Chapter 82

Grace: A license to Wander?

The need for a balanced message

Talking about God's unconditional love in order to promote godliness is counterintuitive. If all we do is keep assuring people that God loves them, then what is to keep them from taking advantage of grace and doing whatever they want?

In recent decades a number of wonderful movements of grace have begun to sweep across the evangelical world. These groups include the Sonship, World Harvest Mission, and New Life ministries that have flourished from the seminal influence of the late Jack Miller, Redeemer churches associated with Tim Keller; New City Fellowship churches and ministries in various cities; and the L'Abri fellowships spawned by the teachings of Francis Schaeffer. To these early and deep fountains of grace could be added a great number of ministers, churches, and institutions in evangelical circles that have recently made grace a chief focus of their ministries. Contributors are as diverse as John Armstrong, Charles Swindoll, Joyce Meyers, R. C. Sproul, Steve Brown, Michael Scott Horton, Jerry Bridges, and Phil Yancey.

When God removes good works as a condition for his acceptance, he does not remove righteousness as a requirement for life.

Without a doubt a grace awakening is occurring, but the new emphasis does not come without varying accents, challenges, and concerns. Concerns that the new emphasis on grace will result in antinomianism (disregard for the law of God) have become quite numerous and acute. The history of the evangelical church in North America can partially explain the reasons for these concerns.

Much of the evangelical church finds its cultural roots in the modernist/fundamentalist controversy of the early twentieth century. Not only did those who stood for historic Christianity against modern skepticism fight against disregard for biblical truth, they also warred against the lifestyle changes being adopted by those who discredited the right of Scripture to govern their lives.

Concern about lifestyle issues is necessary for biblical Christianity. Early leaders among the North American evangelicals rightly insisted that the Bible has commands that God's people must obey in order to honor him. Problems came, however, when patterns of personal conduct became almost as much an emphasis in evangelical preaching and teaching as the message of God's grace. As a consequence, people began to think of their conduct as a qualification for God's acceptance.

The result of the strong emphasis on lifestyle issues was the creation of codes of conduct that supposedly distinguished real Christians from the secular world and nominal believers. Strict adherence to the codes became the mark of serious Christianity in many churches, even when the particulars could not be biblically proven. In fact, many of the standards of the evangelical code (for example, do not play card games, drink alcoholic beverages, smoke, or go to movies) became so much a part of the culture of most conservative churches that few people in them even thought to question whether the Bible actually taught all that the churches expected.

Part of the concern about a renewed emphasis on grace is simply a fear of the loss of evangelical identity as interest wanes in adherence to the codes that have distinguished Bible-believing Christians over the past century. The fear has some merit. The codes have, in fact, kept many Christians from dallying with cultural practices and adopting societal patterns wherein lie great spiritual danger. Those who become strong advocates of a grace emphasis must acknowledge the legitimacy of this concern and show how their teaching will provide protection from secular dangers when the codes of conduct are undermined.

Admittedly, strong advocates of the new grace emphasis may not feel that it is their responsibility to deal with the behavior issues that concern advocates of the codes. Preachers of grace typically see the old evangelical codes as destructive forms of legalism that need to be dismantled. Many of us have been personally wounded by legalistic attitudes in the church and resonate with the need to fight their spiritually corrosive influences.

Still, it is not enough for the advocates of grace simply to react against legalism. We must also respond to the license that always tempts Christians when preachers say, "God will love you no matter what." Legalism makes believers think that God accepts them on the basis of what they do. Licentiousness makes believers think that God does not care what they do. Both errors have terrible spiritual consequences.

Jesus said, "if you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15). Grace should not make obedience optional. When God removes good works as a condition for his acceptance, he does not remove righteousness as a requirement for life. The standards of Scripture glorify God and protect his people from spiritual harm. We cannot undermine the legitimate standards of the Bible without grave consequences.

God does not love us because we obey him, but we cannot know the blessings of his love without obedience. Thus, a grace focus that undermines Christ's own demand for obedience denies us knowledge of and intimacy with him. This is not grace.

Grace that bears fruit is biblical. Grace that goes to seed uses God's unconditional love as an excuse for selfish indulgence. Such egocentric living ultimately burdens us with the guilt and consequences of sin that God has designed his grace to remove.

Resting on God's grace does not relieve us of our holy obligations; rather it should enable us to fulfill them.