Redeeming Grace. Yes, grace–the term, the idea of grace–must be redeemed from legalism and license. Legalism destroys grace; license disgraces grace. Grace must be redeemed and set at liberty. In fact, liberty is the essence of grace. But we must clarify….
What is legalism, and how does it destroy grace?
I know this word is used oftentimes to attack people who believe in holy living and standards of biblical behavior, but that is not legalism. Everyone has standards of behavior. The essence of legalism is this: meritorious thinking. At the core of every religion is meritorious thinking, the idea that what you do, whether good or bad, will merit a certain response from God. Good works are rewarded, bad deeds are judged. Legalism is the idea that God’s favor and blessing in my life is ultimately determined by my behavior.
Salvation from sin occurs when we realize that Jesus paid the full price for sin, we realize that we are unworthy of anything but His judgment, and we choose to trust solely upon Him as our Savior. We must reject legalism to be born again. Yet, sadly, Christians revert back to a meritorious way of thinking in regards to living the Christian life. Some believers attempt to achieve holiness and fruitful service by their own strength. This is the standard form of legalism among believers. Usually these folks will either burn out, give up, or march on in a sense of self-righteous resolve, knowing only stress, struggle and spiritual failure.
There is another variation of legalism which is harder to spot, and it has sprung up among sincere revival-seeking Christians within the last 15-20 years. It is a teaching which speaks of grace while undermining what grace really is. These Christians, having discovered the futility of serving God in the power of the flesh, have looked to grace to enable their efforts at holy living and fruitful service. They realize that God’s grace of salvation is also available for sanctification. They learn that the Holy Spirit may be depended upon to enable holiness and produce fruit. Yet, here is the pitfall: they see grace as something they need to get where they’re going. They’re headed for holiness and fruitfulness but can’t get there on their own. They need GRACE to get them there. Grace becomes a means to an end.
There are many Christians who long for holiness (victory over sin) and fruitful service (souls saved, growing, thriving ministries, etc.) and realize they need to access God’s grace to achieve these ends. So they say, “I need grace! How can I access and experience this grace?” In steps legalism: “Well, first you have to confess all your sin.” Should Christians confess sin? YES! Why? So we can access the grace of God? NO! We should confess sin because we love God, not because we need something from Him. Do you see the meritorious thinking here? Also, how would you know if you had confessed everything? Even after searching your heart for hours you still would find yourself in a perpetual state of doubt as you consider whether or not your heart is truly clean…yet.
Let’s say you finally (timidly) feel you’ve confessed everything. In steps legalism again: “Not so fast! You must also be FULLY surrendered to God in every area before you can access God’s grace. After all, you won’t have the fullness of the Spirit unless He has 100% control of you!” Any semblance of peace is now shattered. Are you fully surrendered? What about that neighbor you haven’t witnessed to yet? What about the fact you haven’t given up that time-wasting activity yet? What about….
So maybe you just try to cover everything with a blanket prayer like this, “Lord, the best I know, I yield myself fully to your control.” Does that cover it? Are you surrendered now? **swallow hard** “Well, Lord, the best I know, I have confessed all my sin (oops, just remembered one…sorry for that one too, Lord). I have NOW confessed all known sin, and the best I know I am fully surrendered in every area of my life (oops, forgot one, I now surrender my mornings to spend more time with you…) I am NOW surrendered in every area of my life. And so, Lord, now that my heart is clean, I ask for your grace upon me today as I walk with you.” You get up from prayer, in a somewhat conflicted state of mind, and attempt to trust God for grace…yet without peace, without joy, without any confidence that you are TRULY filled with the Spirit and accessing God’s grace.
Let me sum up: This is frustrated grace (Galatians 2:21). Grace isn’t something I NEED from God, it is something I HAVE in Christ. Grace is not a means to an end. Grace is Jesus! He IS the end. Grace is not something I have to qualify for. Grace is undeserved and unmerited! Grace is God’s gift of Himself, and if you’re saved, you have that gift. His name is Jesus! I should confess my sin…BECAUSE of God’s grace to me, not as a means of receiving God’s grace. Should I surrender myself fully to God? YES! Why? Because in light of God’s generous salvation, that is my reasonable service (Romans 12:1). I surrender BECAUSE of God’s grace, not as a means of receiving it.
Does this make sense? So many Christians today are ultimately trying to earn, or qualify for, something that they have already received! Don’t ASK for God’s grace, don’t plead for God’s grace, and don’t try to clear the way for God’s grace. Simply THANK Him for His grace and humbly depend upon Jesus for it. God gives grace to the humble…not to the holy (James 4:6). Holiness is a fruit of grace, not the gateway to it.
Don’t frustrate the grace of God. Look up, thank Him, stay humble, and rest in the grace brought unto you in Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-14). This is the grace that leads to a life of holiness and service, and you already have it…if you have Jesus.
(We will explore how "Licence" makes a disgrace of grace, in Part 3. Stay tuned.)