“Oh really?” I replied, my curiosity piqued by the precocious 9-year-old in my rear view mirror. The sparkle in her blue eyes was hardly diminished by her wire-rimmed glasses. I could tell this was going to be good. “And just what do you want to change your name to?”
“Amazing.” The gleam in her eyes increased, “That way, my name won’t be Savannah Grace Richmond, it will be Amazing Grace Richmond.” She giggled at her own inventiveness, the humor of the word play was too much to contain inside her child-size body. “Oh, so do you really like that song?” I asked. Her response was immediate, and as always is the case with Savannah, absolutely truthful, “Yeah, and I am pretty amazing!” The giggles turned into laughter and we both chuckled at each other over the next several miles.
It is pretty amazing. Songs have been composed heralding its worth. Books have been written attempting to put something so divine into words. Sermons have been preached on the value of grace. Prayers have been offered in the hopes of finding grace. Tears have been shed for those who finally submit to the allure of grace. Grace. We can’t get enough of the stuff.
Or can we?
Is it possible that we can hear about something so much that we begin to trivialize it? Abuse it? Twist it into something it isn’t? Is it possible that we have mythologized grace, giving it attributes that it never possessed in the first place? Not only is it possible, it is actual. There are several myths that exist about grace that we as Christians either believe or have been told that we should believe if we are really Christ followers. In fact, some have become so indoctrinated by these myths that the grace they offer is hardly worthy of the name, “grace.”
Now before you label me a legalistic Pharisee, let me be clear: apart from the grace of God provided through Jesus’ sacrificial death there is no salvation. I firmly believe in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved, through faith…” and I wouldn’t want to even feign trying to diminish that glorious truth. I am not trying to promote a gospel of rule-keeping or a gospel of sin-management. Far from it! My desire is to present a picture of grace that is powerful, attractive, and, most importantly, Biblical.
But what are these myths? Let me warn you, you may be shocked by them. It may be that you have bought into one or more of them. You may even be tempted to stop reading, because they sound so close to truth which means calling them “myth” is false. But please, read carefully. Some of these myths are half-truths, others hide behind good intentions, but all diminish the beauty and power of true grace.
Myth #1: Grace is Free
“Grace is free, but it’s not cheap.” The mantra is repeated in so many evangelical circles some claim the Apostle Paul wrote it. It does convey some truth as it attempts to communicate the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice was costly. But in its effort to teach the truth that grace is freely available to all it fails to convey what grace costs the believer.
“Grace costs?!?” Before your wee evangelical heart goes all aflutter allow me to point out some powerful passages of Scripture.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death… For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so we would no longer be enslaved to sin… So you also must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1-4, 5-6, 11 ESV)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20 ESV)
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple… So therefore, anyone of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27, 33 ESV)
While grace may indeed be free to receive, make no mistake, it will cost you something. To be bought by grace is not as simple as saying “I moved from point A to point B in my spiritual walk.” No, a change in location is not an adequate enough description of the lifestyle of grace. To be a recipient of grace is to lose something, namely yourself. Notice Paul’s words to both the Romans and the Galatians. He uses the term crucifixion to describe what happens to us after we succumb to grace.
The old life.
The person you were before Jesus.
The old habits.
They. Must. Die.
Grace is violent in that it required the murder of Jesus. Its violence is mirrored in our spiritual walk when we daily crucify old desires and old ways of thinking. We nail them, hammering them into the coffin of life without Jesus. We take no prisoners and give no quarter. If grace is to fill every corner of our spiritual lives, then we must be brutal in our treatment of the old man with his old desires.
And Jesus makes it even more personal. He speaks of grace costing us relationally. I can’t help but think of stories told to me by North African missionaries of converts to Christ who had to flee to towns over 100 miles away in order to start life anew because their families rejected not only their choice, but them. They literally gave up their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters to follow Jesus. Grace cost them their earthly family. And then Jesus says grace will cost us materially. “Unless you renounce all you have…” I know couples who turned in their portfolio to go be penniless in Southeast Asia to preach the Gospel. I went to school with men who walked away from 6-figure incomes to go to seminary and then get paid less than thirty grand a year by a small country church thankful to have a minister. But that’s not all Jesus is referring to in this passage. He asks whether we are willing to take all that we have and put it at His disposal. And if He chooses to dispose of it, we must be okay with it. Grace costs us. But Jesus precedes Paul in His allusion to crucifixion. He speaks of taking up your cross. The only people who did that in the Roman world were people sentenced to die. In other words, grace costs us everything. Nothing the Christian has is his anymore, not even his life. It all belongs to Jesus. But, to be fair, it belongs to Him anyway, becoming a Christ follower merely acknowledges that fact.
Now before I paint too bleak a picture, there’s a reason for all this sacrifice; there’s a reason grace requires us to give up so much. It’s to teach us that whatever we lose in the old life God will give us in the new life. Relationships? Those who lose their earthly family find it replaced by a spiritual family that loves them and accepts them. Material Possessions? The emptiness of greed can be replaced by the fulfillment of generosity. The old life? While this is a zombie-like beast we must crucify over and over again, when we do it we begin to encounter the abundant life that Jesus promised. Grace costs us. But it costs us for our own good.
2. Grace Frees us from Consequences
Jeffrey Dahmer is one of the most famous serial killers of the last 20 years. Roy Ratcliff is a little known minister in Wisconsin. The two would cross paths when Ratcliff was doing prison ministry at the penitentiary where Dahmer was imprisoned for his crimes. They got to know each other and eventually Dahmer was baptized.
Go ahead and admit it; you’re skeptical. A guy who sexually abused and then cannibalized his victims finds Jesus? To many of us it sounds like a last ditch effort to get right with God, but Roy Ratcliff didn’t think so. In his book Dark Journey, Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story of Faith Ratcliff penned these words,
Jeff confessed to me his great remorse for his crimes. He wished he could do something for the families of his victims to make it right, but there was nothing he could do. He turned to God because there was no one else to turn to…
First let me say I wholly believe God’s grace is great enough to redeem the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer. I choose to believe in a grace that is scandalous in who it saves. When I find myself skeptical of Dahmer’s, or anybody else for that matter, salvation, it is not their worth I am skeptical of but God’s power to save.
That being said, notice what grace did not do: Dahmer’s victims were not returned to their families unharmed. In fact, “there was nothing he could do” to make restitution. Dahmer would live the rest of his days in prison, eventually himself being murdered, suffering the consequences of his sins. Grace saved him. Grace brought him forgiveness. Grace set a place for him at the wedding feast of the Lamb. Grace did not rescue him from all of his consequences.
Too often we try to “sell” the Gospel. “If you just come to Jesus,” the sales-pitch goes, “then your life will be better. You will be blessed. Jesus will set things right.” Is that what we have reduced the Gospel to? A self-help ploy? Let’s be honest. We live in a broken world, and often times receiving grace can make life more difficult, not less.
So, why Grace? Because whether we realize it or not our plight is not that different then Jeffrey Dahmer’s. “He turned to God because there was no one else to turn to.” Let those words sink in for a moment. At the end of the day your sins still need forgiveness and you still need a relationship with God. Grace does not always release us from our earthly consequences, but it does help us navigate them. Instead of losing heart, we can face our problems with hope and purpose knowing that God is not above using hardship to shape, mold , and mature us into a finished product for His glory. Jeffrey Dahmer dared to believe in a grace that could save him in the midst of his pain and could work in him without removing his earthly consequences. He dared to believe that God’s grace was powerful enough to be a tangible force for good in his current situation. That kind of grace is not just life-enhancing, it is life-changing.
3. Grace is Soft on Sin
This is what I call the “Permissive Gospel.” This pseudo-form of grace is fond of phrases like “judge not lest ye be judged” and “Only God can judge. My sin is between me and him.” These phrases are often played like trump cards in hopes of silencing anyone who would dare to object to a sinful choice or behavior. Like a blocking guard in football, this treatment of grace keeps notions like accountability, personal responsibility and spiritual growth at arms length. After all, religion is supposed to make us feel good, right? If God loves me He wouldn’t want me to be unhappy now would He?
The problem is that the permissive gospel runs contrary to what the Bible actually teaches about grace. Time to make a return to Romans 6:
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under sin but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:15-16 ESV)
Paul makes it clear that grace was not given as a license to sin. Quite the opposite is true. Grace calls us into a relationship with God and that relationship includes a recognition of His lordship over our lives. We have not been given permission to satisfy our sinful urges at will.
“That’s such a restrictive view of grace! Jesus came to set us free from law-keeping, not subject us to a new law. You’re being a Pharisee!” I’ve heard all these
excuses complaints before, so let’s look at some places where the Scriptures speak of our freedoms in Christ:
- For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13, ESV)
- Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. (I Peter 2:16, ESV)
- For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law as under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those without the law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men so that I may by all means save some. (I Corinthians 9:19-22, NASB)
The writers of the New Testament trumpet freedom from the guilt and condemnation of sin on every page. With that freedom also comes a freedom from rules-keeping and religious check-lists. However, they don’t stop there; rather they make sure to remind us not to abuse that freedom or use it as an “opportunity” or “cover-up” for sin. Our freedom exists not so we can sin; our freedom exists so we can serve! Paul says it best for us:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (I Corinthians 10:23-24, ESV)
Grace is not content to sit idly by while we selfishly satisfy our urges. Grace confronts our sin for our sake and the sake of others. The permissive gospel does nothing to free us from the practice of sin, nor does it do anything to compel us to service. Biblical grace does both. It changes my life as well as impacts the lives of others. When you compare the two, permissive grace is weak and powerless and is nothing more than a placebo to salve a guilty conscience. Biblical grace impacts and changes lives, starting with me and then working through me. Give me the grace that changes lives over the one that merely attempts to make me feel good.
4. Grace Calls us to a Life of Ease
The Church in America has lived the good life. Religious freedom, two Great Awakenings and a strong evangelical conscience has kept American Christianity relatively free from persecution. Is there a growing undercurrent of animosity towards Christians in the land of the free? Perhaps, but Christians aren’t being arrested, tortured and executed solely for their belief here like they are in dozens of other countries. Living in this bubble of protection has granted the church a lot of opportunities to thrive in America. But it has also provided fertile soil for one of the most erroneous doctrines in church history to take root and grow.
The so-called “Prosperity Gospel” has captured the hearts and minds of many sincere believers. It has given rise to such statements as:
- “Name it and claim it” – usually stated over some life achievement goal or piece of property that is desired by the namer. It can also be applied to certain “promises” of healing that proponents of this teaching claim are Biblical.
- “If God brings you to it, He’ll bring you through it.” This implies that setbacks, suffering, pain and illness are just temporary pit-stops on what is supposed to be your journey to a better, healthier, wealthier you.
- “Declare words of victory” – closely related to naming and claiming. This particular phrase gives power to the believer to personally declare victory over any hardship in his life, because obviously God’s people weren’t meant to suffer, right?
Proponents of prosperity theology believe that God saves us to bless us with health, wealth and success. Furthermore, they believe that they are empowered by God to “name, claim and declare” their own blessing. In this light God is seen as a means to an end; a genie in a bottle just sitting at the edge of his throne waiting to pour out material blessings on the faithful. Thus grace is perceived not only as that which saves, but also as that which prospers us.
The problem is that this flies in the face of Biblical teaching and Apostolic example. Whenever I hear some poor soul blithering about naming and claiming I want to grab them by the collar, shake some sense into them, and scream, “Have you actually read the Bible?!?” Consider the following:
- For the first two centuries of church history the church was subjected to numerous periods of persecution which often included crucifixion, beheading, being fed to wild animals and being burned at the stake. Perhaps if Stephen only declared victory over the Jews who were stoning him he wouldn’t have died in Acts 8. Somebody should have told the poor fellow.
- All but one Apostle would die a martyr’s death. Some were stoned to death, others were crucified, one was thrown off a cliff and more than one was beheaded. As for the one who died of natural causes, don’t think he got off easy. As an old man John was exiled to a prison camp on the island of Patmos to serve a sentence to hard labor. Maybe these guys hadn’t figured out how to properly name and claim their promises.
- Jesus promised his followers would be persecuted. In the Sermon on the Mount He pronounces a blessing over those of us who would be reviled because of Him. As we have already seen, Jesus preached a message of sacrificing everything for God rather than asking God for everything. And then He backed up His teaching by going to the cross and suffering for our salvation.
But perhaps the biggest fraud that prosperity theology promotes is that we have the power to save ourselves. All we need to do is name and claim. It is our responsibility to declare victory. If life is hard and filled with pain it’s because we are not living out our faith correctly.
And that’s where the theology falls apart. In his book, Glorious Ruin, Tullian Tchividjian talks about a God and a grace that is wholly present in our suffering. In his treatment of the topic of suffering he critiques the Prosperity Gospel and concludes,
So while the prosperity gospel pays lip service to the God of the Bible, it worships a God who waits for the suffering person to snap out of it and claim victory. In other words, it posits a God who is powerless to save sinners. (90)
A God who is powerless to save? That’s all prosperity theology offers. It does not offer real grace; a grace that is capable of stepping into our suffering and saving us. Real grace suffers with us. Real grace put on the homespun robe of a Nazarene rabbi who ate with sinners, touched lepers and wept at gravesides. Real grace walked the dusty streets of Jerusalem carrying a beam of wood slicked with His own blood. Real grace felt the piercing nails and the even more piercing insults of the creation He was dying to save. Real grace suffered for us and real grace offers to suffer with us. Real grace does not eliminate our pain or our poverty, rather, it meets us there.
What does grace in the midst of suffering look like? It looks like Paul and Silas singing hymns in a dungeon after being beaten. It looks like a nun in a simple habit dedicating her entire life to lepers in India. It looks like a wife caring for her husband of 40 years as he goes through the final stages of ALS. It’s a hug after a funeral. It’s a group of teenagers building a 3-room house for a family in Mexico. It’s Philippine Christians standing in two feet of water during a church service after a devastating typhoon. It is simply beautiful.
5. Grace is Forgiveness
Dallas Willard wrote what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount when he penned his classic, The Divine Conspiracy. In the second chapter he takes to task our bumper-sticker theology, particularly the phrase “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven.”
Well, it certainly needs to be said that Christians are forgiven. And it needs to be said that forgiveness does not depend on being perfect. But is that really what the slogan communicates?
…What the slogan really conveys is that forgiveness alone is what Christianity is all about… It says that you can have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness, while in every other respect your life is no different from that of others who have no faith in Christ at all. (36)
“Just forgiven;” the idea that forgiveness is the end goal of grace reduces grace to nothing more than a “Get Out of Hell Free” card. While grace does indeed accomplish this, and we as Christians should definitely celebrate our forgiven state, that is not all God has in store for us. Grace starts with the amazing gift of forgiveness and then it gives us so much more. Yes, by grace I have been saved. By grace I have also been given a spiritual family in the form of the Church. By grace I have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit to help me with the lifelong process of sanctification. By grace I have found self-worth in who I am in Jesus. By grace I have purpose and direction in my life as God draws me closer to Himself.
Grace is so much more than being just forgiven.
We pulled into the driveway, father and daughter returning from an adventure at the grocery store. Savannah looked up at me, “So? Can I change my name? I am pretty amazing!”
Yes you are, my precious daughter.
And so is grace. So is grace.