When I boot up in the morning, my default operating system is works-righteousness. Not that I consciously believe that my good deeds can merit eternal life for me—but when left to myself, my natural mode is to believe I have to bring something to the table in order for God to reciprocate.
Having firmly established my membership in the human race, I press on.
For those who can relate, when we start seeing exit signs for grace on the horizon, our brakes engage. Oh sure, we know we need forgiveness and mercy. (Doesn’t everyone?) But surely, we reason, I can’t just grab onto grace. It’s too presumptuous. God wants me to obey, work, and strive for my righteousness. I’m okay with grace, but I can’t abandon myself completely to it.
The myth fueling this inner pharisaism is deceptive on two levels. By virtue of our descent from Adam, we are all born by default under the covenant of works established in Eden. “Do this and live” courses through our veins. Even though we broke the covenant of works, we still reach for it daily and wear it like a ratty 90’s tee we just can’t bear to toss in the GoodWill bin.
But the second level of deception is to equate dependence on grace with licentiousness. The reason this line of reasoning is so compelling is because antinomianism is a real, present danger. We have all known too many who have used grace as license to sin. And in some ways, it’s not difficult to misconstrue the gospel as such. J.I. Packer is noted for his insight that unless our gospel prompts the question, “What then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (cf. Rom. 6:1) then we aren’t preaching Paul’s gospel (which, we should note, responds at that point: “By no means!”). To preach grace necessarily involves the risk that some will distort it into license.
But here is where I’d like to press us. The abuse of a thing is never an argument against the use of it. And the abuse of grace by some should never in the recesses of our works-righteous consciences amount to a case for why we should fail to avail ourselves of the grace of Christ also.
In fact, let’s stop ourselves. Is the problem with licentious, false professors of the faith that they overindulge in the grace of Jesus? That they trust too much in the cross of Christ, such that Jesus in heaven wags his head, sighing, “Golly, I hadn’t meant for all this to happen.”
This is a reductio ad absurdum. In point of fact, those who indulge the flesh under the banner of forgiveness haven’t tasted true grace at all. In Romans 8:29-30, no one receives the grace of justification without also receiving the graces of sanctification and final, consummate conformity to the character of Christ.
The gospel, now available in capsule form, sports a quick-dissolving half that immediately justifies you when you believe, and a timed-release half making for a lifetime of progress in holiness. But the whole pill must be swallowed at once.
Or, to put it another way, those who abuse grace aren’t abusing grace at all, since true grace teaches us to live holy: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14).
Just as no one would buy from a busted adulterer the quip, “Well, I suppose I just trusted my wife loved me too much and would forgive me,” neither should we believe that the problem with the unrepentant is too much grace. False, presumptuous grace, yes; saving grace, no. So in the case of saving grace, too much of a good thing is still a good thing.
Where does that leave us? Free to glut ourselves on grace. Entitled as children of God to trust-fall into the arms of the Father, clinging to Christ’s redemptive work on our behalf, knowing that we cannot merit anything by our white-knuckles do-gooding. This is why Paul, after tying the promise of pardon to the certainty of sanctification, exclaims that nothing—not even our own creaturely inconsistencies—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39).
Pull up a chair. Join the feast. Jesus has spread the table. All we have is grace, and it is sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9).