It is a constant wonder how we guardians of the true faith can become so skilled at gumming up the greatest news in the universe. We hold in trust the Good News of all good news – God gives free grace to sinners for Christ’s sake – and then we break our necks to hide it behind a great wall of rules, regulations and laws.
“You must not take grace too far or you will turn it into license to sin!” we admonish one another, as though lack of license has ever stopped anybody from sinning.
Hasn’t anyone noticed? We are all sinners – even all we religious, God-fearing, church-going Christians. Always have been, always will be, in this life. It is only by God’s pure and unfettered grace, as demonstrated once for all through Jesus Christ, that we are made something else – righteous – and not by our efforts to avoid sin, but by trusting him.
It seems that our vigilant efforts to prevent anyone from “turning grace into license to sin” has resulted, ironically, in our managing to turn sin into a barrier to accepting grace. The church promises grace, then delivers condemnation. The church headlines the gospel, then preaches hellfire. The church disguises its moralistic hook with gospel bait, reels in the unwary catch and plops him or her into the hot greasy frying pan of salvation by works.
Consider how the gospel is plowed under by the relentless glacier of denominational “rightness,” doctrinal “exactness” and behavioral “standards.” Christian church against Christian church, warring over phraseology, terminology, dress codes, political stands, seating arrangements, music styles, architecture…the list seems endless. We all seem to have at least a mild case of the virus of “our-way-is-God’s-way-so-die-you-heretic.”
Right doctrine is important. But we need look no farther than the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed for those doctrinal “issues” that really matter. Yet, many Christian churches still refuse Communion to fellow believers who don’t belong to the “right” denominational brand name or haven’t jumped through all the required theological hoops.
The underlying message of religious behaviorism, “Behave right (according to our particular standards), or go straight to hell,” buries the gospel under layer after layer of religious hair-splitting, nit-picking and measurement-taking. That isn’t the gospel. It’s religion. It holds out salvation like some phantom carrot-and-stick reached only through a lifetime of unquantifiable good deeds. It is a soul-sapping lie against the truth of God.
Jesus did not bring some “new and better” brand of religion. He brought the gospel, which is good news for sinners, which we all are. For the sake of Christ, God has thrown away all the report cards, homework records and detention notes in the world and given everybody a 4.0 GPA and a gold-plated invitation to eternal life.
Only some of us, it seems, “don’t want no charity.” We’d rather feel like we have been – or through discipline and devotion have become – the right and proper sort of person upon whom God could appropriately bestow eternal life. We have been good Christians, and we don’t want to be lumped in with a bunch of immoral losers who do nothing more than put their trust in the Christ we have worked so hard for so long to imitate and obey. (We thank you, O God, that we are not like the rest of people – greedy, dishonest, adulterous or, for that matter, like this embezzler.)
Suppose we take a challenge: give up the charade. Drop the legalism and the fear tactics. Quit pretending to be worthy and righteous, admit we are hopeless sinners without anything to our credit, and put our trust in Jesus Christ, for whose sake God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).
Drop the nonsense about how that would mean people could “just go out and sin all we want, since we’re already forgiven.” Nobody who trusts God wants to sin. When you trust God to love you and forgive you, you want to be like Jesus; you don’t want to sin. But when we do sin, in spite of the fact that we don’t want to, we have an advocate with the Father, 1 John 2:1-2 tells us (and he tells us that so we won’t sin, not so that we will, verse 1 says).
It’s like Paul told Titus:
The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14)
It’s grace that teaches us to say no to ungodliness. It’s grace that makes us eager to do what is good. Knowing we’re already forgiven and accepted does not lead us into the devil’s workshop, but into deeper fellowship with our Lord and Savior. The gospel is that simple. It really is good news.