Cheapening Grace, Part Two
Grace and truth must go together. They are inextricably intertwined such that if you take away truth, you don’t have grace anymore.
In one of the most well-known stories from the Bible, Jesus clearly delivered both grace and truth to the woman who was about to be stoned for committing an act of adultery. After the crowd of those intending to punish her dispersed, Jesus asked her,
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:3-11, NIV)
Jesus accepted her as someone who mattered to Him, but never did He affirm the life she lived in rebellion against Him. Jesus didn’t condemn her for what she did, but He didn’t condone what she did either. He denounced it.
Grace and truth went together. This is important.
Some people think that in order to show grace to someone you have to ignore sin; to look the other way. They think to extend grace means you have to accept the sin and not say anything against it. And certainly that you shouldn’t penalize anyone for it because if you did, that wouldn’t be showing grace.
That is screwing grace up.
In the New Testament biography of Jesus written by John, he writes these words about Jesus that are so important to get down:
[Jesus] came...full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)
Grace and truth together, raw and unfiltered, powerful and vibrant, flowing and free. Jesus comes to our defense when we’re about to get stoned, but He’s also the first one to tell us to stop sleeping around.
As Henry Cloud has written, grace is accepting relationship and truth is what is real; it describes how things really are. Truth without grace is just judgment. But grace without truth is just deception. And this is so important to grasp because “getting” grace is everything. And in the New Testament book of Romans, which is the Apostle Paul’s great theological manifesto, the Scriptures are clear about this:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1-4, NIV)
Paul was catching wind of people following a very warped chain of thought: “If my sin means that I need forgiveness, and I find that forgiveness through the grace of God that flows from Christ, then is my relationship with sin now changed, meaning that it’s no big deal? Does my sin just keep getting met with God’s grace and forgiveness, so it’s not a big deal whether I sin or not?
“I mean, as long as I ask for forgiveness, I’m forgiven, right? So why not just sin away! I sin, get forgiveness; sin, get forgiveness – so once in Christ, sin is no longer an issue – so I can relax about it. In fact, if you think about it, the more I sin, the more grace gets to work, and that’s a good thing, right? So why not just have at it!”
To that Paul says, “What are you thinking? Are you crazy?”
That’s like saying, “Okay, now I’m married, so I’ve got that covered. The piece of paper is in hand, so now I can sleep with whoever I want, because I have the marriage thing covered. As long as I come home to my wife at the end of the day, ask her to forgive me, and make sure she knows that I’m willing to stay married to her, then what I do doesn’t matter.”
Do you want a marriage like that? Do you want any relationship like that? Particularly your relationship with Christ?
We died with Christ, we were raised with Christ, and if our baptism symbolizes anything, it symbolizes our entrance into a new life. It symbolizes a new life purchased at great cost.
To refuse to try and live that new life and its new commitments would be to degrade and dishonor everything the relationship is about. To dishonor everything the relationship stands for and everything that Christ did for us in order to have it.
So this isn’t about a mandate to live a sin-free life, but a mandate to not lead a sin-dominated life; one where you give yourself over to it. Even to the point of saying it doesn’t matter, or even worse that it’s not even sin.
There’s a name for that: cheap grace. Which is no grace at all.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship, which is considered one of the great Christian classics. And in it he talks about this idea of cheap grace. Here are some of his words:
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace without price; grace without cost! [Through such grace] the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,... grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.... But... real grace [is costly]. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow.... Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son. [Cheap grace] is Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.
Which is no Christianity at all.
James Emery White
Henry Cloud, Changes that Heal.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Adapted from the third installment of “Getting Grace Right,” a series at Mecklenburg Community Church, Charlotte, North Carolina. If you would like to listen to this address as originally delivered, as well as the series of which it was a part, click here. To read part one of this blog series, click here.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.