Self-Correcting Grace – An Illustration

Last post, I addressed the issue of indulging in sin as a way to abuse God’s grace.  I explained Titus 2:11-14 and the concept that grace, properly understood and applied, actually teaches us to deny sin and live godly lives.  Grace has a way of self correcting.  Today, I would like expand on this idea.

Pastor Judah Smith of Seattle’s The City Church shared a useful illustration along these lines in a recent interview with the Christian Post.  In addressing a question about grace, Pastor Smith first talks about his relationship with his wife, Chelsea.

He summarizes, “Chelsea is just the most incredible, considerate, compassionate, loving, gracious spouse, she’s a lot like Jesus.  In the 13 and a half years of her loving me and serving me and being so kind and committed, faithful and loyal, I’ve never had the thought ‘because she’s loving, gracious, kind and faithful, I could cheat on her and get away with. In fact, I could do it multiple times.’ I’ve never planned to cheat on her, by the grace of God I haven’t at all. Because the exact opposite desire and emotion are conjured up due to her love and grace and faithfulness.”

“I think when grace is merely a principle and a biblical concept – if it’s just the favor of God, or the forgiveness of God, or the love of God, it’s easily abused. But when grace is a person, when he has beautiful eyes of love and compassion and mercy and we fall in love with this incredible savior and his grace and his mercy pours over our lives, the ultimate result is not ‘Gosh, I can get away with sin.’ … quite the opposite happens really.”

This is such a clear illustration of the draw of grace and has been my experience also; not just in my marriage, but in my obedience to Christ as well.  When I understand grace as a person – Jesus Christ – rather than a principle, I run to Jesus.  I desire a close relationship with Jesus.  I don’t want to sin more.  I want to sin less.  Why?  Because I do not want to do anything that would harm the relationship.  I don’t want to do anything that would break our connection.

Does this make sense to you?  Has this been your experience?  To many of us, this seems counter-intuitive.  We can think of a few grace abusers we know.  Or we may even secretly fall into temptation ourselves to take advantage of the grace of God.  But it should not be that way.  Instead, if we are in a love relationship with Christ – a relationship He secured at the cross – we should, based on that relationship, be running to Jesus.  We should be pleasing Jesus.  We should be embracing all that Jesus has for our lives.  And the last thing on our minds should be a desire to take advantage of His love.

Self-Correcting Grace

The apostle Paul had strong words for the rule-makers in the Galatian church, even to the point of calling them “false brethren” (Gal 2:4).  But I don’t know if these folks were truly evil or just a little over zealous in wanting to keep people in line with their focus on the rules.  After all, the challenge of how far our freedom goes is still with us today.  Are there “false teachers” among us who seek to limit our Christian freedom or do they have a legitimate concern that freedom will be abused and our flesh will be indulged?

One of the ways to address this issue is with the concept of “self-correcting grace”.  Paul wrote in Titus chapter 2, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people of His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:11-14).

Let’s look at this set of verses very carefully.  “For the grace of God has appeared” (the foundation of all that follows is the appearance of God’s grace), “bringing salvation to all men” (God’s grace brought our salvation; deliverance from the penalty and the power of sin), “instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires” (rather than giving us the freedom to indulge in sin, God’s grace actually teaches us – and I might add empowers us – to deny sin; to put the ix-nay on ungodliness and worldly desires.  Grace properly understood and embraced helps guide us away from sin.)

Paul continues, “and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (So grace directs us away from sin and toward godliness.  Grace, properly understood and applied, is self-correcting.  When we are tempted to follow the wrong path, grace corrects us by teaching us to deny sin and embrace godly common sense and righteous living.  I like the word sensibly in this passage.  It is against common sense for a believer to live in sin and not according to their righteous nature.  Properly understood grace, not willpower or the threat of condemnation, brings us back to the righteous path.

And we become people who are “looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed” (Christ’s giving Himself up for us – His finished work on the cross – delivered us from lawless living as our default mode), “and to purify for Himself” (Christ giving Himself up for us made us clean), “a people for His own possession” (Christ giving Himself up for us placed us in His family), “zealous for good deeds” (Christ giving Himself up for us infused us with zealousy for good deeds.  He freed us from lawless living and empowered us for righteous living).

That is what this passage, and much of the New Testament, says, “Grace, properly understood and applied, is self-correcting.”  What does that look like in practice?  We will answer that question next time.

Free to Obey

Another freedom we experience as a result of our new birth is the freedom to obey; the freedom to choose a new master (Rom 6:14).  James writes in the New Testament, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.  But one who looks intently at the prefect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).

The law of liberty is an interesting description.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually think of the words “law” and “liberty” as going together.  I think of them as opposites.  I think of law as a restriction of my liberty.  So what is the law of liberty?

I believe it is God’s Word, His law, “written on our hearts” as it were (Heb 8:10).  The liberty part is the freedom and power to obey.  Prior to our salvation, there was no liberty in the law, only condemnation.  In Romans chapter 7, Paul describes the weight of that condemnation that results from trying to obey the law without the new resurrection power of Christ.  He concludes than only Christ – no amount of willpower or effort – can set us free from this condemnation.  “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

We have been set free from trying to obey the law by willpower to escape condemnation (something we were unable to accomplish, even if we wanted to).  Instead, we now obey God’s moral law by the power of our new nature; God’s resurrection power literally living through us by the indwelling of God’s Spirit.

James calls this indwelling receiving the word implanted.  “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).  We put aside sin – filthiness and wickedness – by receiving the implanted word which has the power to deliver us from sin.  With the power to obey now firmly planted in our new nature, we have a freedom the world knows nothing of; the freedom to obey.

Free to Serve

When we think of the word “freedom”, we often think of autonomy; basically the freedom to do whatever we want without constraint.  When the New Testament speaks about freedom, it relates to our new opportunity and ability to be all that God created and redeemed us to be.  Free to serve, free to love, free to worship, and free to embrace and live out all that became new at our new birth.

In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul addresses the freedom challenge.  Rule-makers had infiltrated the church seeking to limit the believers’ freedom.  “But it was because of the false believers who had sneaked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into slavery.  But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (Gal 2:4-5).

The “truth of the gospel” Paul is referring to is our freedom in Christ.  And Paul later identifies these “false believers” as the Judaizers; a group who have come from the Jerusalem church and stressed the need for the new Gentile believers to keep the Law, including the act of circumcision.  The Law still carried some weight in their eyes both for full acceptance by God as well as a guide for living the Christian life.  Paul sees this form of legalism as so far from the truth that he did not listen to them “for even one hour.”

Paul then goes on to write a treatise on our freedom in Christ.  Paul concludes his defense with, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).  So what does standing firm in our freedom look like?

First, it is defending our freedom along the lines of the argument Paul lays out in his letter.  But it is also putting that freedom into action.  As Paul continues in chapter 5, he addresses the application part of our freedom with, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13).

The purpose of our freedom is not to indulge the flesh – a danger Paul recognizes and spends the rest of chapter 5 exploring.  (As an aside, we have spent several posts in the past explaining the relationship between defeating the flesh and walking in the Spirit in light of Galatians chapter 5.  See here and here.)  No, the purpose of our freedom is to live into all that God redeemed us to be.  Particular to verse 13, it is the freedom to serve – motivated by love – our brothers and sisters in Christ.  In other words, use your freedom to serve each other; motivated and empowered by love.

Let your freedom from selfishness, freedom from anger, freedom from bitterness, freedom from envy, freedom from always having to win, freedom from always having to have the last word…set you free to serve one another.  It is a freedom from what is essentially our last enemy: ourselves and our selfish ambition.  And it only comes through Jesus Christ.  May you walk in that freedom today.

Sin, Slavery, and True Freedom

“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free‘ ” (Jn 8:31-32).  What “truth” is Jesus talking about?  And what kind of “freedom” does this truth deliver to us?

The dialogue that immediately follows these verses gives a clue to the freedom offered by Jesus Christ.  The Jews parked on the word “free” and answered Jesus.  “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free?’ ” (Jn 8:33).  The Jews were thinking in terms of political freedom; that is, in specific terms of slaves and masters.  Basically they were saying, “How can you offer us freedom when we are already a free people?”

Now it is ironic that the Jews would strut their freedom at a time they are under Roman rule, but technically they are correct.  Slavery was common throughout the Roman Empire, and the Jews were not slaves in the specific sense of owned by masters.  They had a measure of political freedom.

But Jesus is not talking about political freedom as we continue in the passage.  “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin’ ” (Jn 8:34).  The freedom Christ promises and delivers is the freedom from slavery to sin.  This language is a forerunner to the exact same word picture used by the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 6 regarding sin, slavery, and true freedom.

“Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom 6:6-7).  Based on the context, “freed from sin” means freed from sin’s power and control, not from sin’s presence.  And Paul sums up this idea with, “For sin shall not be master over you” (Rom 6:14).

Not only is sin no longer our master, but God has given us the power to choose a new master, Jesus Christ.  “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?  But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:16-18).  Notice the time line: you were slaves of sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

Returning to our text in John chapter 8, Jesus concludes, “So if the Son makes you free [free from sin’s power and mastery], you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36).  The freedom Jesus promised in John 8:32 – the oft quoted, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” – is the freedom from sin’s slave-creating power; freedom from sin as our master.  It is a promise of freedom that should be the hallmark of our gospel message.

We are keen on explaining the gospel message in terms of our deliverance from sin’s penalty as we should be.  But let us never forget the equal part of the gospel, deliverance from sin’s power.  The promise of a heart set free from sin’s power – so eloquently argued by the apostle Paul in Romans chapters 5 through 8 – has its foundation in Jesus proclamation, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”