one in history has extrapolated the glories of God’s grace quite like the Apostle Paul, whose most extensive job of doing so was in the book of Romans. It is interesting and important to note that as Paul spells out the riches and profundity of God’s grace in Romans, he is also addressing misapplications:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!Romans 6:1-2, 15
Paul had a keen awareness of the opportunistic nature of our sinful flesh to use God’s grace as an excuse for sin. The truth is that the application of God’s grace in our lives is not only to forgive and secure us in His love, but also to radically restore and transform us in His likeness and image. God’s grace is like a freight train. He not only comes for us to save us (often colliding with our life as we knew it and blowing it to smitherenes in order to put it back together in Christ), but he is also taking us somewhere specific – down the tracks so to speak. God’s grace saves us from sin and trains and empowers us in a lifetime of Christ-like transformation:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.Titus 2:11-14
All to say, I needed to mature in my understanding of justification (God’s grace in making me right with him) and glorification (God’s grace in bringing me all the way home), but also sanctification (God’s grace in growing me/restoring me in Christ’s likeness and image). The person who uses God’s grace as an excuse for sin does not actually understand grace and is not walking in accordance with it. God’s grace is a supernatural life-giving power that is taking us somewhere specific, to Christ-likeness. Of course, this is not to say that recipients of God’s grace won’t still sin. We will continue to sin until we get to glory. But we will also continue to grow in God’s grace, which includes not only an ongoing refreshment in our full and final forgiveness in Christ, but also consistent growth in obedience to His commands and conformity to His image. Or as Paul put it to Titus, God’s grace brings us salvation and trains us to live godly lives in our day.