In the last 30 years there has been a remarkable recovery of the truths of grace. Too often, however, these doctrines have been communicated carelessly, leaving guys confused, even deceived. For many guys, grace has become a license for immaturity. How has this happened?
First, careless preaching of grace has made some guys content to cohabit with sin. They reach this mindset via the following logic: if God loves me in spite of my sin, and if Jesus has clothed me with his righteousness, then sin really isn’t that big of a deal. Sin is more like a blunder, like childishness, than a threat, like a virus. A further belief entrenches this mindset even further – the ineradicability of sin. Since sin is always going to be in my heart, in one form or another, what difference does it make, really, if I stamp out one weed only to see others grow in its place? Jesus will clean up the problem after I die.
Now I need to be clear what I am saying. My point is not that Christian men today are entirely tolerant of sin. Most Christians are trying in earnest to resist or uproot various sins in their lives. The point is this: a kind of despair, a degree of fatalism, or a hint of permissiveness keeps men from hoping and attempting radical self-transformation in and through the Holy Spirit. Few are the men today who feel the hope or urgency required to storm the strongholds of sin under the banner of 2 Corinthians 7:1: ‘Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves of all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God’. For too many, grace is an excuse for accepting the permanent residence of at least some sin in their lives.
Yet, to excuse sin – in any form, at any time – is to abuse grace. Grace is not a motive for an indulgent attitude of self-acceptance. Grace is the liberating declaration that I am no longer defined by my sin or held captive by its power. Because of grace I can hope, I can fight – I can have a holy discontentment with the state of my heart believing that, with the help of Almighty God, change is possible. Yes, perfection, like the horizon, will elude my grasp. Yet, any despair resulting from my imperfection is a sign that I have not really understood the message of grace. Grace is the strength and incentive to aim for the horizon even if my progress will be measured only one inch at a time.
This leads us into a second way that grace has been wrongly applied to spirituality. Some Christians today mistake effort for legalism. They think that any strenuous attempt to improve one’s character is not only self-defeating but an insult to the grace of God. The underlying belief is that growing in righteousness, ‘sanctification’, is primarily a passive action, something that God does for us without requiring much sweat from our brow. But when thinking this way Christians mistake God’s method of justification for His method of sanctification. For justification, the Christian does nothing more than receive by faith the free gift of salvation. However, for sanctification, while no less dependent on the grace of God, we are much more involved in the process. JI Packer highlights this point writing, ‘By the Spirit’s enabling, Christians resolve to do particular things that are right, and actually do them, and thus form habits of doing right things, and out of these habits comes a character that is right.’ He later adds, ‘Holiness teaching that skips over disciplined persistence in the well-doing that forms holy habits is thus weak; habit forming is the Spirit’s ordinary way of leading us on in holiness’ (Keeping in Step with the Spirit, 108-9). The point we need to glean from Packer is this: any application of grace that relieves Christians of the need to exert themselves strenuously for the sake of holiness is an abuse of grace. The message of grace does not eliminate effort from the Christian life. On the contrary, the message of grace gives us hope that – due to the power of the Holy Spirit – the effort of a child (and at most we are children) is not in vain.