Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Confusing Grace with License

I have led several small group Bible studies over the years for the purpose of mentoring young men. Inevitably with every group, I eventually hear someone offer some version of the same startling quote, “If someone experiences God’s saving grace and later rebels against Him in a life of sin and dies, they will still go to Heaven.” I agree with the truths that grace radically covers all of the sin of those who receive God’s forgiveness, and that we can’t lose our salvation. Scripture clearly supports both of these truths. But, this quote and what it advocates goes much further than scripture iterates.

Many Christians lean too heavily on Romans 5:20-21 which says, “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But, quoting just those two verses which close chapter 5 without reading the following two verses which open chapter 6 totally misses the point. The next two verses in Romans 6:1-2 says, “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?” Unfortunately, for too many Christians, these latter verses are ignored and God’s grace is seemingly reduced to a license to sin. To God this is spiritually grotesque.

First of all, pondering hypothetical situations about hypothetical people experiencing saving grace and dying in sinful lifestyles is fruitless. In every one of these hypothetical arguments there are one or more “ifs.” Each one of those “ifs” represents a hypothetical that we are unable to know or prove. Only God fully knows who has and who has not experienced His saving grace. 

A more illuminating hypothetical is that of the “Parable of the Sower” shared by Jesus in Matthew 13. In this parable at least three of the four soils/people receive the Word and accept it. But, do all three go to Heaven? Sadly, the parable implies the answer is “no.” What this passage illuminates is the significant difference between “believing” something and living something. In fact, you live what you truly believe.

On that point James 2:19-26 put it best when it says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? … You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. … For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” Demons don’t just believe but know God is God. However, they live in rebellion. And, while this passage is not advocating earning your salvation, it is advocating that grace, when properly sown, bears fruit (or works) in keeping with repentance.

Jesus even says in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” In this passage Jesus describes what happens to those who say they believe God is Lord, but deny God with their lives. If people who cast out demons in Jesus’ name will be cast by Jesus into Hell, what does that say of one who lives and dies spitting in Jesus' face?

Jesus also said in Matthew 7:15-20, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” This is not a passage that is meant to encourage us to judge others. But, it is a passage that testifies that someone who embraces God’s grace will live like they have.

Some Christians might read this and feel defeated because who among us does not sin? Remember Romans 6:1-2 quoted earlier as asking “How can we who died to sin still live in it.” The Matthew 7 passage is clarified with the Romans 6 passage. There is a difference between sinning and living in sin. All Christians sin. But, when they do they realize it, feel convicted about it and then attempt to repent from it. Repentance is the Christian byproduct of sin. But someone who consciously lives in sin usually ignores it, defends it, makes excuses for it and/or sees nothing wrong with it. Even some go as far as building biblical arguments that they distort to give them license for it. This is the exact opposite of repentance. Grace does not inspire sin. Grace inspires repentance (Romans 2:4). The “Prodigal Son” repented. In contrast, they who are “lukewarm” God will “spit out.”

This is why God continually referred to David as a man after God’s own heart. Yes, David sinned in very large ways. But, David also repented without defending his sin. David’s heart was broken by what broke God’s heart. This is the attitude of a someone after God’s own heart.

Finally, probably the most direct and succinct scripture on such hypotheticals is Hebrews 6:4-6 which says, “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” One can interpret this passage in several ways. I believe the most accurate interpretation is that this passage is describing people who might first appear to be Christians externally, but were never true believers. After all, our lives, and nothing else, truly display exactly what we believe.

So let’s revisit the opening quote, “If someone experiences God’s saving grace and later rebels against Him in a life of sin and dies, they will still go to Heaven.” Would Jesus ever make such a quote? No. In fact, when Jesus dispensed grace during his earthly life, He was famous for saying (John 5 and John 8), “Go and sin no more.” Jesus would never make a statement that remotely encourages sin to any degree. Neither should we.