It is in vogue today to speak frequently about “grace” and “the gospel” in Christian circles, to the point that those terms are combined with and attached to virtually every conceivable topic, so that everything is “grace this” and “gospel-centered that”. And we are to preach grace to ourselves and preach the gospel to ourselves on a regular basis, and determine how “gospel truth” applies in any given number of circumstances.
Grace and the gospel (good news) through which we are told of it are fundamental to Christian life, both in the sense that we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9) and walk in grace (1 Corinthians 15:10; Galatians 3:3). It is only by God’s good pleasure that any sinner is saved, and it is only by God’s good pleasure that any believer who still carries the sin nature (all of us!) is able to become more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:28-30).
But make no mistake about it: it is God’s expectation that the good pleasure which saves us, and the good pleasure which sustains us, will actually, inevitably and invariably result in a follower who is more holy today than he was yesterday (1 Peter 1:15-16) and more obedient tomorrow than she was today (John 14:15).
While it is true that the believer must continually preach the gospel to himself in order not to fall into legalism or works-righteousness – or the despair that comes from the realization that we fail at both of those – the danger is that we come to see the truth of grace as an excuse for failing to root out sin in our lives, or failing to pursue practical obedience and holiness in all aspects of our walk with God. In other words, too much focus on grace leaves us the subject of Paul’s admonition that we shouldn’t keep on sinning just because we can count on grace to cover our disobedience (Romans 6:1).
We can, in fact, abuse grace and abuse the gospel just as easily as we abuse any other blessing from God.
When we do abuse grace and abuse the gospel, it is revealed in very practical ways and in many of our relationships. The idea that we should “let go and let God” is quite popular, but when it is applied to our obligation to live holy lives, it can have disastrous consequences. Abuse of grace comes about when we fail to take action – action that is frequently expressly commanded in Scripture – on the grounds that God will forgive us, anyway.
For instance, fathers are commanded “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The book of Proverbs fleshes out more fully what the “discipline and admonition of the Lord” is. Thankfully, God’s grace covers our frequent failures as parents to fulfill this command perfectly. We are able to come to God with our frequent sin in parenting and receive forgiveness as with any other sin (1 John 1:8-9), and praise God for that!
However, a father may decide that bringing up his children in the discipline and admonition of the Lord is just too hard, or cramps his style, or isn’t “loving” enough. Similarly, a father may decide that stringent adherence to God’s instruction for parents and the expectations that children behave rightly is too “legalistic”, and besides, if God wants his children to behave, He will take care of that Himself. That father is, to be sure, abusing grace, and cannot count on the favor of God. He might, indeed, be truly saved and enter heaven with God, but he will be held accountable by God for his abuse of grace and his failure to obey the command of Christ with regard to parenting.
Similarly, harboring personal sin is an area where believers might abuse grace. We frequently speak of our “weaknesses” – by which we mean sins to which we are particularly prone – and praise God for his ongoing forgiveness of our sin in those areas. By grace, God does forgive us. But it is an abuse of grace simply to recognize sin, seek and receive forgiveness, and even repent – when “repenting” is merely being sorry, but taking no steps to obey and change into the image of Christ in that area.
For instance, someone may admit to having a temper problem (which the Bible calls “outbursts of anger”) and sincerely seek forgiveness. Yet if he thinks that this will cause God to instantly remove the sin itself, or somehow obligates God to withhold discipline for continued instances of it, he is mistaken, and is abusing God’s grace.
The truth is, grace is a huge blessing for sinners, and as one of those aspects of God’s disposition toward us, we will never exhaust the riches that it holds. One of the riches of grace is that God is merciful, longsuffering and patient with us, and forgives us again and again.
Yet grace is not merely the favorable disposition of God toward us by which he is inclined to forgive us when we disobey him. Another aspect of the riches of grace is that is also the power of God to avoid sin and to obey him in the first place (2 Corinthians 12:9).
A faithful follower of Christ should, indeed, crave grace, know it, depend on it. But we abuse that very grace when all that we crave is mercy for our disobedience. The faithful follower of Christ should also crave from God that aspect of grace that empowers us to obey him.