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12 January 2018

Undoing God’s grace?

No, seriously: We don’t earn it. We can’t.

Before I started the bible-in-the-month thingy this month, I was reading a certain book (really, more of an extended rant) about holiness. Written by a guy I know; I won’t say who ’cause I’m gonna criticize him a little. We’ll call him Achard.

Achard spent a chapter ranting about fake grace. Which he didn’t really bother to define… but from what I deduced, he basically means cheap grace.

To recap: Cheap grace is when we take God’s amazing grace for granted: It’s meant to be our safety net for when we screw up and need forgiveness, but we treat it like a bounce house where we can spend hours in mindless fun, sinning away till we’re dizzy and kinda pukey. ’Cause grace!

Now yeah, when we find the cheap-grace attitude among Christians, it’s deplorable. God’s grace may be granted to us freely, but it cost Jesus his life. Treating it with anything other than the deepest gratitude is bad enough. Ignoring how God feels about sin, because we can go on sinning and he’ll just keep granting us grace Ro 6.1 is, to be completely blunt, a massive dick move. That’s not the love we need to show God in response. That’s exploitative, selfish, and depraved. That’s evil.

And therefore, Achard insists, not actually grace anymore. If we exploit his grace, God’s gonna take it back. We think we have his grace; we actually don’t. We’re exactly like those Hebrews in Isaiah 1 who presumed they had God’s grace because they were his chosen people, because they practiced all the festivals and ritual sacrifices he told ’em to practice—and all the rituals made up for their outrageous behavior towards the weak and needy of their community. They made God sick.

Isaiah 1.11-15 KWL
11 “What are your many sacrifices to me?” says the LORD.
“I’m full of burnt-up rams and animal fat.
I’m not interested in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats.
12 When you come before my face, walk in my courtyard, who requested this from your hand?
13 Don’t bring me empty offerings any more! Incense? It disgusts me.
Calling monthly and Sabbath assemblies? I can’t stand wasteful conferences.
14 My soul hates your monthly and special feasts. They’re a burden to me which I tire of carrying.
15 When you spread your hands, I hide my eyes from you.
When you pray ‘great’ prayers, I don’t listen: Your hands are full of blood!”

Achard is entirely sure if we think grace covers all, we have another think coming. It does not. Grace is only for those people who are actually trying to follow God. Not for those people who figure “Once saved, always saved—so obedience and holiness is optional,” and take the option to practice neither obedience nor holiness. These folks think they’re saved, but their nasty behavior and carnal attitudes have undone their salvation. They unsaved themselves.

Okay. Here’s where Achard and I part ways.

Faith, works, and grace.

If you’re Christian, somebody should’ve taught you by now we’re saved by God’s grace. And nothing else. Not good works, not good karma, not having all the correct beliefs, not wishing really hard. We’re saved because God unilaterally decides he’s gonna.

Ephesians 2.4-10 KWL
4 God, being rich in mercy, loves us out of his great love.
5 Us, being dead in our missteps.
He makes us all alive in Christ: You’re saved by his grace.
6 He raises us and seats us together in the highest heavens, in Christ Jesus—
7 so he can show the overabundant riches of his grace in the coming ages,
in kindness to those of us who are in Christ Jesus.
8 You’re all saved by his grace, through your faith.
This, God’s gift, isn’t from you, 9 isn’t from works; none can boast of it.
10 We’re his poetry, creations in Christ Jesus,
for doing the good works which God pre-prepared. We should walk in them!

We all sin; we’ve all fallen short. Ro 3.23 Way short. God has to raise us up the rest of the way. So when we sin, and fall short again, as we will, we have Jesus to make up the difference. 1Jn 2.1 We can’t make up the difference with a billion good deeds. We have to fall back on Jesus.

And we gotta trust God to do this. We can’t backslide into the pagan mindset that we’ve gotta behave ourselves in order to merit and maintain God’s favor. That’s karma all over again. We’re not saved because we’re “good people.” And Paul wrote more than once there are no such creatures as “good people.” Ro 3.9-20 Every last one of us needs grace.

Knowing Achard, I’m entirely sure he doesn’t mean at all to teach we’re saved by anything other than God’s grace. But his book keeps slipping and sliding right into that very idea: If we lack good works, we’re not saved. Christians shouldn’t count on grace, shouldn’t put our trust in God to save us regardless of our screw-ups, and if we do we’re gonna doom ourselves.

I mean, he’s entirely right that Christians need to stop sinning. But he’s entirely wrong in the way he’s threatening us with eternal damnation otherwise.

A much better way to put it is this: Behaving ourselves is good fruit.

It’s not that our bad behavior dooms us. It’s that our bad behavior proves we never did repent in the first place. We think we trust God to save us by his grace. But clearly we don’t trust God enough to behave ourselves, obey him, produce good fruit, love our neighbors, or otherwise follow Jesus. And what kind of “faith” is that? The dead kind. Jm 2.26 The kind which exposes how we don’t really know God, ’cause the natural consequence of having God in our lives is fruit. No fruit, no God.

So when we’re acting like dicks towards God, it’s a better than average bet our faith is dead. It’s hard to imagine the disobedient, the fruitless, the lawless, truly trust God at all. Oh they’ll claim they do, ’cause they imagine God’ll save them no matter what; all they gotta do is call upon him and he’ll save them. Ro 10.13 Or so they’ve been told by other fruitless Christians. But Jesus stated those who presume such things are in for a nasty awakening.

Matthew 7.21-23 KWL
21 “Not everyone who calls me, ‘Master, master!’ will enter the heavenly kingdom.
Just the one who does my heavenly Father’s will.
22 At that time, many will tell me, ‘Master, master! Didn’t we prophesy in your name?
Didn’t we throw out demons in your name? Didn’t we do many powerful things in your name?’
23 And I’ll explain to them, ‘I never knew you.
Get away from me, all you Law-breakers.’ ”

Jesus explains he never knew them. Not used to know them, but then they stopped following him and severed their relationship. (Such people do exist, though; they’re called apostate.) These are people who imagined themselves Christian, but never bothered to live in the light where he is, 1Jn 1.7 and thought it made no difference. It absolutely does: It proves we know him. If you really know him, why on earth would you wanna keep living in darkness? Jesus said it’s ’cause we don’t want our dark deeds exposed; Jn 3.20-21 we wanna hide our evil under a thick layer of hypocrisy. Sounds about right.

Those who practice fruitless behavior aren’t gonna inherit God’s kingdom. But contrary to Achard, it’s not because they’ve disqualified themselves. It’s because they never were qualified. They still need to repent and be saved. They’re still pagan, but think they’re Christian. There was no salvation for them to undo.

But there’s still salvation for them to receive. Go share Jesus with them.

Cheap grace is grace. But hardly the kind Christians should practice.

Achard insists cheap grace isn’t really grace. I insist it is, ’cause Jesus indicates these lawbreakers may get into the kingdom just the same. By the skin of their teeth, but still.

Matthew 5.19-20 KWL
19 “So whoever relaxes one of these commands—the smallest—and thus teaches people,
they’ll be called smallest in the heavenly kingdom.
Whoever does and teaches them,
they’ll be called great in the heavenly kingdom:
20 I tell you, unless morality abounds in you, more than in scribes and Pharisees,
you may never enter the heavenly kingdom.”

They’ll be called the eláhitos/“smallest” (KJV “least”) in the kingdom. They’re hardly gonna be one of the giants of faith, or great saints we oughta look up to: They’re gonna be the people everybody’s surprised to see when we get there. “You made it in?”

Some of us, who spent an awful lot of effort in following Jesus, are gonna be so offended. Much like the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story. Lk 15.28-30 Yeah, that story’s about a repentant prodigal, not one of these jerks who take God for granted—much as the prodigal did before repenting. I’m not talking about the prodigal. I’m talking about the older brother’s crummy attitude. He couldn’t extend grace to a repentant sinner; of course he’s not gonna extend it to an unrepentant one. But God does. It’s one of the many ways he gets the unrepentant to repent. Ro 2.4

Those who’ve invested a lot of time in denouncing sinners—who’ve even made a career of it (like Achard, really)—are gonna be stunned. Their grace never extended so far. That’s why they can’t fathom God’s grace doing so either.

But back to the Matthew 5 text: Jesus said such people are gonna be in his kingdom. In the very lowest positions, but nevertheless there. With nothing to show for their earthly lives, ’cause they did nothing worth rewarding, but nevertheless there. God’s grace extends even to them. He wants to save everyone, 1Ti 2.4 and though he expects way better of us than an unholy life—he didn’t save us so we could take him for granted!—prodigal kids are still his kids.

Plenty of us Christians get prodigal from time to time. (Prodigal in the old-timey definition of wasteful, not runaway.) We blow all of God’s grace on stupid, stupid sins. Because we easily forget these “little things” are hardly little to God. Remember the first sin, which ruined humanity and creation? Of all things, it was eating fruit. Ge 3 A little thing, but it stripped righteousness, immortality, and selflessness from humanity. Now we’re warped. That’s why we can so easily forget God’s grace is a big, big deal. Even when we treat it like a little one.

Even so: Our bad attitudes, our oversight, aren’t gonna strip God’s grace and salvation away from us. Be holy because God is holy. Lv 20.26, 1Pe 1.16 But when we make a hash of holiness, we have Jesus. 1Jn 2.1 God knows we’re gonna bungle things; he’s hardly caught by surprise, and planned ahead. Grace will always be there to make up the difference. Unless you consciously, deliberately quit Jesus—unless you’re intentionally trying to alienate the Holy Spirit by rebelliously doing your very worst—none of your sins are gonna undo all. None.

Don’t listen to those grace-deficient Christians who warn you lest you stumble too far; listen to the scriptures. “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” He 13.5 KJV And he won’t. Grace doesn’t work that way.