Grace is scandalous, scary and hard to understand all at the same time. Everybody has their own definition of “grace”. A friend of mine used to say “well, all sins are forgiven so let’s rock ‘n roll!”. However, my personal favorite is Aunt Bethany’s understanding of grace. (‘She died thirty years ago!”).
And outside of the church, grace is everything from what you say before Thanksgiving to the fluid stunts of a gymnast. But inside the church, there is just as much confusion as to what grace is and why it is so enjoyable. When grace is understood and enjoy, it leads to incomparable freedom. In Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace explains that
Believers who are truly established in Christ have experienced the shattering of their spheres of ignorance and darkness by a growing understanding of the nature of God, their sin and God’s provision of grace in Jesus Christ
But I usually fall short of this earth shattering understanding and acceptance of God’s grace that is taught in the bible and in most orthodox theological systems. Why? What inhibits me from enjoying what should be the most joyful and freeing spiritual revelry that the soul of man has ever known?
Well, in short, I do.
The two ways that it is easiest for me and most Christians to not enjoy the grace of God are through “Cheap Grace” and “Expensive Grace”.
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who first coined the term “cheap grace”. Lovelace would say that it is “the wholly unbiblical teaching of justification without sanctification”(p.100). Essentially what happens is a Christian misunderstands that grace is not meant just to pardon us, but to change us also. This understanding of grace comes from a misunderstanding of why we need grace. Sin is just a few pesky slip ups, not an utter and complete treason against God embedded in the DNA of an individual, as explained in detail in many, many Biblical texts (such as Jeremiah 17, Psalm 51 and the book of Romans). This misunderstanding of the severity of human depravity makes grace look less amazing, and subsequently less enjoyable. To quote Lovelace again, (you can tell what I’ve been reading lately, can’t you?)
‘A conscience which is note fully enlightened both to the grandeur of God’s merciful provision of redemption [grace], will inevitably fall prey to anxiety, pride, sensuality and all the other expressions of that unconscious despair which Kierkegaard called “the sickness unto death”‘
The other extreme can be just as bad, if not worse. In a state of ‘expensive grace’ the Christian realized the despair of his or her depravity and is wrecked by it (as we should be!). Then grace comes along and all of their sin has been forgiven! God now accepts the believer unconditionally and whenever they sin, they remember that God has already forgiven that sin! How grand! And how true! But again, soon the same problem with cheap grace can rear head: justification without sanctification. Grace is applied to the sins, but not the sinner. Enter Lovelace,
It is not enough to tell believers ‘you are accepted though your faith in Christ’. We must tell them also ‘you are delivered from the bondages of sin through the power of the indwelling Christ’.
If there is no grace to defeat sin, then the believer can easily enter into a pseudo-monastic guilt complex that feels the weight of grace and the weight of sin and must strive to at least pay God back a little bit for the sacrifice that he has made. This was Luther before God changed his heart through the book of Galatians. Constantly flogging himself and living in a legalistic hell of unpayable repayment. Let’s see if Lovelace has anything to say on this matter…. As a matter of fact, he does! Let’s listen in,
Even if we are assured that our sin is covered, we do not want to face the despair of having to live in conscious helpless awareness of its tyranny, abusing the grace and forgiveness of Christ. If we have to go on running further and further into spiritual debt, we would rather do this in the dark without realizing what is happening.
Essentially, our conscience cannot handle the weight of our sin and the weight of our forgiveness without the power of conformity to godliness. And since this view of grace essentially says “I am accepted and I will never follow God as I aught”. And while, in a sense, true, this leads to hardworking, miserable Christians. This is popular is the “gospel-centered” crowd (with people like myself). Much more could be and should be said about this.
But what is the alternative? How do we actually enjoy grace?
Free grace is a full theology of atonement. Free grace says that we are flawed beyond our wildest imagination and forgiven even beyond that! But that is not all. Free grace says that grace is not just for salvation but for sanctification. We often see ourselves in control of our spiritual growth and striving. But the gospel says that God is actually the one in control of it all (Philippians 1:6). We enjoy grace by seeing our complete, comically terrible inability to be righteous and God’s complete, comically lavish grace on those who have faith. From there we trust that God gives us grace to live in line with the gospel. It is the grace of God working through the Holy Spirit that allows us “not [to] sin, (and to remember) that when we do we have an advocate through Jesus Christ”. This God driven sanctification frees us not to freak out when we (or others) are not perfect AND to respond joyfully to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Totally free, totally not of our own strength and totally enjoyable (albeit sometimes difficult). If I understood this better in my daily life, I am 100% those around me would see Jesus clearer and I’d be happier. But you know what, God will surely bring that to completion, so it’s a good day!