Grace is at the heart of Christianity. Grace means that God accepts us as we are, sinners. We don’t have to earn it; it is simply free and complete forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. In the words of Billy Graham’s favourite hymn, Just as I am:
Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bid’st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.
What a wonderful teaching – we can come to Jesus just as we are, and he forgives us and accepts us. We can’t earn our salvation, the only thing we can plead before God is the blood of Jesus Christ. One man in our church said that when he came to Christ, it was like a burden had been lifted from him. He came to Christ burdened by sin, and Christ forgave him and released him. Hallelujah!
But, once our sins are forgiven, the question arises: what next? We know that our lives should change, and we should come to obey God. But we also know that our obedience doesn’t contribute to our salvation. Or does it? Maybe in your Bible reading, you come across passages like this from Deuteronomy 28:
All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God… (v2)
However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you. (v15)
In these verses, Moses tells the Israelites that God would punish or reward them depending on their obedience to him. Does that mean their salvation depended on their obedience after all? You can find lots of places in the Old Testament prophets where God judges his people because of their sin.
Some people say that’s just the Old Testament, and things are different now for Christians. But this is not true, you can find many similar passages in the New Testament:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Hebrews 10:26-27
Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. 1 John 3:6
So, how do you square that circle?
- Does grace mean that we still must obey God?
- But then, won’t God just forgive us for the times when we fail?
- But then again, how do we know that we’ve tried hard enough?
Is it any wonder that many people are confused by grace?! If you can identify with this confusion, then read on – this book is for you!
The root of the problem is that we don’t think deeply enough about the relationship between grace and the Christian life.
Many Christians have, like me, been brought up with the gospel message: “Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins”. We know that we are not saved through our own merit or efforts – we are saved only by grace. The apostle Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith… not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). We are saved by grace alone, and categorically not through our own good works. When I was confirmed, the bishop quoted Jonathan Edwards in his sermon: “we contribute nothing to our own salvation except the sin that made it necessary”. Perhaps that’s a familiar quotation to you as well.
But grace without making a difference in our lives is not grace at all. Dietrich Bonhoeffer realised that grace without a changed life was meaningless – it was what he called “cheap grace”:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship”
Clearly, grace does not mean that we can go on to live as we like! Paul says that grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives” (Titus 2:12). Grace is our teacher in how to live rightly. But how? How does grace connect to obedience?
If you’ve ever struggled with these questions, then fear not – you are not alone! I have struggled with them too. This book is an attempt to set down in words what I have learned as I have wrestled with God and the Scriptures. I have made many mistakes along the way and gone down many wrong paths – but the Lord has used them to lead me to a better understanding of the relationship between grace and obedience.
Let me tell you a little of the journey I’ve been on which led me to writing this book.
Walking the tightrope
One of the biggest mistakes that I made was thinking for many years that the Christian life was a kind of tightrope. You try to obey God (i.e., keep the Ten Commandments), but God’s forgiveness (i.e., grace) is there when you fail.
It was a kind of compromise: I ended up thinking the Christian life was a balancing act, with obedience to the law on one hand and grace on the other. Christians were trying to walk a tightrope, making sure that ‘grace’ and ‘law’ were in proportion to one another.
Perhaps this understanding of the Christian life is recognisable to you, too. I believe it is a common one.
The problem with this view is that it led to constant feelings of guilt. I felt guilty that I wasn’t trying hard enough; guilty that I wasn’t living enough for God; and guilty that I wasn’t doing well enough at conquering sin. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop wanting the wrong things. I kept praying that God would help me to stop doing the wrong things – but little seemed to help, and nothing much changed in my life.
I often ended up feeling that I was abusing God’s grace – whenever I went back to a sinful pattern of behaviour, coming back to God for forgiveness again seemed like a burden! From conversations I have had since then, I think this is a very common experience.
Terrified of temptation
There was one issue which helped me more than anything to clarify my thinking about grace and obedience. That issue was friendship with the opposite sex.
I have always been a man who finds it easier to relate to women than my fellow men. Even as far back as primary school, I remember being friends with a girl in my class and my classmates making fun of me for it. However, like every normal teenager, as I grew I started to become aware of the sexual dimension of life and the complications this can introduce into relationships.
At the same time, from a young age I was taught the importance of living by the Ten Commandments. The commandment which always gave me most anxiety was “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”. As a young man, it seemed very contrary to my natural inclinations – not to mention the fact that we live in a world which is saturated with sexual imagery and pornography. It’s a very difficult world to live in if you struggle with sexual temptation.
While I was at theological college, I became more and more anxious about keeping this command. There were so many things that fed my anxiety: we were told about the many temptations there were as pastors. We heard stories of pastors who had lost their ministries due to falling into temptation. We had books such as Dangerous Calling (by Paul Tripp) recommended to us, which contained various accounts of how pastors had fallen into temptation (with disastrous consequences). We took safeguarding training, which included terrible accounts of the damage pastors had done when they had fallen into sexual sin. We studied Bible verses such as Hebrews 13:4, “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” It was enough to make anyone terrified of what might happen!
I was determined not to be another statistic and fall into temptation. At the same time, I was very aware that I was not strong enough in myself to keep this command. My mind was filled with visions of what temptations lay in pastoral ministry, and how easily it could happen to me. I pleaded with God many times to prevent me from falling into sin. I remember praying during our daily college chapel services for God to keep me pure.
When the penny dropped
Fast forward a year or two. I finished college and my wife and nine-month-old daughter moved to a new town as I started my curacy. Due to having a baby at the time, I started helping with our church baby & toddler group. One thing you can say about toddler groups is – there are always plenty of women! I was one of the few dads who attended.
Think about it for a moment: for a man struggling with sexual temptation, could there be anything worse than being surrounded by lots of young women? And yet, this was the moment that God used to bring me to a fresh understanding of his ways.
As I started to build relationships with the mums at the group, it became clear to me that I had a choice:
- Keep them at arm’s length out of fear of temptation.
- Move towards them in love, in the faith that God would help me do the right thing.
During those early months, God helped me to see that the path he wanted me to take was love. He led me to understand that I could trust him to handle temptation, and give me the love I needed to do what was right. I began to see that God wanted us to act, not from fear of breaking the law, but out of love for others. Over time, I came to see that fear and love are opposites – and God desires love, not fear.
The reason I was so terrified of breaking God’s law to start with is because I knew the power of temptation. I could feel it in my own life, but I had also seen many examples through history of people who had given in to temptation with disastrous consequences. To put it bluntly, it seemed like there was a lot to fear! But it turns out that God does not want us to dwell on those fears.
Putting the pieces together
Over the last few years, I have thought more deeply about the law and its relationship to grace. In my exploration, I have found that the Bible and my experience both point in one direction. The way that I used to understand the Christian life – the tightrope walk between law and grace – was wrong.
The Christian life is not law and fear, or some kind of mixture of grace and law. God’s way is love, pure and simple – and love itself is the fulfilment of the law. In this book, I am going to work through the Bible with you to help you understand what I’ve come to see. By the end of this book, I hope that you will have a deeper understanding of how the Christian life works, and how God calls us to live a life of love and not fear. My aim is that this will be more than an intellectual exercise but will teach you how to put this into practice in your life right away.
Want more? Read the first chapter here on the website…