This post is written by Jim McNeely. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His site, http://thereforenow.com is a great resource for Free Grace thinkers.
It has fallen to me recently to teach a group of youth at our church, so I have seized the opportunity to walk them through the book of Romans. I told them that it would change their life forever, but that it was going to be difficult, it was going to have times that it would be dull, and that I didn’t think that most of them were up to it. They got excited!
What is amazing is that these are young teenagers who have very little theological training or understanding, in fact it is a bit embarrassing that they are so uninformed about the Bible and basic theology. However, just as in every circle, as we have begun to see the message of grace unfold, there are two distinct camps. There are some who love the message of grace, and some who are scandalized by it. In fact I have never seen a works salvation position so nakedly espoused with such passion as by a particular young man in the group. The simple gospel from the pages of the New Testament is beautiful and scandalous in every case.
I was praying and reflecting on this, and the obvious truth of it hit me. This is a spiritual issue, and it requires a spiritual solution. It is simplistic to say only that this needs prayer. It does, of course need prayer, but what exactly are we praying about? We have to present an extremely clear message to guide people to the point of such prayer. Grace is scandalous to the fleshly mind, and we ought not be surprised when people resist the message. It does not do to try to soften or cover the scandal of it, but on the other hand this is really an evangelistic situation. God is seeking to woo, to court people, and He is far more interested than we are in getting the message of the gospel across to dissenters. We must begin to think of people who resist grace for who they really are – unbelievers. Whether they appear to be religious or profane, if someone nullifies the propitiatory work of Christ and seeks justification by a form of works, they are rejecting Christ. God is not willing that any should perish, but as long as they seek to self-justify they are up to their own inadequate resources to achieve justice and significance.
Here are what I consider to be the essential points of the message of true grace which prove to be so scandalous to the fleshly mind.
The love of God, the wrath of God, and the justice of God
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, (Romans 1:18, NASB).”
God is love. He clearly loves all men, and always acts in all cases from love. All other aspects of God stem from love. He hates sin because He greatly loves us. His justice is love and loving hatred of sin spread across all men. Because He greatly loves, He will not let the tiniest little sinful thought go unmet with justice. If we merely make these things into dry necessary points of doctrine, instead of reasoning with clear and emotionally rich understanding, we will lose people.
The purpose of the Law
“19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God;
20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19, 20, NASB).”
The law serves to show us that we are indeed one of the many who have fallen short of the glory of God. The law shows, not just that all have sinned, but that I myself have sinned. The law shows me that if God is love, then I am the object of God’s wrath. If someone does not know this fear, and does not understand that good justice stands against them, their need for redemption will not be clear. This must be a knowledge that applies to the inner conviction, the conscience, the secret mind.
“24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:24-26, NASB).”
This puts us in a terrible predicament. We cannot justify ourselves. If a rapist and murderer comes to trial, is it enough for him to “repent”, to promise to never rape again? It is absurd; the crime that was already committed must be punished. All sin is like this. Mere resolve for future reform cannot possibly answer for sins already committed. It would be unjust. We are indeed lost, terribly lost. Part of the scandal that must be pressed is that repentance in the sense of a promise of moral reform is absolutely useless and offensive in procuring God’s forgiveness. God will not be manipulated by our puerile and ridiculous “repentance” from surface behavior problems.
Instead, Jesus has stepped in. He is “just, and the justifier.” (Romans 3:26) He has suffered the wrath of God’s justice on our behalf, which apples “to the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26)
It must be clear, therefore, that in Christ, and Christ only, we are justified. It is essential that no further work be added. There is no sense in which He is “Lord” that supersedes His Lordship in terms of being just and justifier. The agent of our justification must not EVER be soiled by the idea that we must also show evidential works of righteousness. Christian virtue can never rightly come to fruition if the secret threat of punishment enters back in, if the believer goes back to the coercion of law. It is a gift, and one does not earn or pay for a gift.
“1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?
2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?
4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4, NASB).”
If we actually believe that Christ only is our justifier, that we must not add our virtue as a necessary requisite for our redemption, it is inevitable that the question arises: “Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” It is always the first question. It is the question of the offended flesh. If your preaching and teaching and dialog does not raise this question, you are most certainly not making the free gift of justification clear. Christian virtue, virtue which comes from grace, cannot be stripped of the supernatural. The law seeks virtue based on the flesh, human effort stripped of supernatural influence. It proposes that God’s blessings come once we meet the conditions of the law. Grace offers supernatural blessing as a gift, without coercion or threat. It offers the opportunity to choose virtue for its intrinsic beauty, virtue as a blessing because of love.
In conclusion, we who believe in the grace of God in Christ, ought not to minimize the scandalous nature of the message. We must pray for the Holy Spirit to enlighten the eyes of the hearts of those we seek to influence, but if we do not press the essential truths of the gospel home to the point where they offend the flesh, we do not give the Holy Spirit opportunity to work in the minds and hearts of unbelieving self-justifying hearers. We must not be swayed by stories of friends who believe and yet go on in lives of sin. The gospel stands alone, true and powerful, and only the gospel has the power to reconcile men to God and to live for God from their inner secret heart. Because some people are fools and use the gospel as license to lead perverse ugly disgusting lives does not make the gospel untrue. We must teach and press the pure unadorned grace of Christ and pray for God to speak to the hearts of those around us. We love, because He first loved us!