“For the grace of God has appeared with salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age” – Titus 2:11-12 (HCSB)
I began preaching five years ago. The first four years were at Adorn college gathering, but eventually overlapped with our regular Sunday morning gatherings. Most of these sermons had a specific culmination: the grace of God.
It started when I read C.J. Maheney’s book, The Cross-Centered Life; it lodged itself in my mind when I read Elyse Fitzgerald’s Because He Loves Me; it bled through every imperative from Paul, every action by Jesus, every Davidic stanza penned in the Psalms; it was in every letter, gospel, and epistle; and summarily codified in the legendary one-liner attributed to Timothy Keller: “You are not loved because you are valuable; you are valuable because you are loved.” The grace of God. My love for God experienced a new vitality after this scandalous, but uniquely Christian concept intercepted my religion. This unnerving notion that God accepts me, and continues to accept me, apart from what I do.
It also affected my preaching. In the aftermath of some of those sermons, I received emails, tongue-lashings, rebukes, scolds, and reprimands, with the intent to warn me that the God of grace is also the God of holiness; the preaching of too much grace is liable to start a Christians Gone Wild euphoria, unless we lay down the Law; for “if we keep telling people God will accept them in Christ regardless of what they do, they will have no incentive to pursue holiness.”
Legalism is well-intentioned.
There are grace-abusers (Antominians) who use Christ as a get-out-of-jail-free card, however delusional their sense of salvific security is. But over-correcting grace by relying on the Law is reprehensible, giving substance to Paul’s warning: “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3, HCSB). Our response to Antominianism must be better than this.
Holy living is inextricably linked to Christianity.
But this wasn’t my problem. Motivation was the problem I wrestled with in the earliest years at Adorn. How do we get people to practice holiness? In an effort to figure this out, I spent a lot of time shouting from the pulpit (I still do!), spelling out the rules (I still do), and exhorting the congregation to consider the call of God on their lives (I still do this too). But what was missing in some of those early sermons and conversations, and most powerfully transformed lives when it was eventually taught, was the grace of God. So…
I began to preach grace.
It was almost experimental at first. And I felt bad doing it, like I was giving away hundred dollar bills. I especially emphasized grace as a necessity in Christians. Some left the church. But we kept right on exploring the concept of God’s grace together. We grew in holiness, mission, relationship, and enjoyment of Christ, and by the same grace that regenerated us to begin with. Like Paul, we discovered the mystery of the gospel. Our struggle with holiness was not from overemphasizing grace, but under-emphasizing it!
I thought so. Our gut reaction is to obligate people (and ourselves) to try harder. Even when we are saved “by grace,” we are quick to revert to a list of requirements needed to keep our salvation intact. No wonder the gospel makes little sense to so many (1 Cor 1:18); it is not the plan we would have come up with. It’s not even the plan many Christians believe! Rescuing ourselves is our favorite addiction.
But God’s grace has an insatiable appetite. It doesn’t stop at our conversion, but is also “instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts.” (Titus 2:11); it is the power behind my initial justification and my ongoing sanctification; it is what enables us to obey the Law of God. Paul was right. We still need to grace of God. And the more of God’s grace we experience, the more it begins to intersect with our day-to-day lives. God’s grace teaches us to “to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age” (v 12). How incredible this would be!
We often think of global missions as radical (it is!), but extending grace to others as God has to us in Christ is also pretty crazy. Try it this week! Next time you get into an argument, or are unjustly treated, or have a little disagreement, or are just plain irritated with someone, consider these potent words from Paul:
Let your speech always be with grace” (Col 4:6, NASB).
The person at the receiving end of your grace may not be transformed before your eyes. But you will be.
Legalism is something to which we are all prone, because it is one of the key tendencies of the sinful human heart. At its base it is an assertion of our control over our relationship with God. It is a soft-pedalling of the greatness of God’s grace to sinners. On the surface it may appear to be an exalting of the law, however the law is understood. Yet when we examine the nature of legalism, we find that the opposite is true. Once we imagine that we can somehow add to God’s grace or establish our righteousness by our deeds, we have in fact dragged God’s law down to our level of imperfection. If salvation is by faith in Christ plus some form of obedience, the gospel is diminished tot he extent that we add to the principle of Christ alone. (Graeme Goldsworthy. Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 171)
I thought it would be fun to start a new secret-society for legalists called…
See, in the Old Testament, if anyone sought God’s approval, there were 613 laws they had to keep—kind of the sine qua non of religious piety.
Not only is it impossible to keep all the commands of God, but for some reason, we also have this sense of self-validation (legalism) hard-wired in us that wants to do even more than what we already can’t do! Oh, the irony.
Hence, Leviticus 614 - Adding burdens since 4000 B.C.