I received this question in my email box today and thought many others might care about my answer:
What I would like to know from your perspective, is there a clear and growing warp in the teaching on grace that is, overtly or covertly, connotatively or emotively, saying that behavior does not matter? I realize that has been a Gnostic teaching of our history, but I am wondering if it is back in the form of this “free grace” teaching. I believe that if our experience of God’s grace is the real McCoy, our heart, mind, emotional makeup, and behavior will begin a rest-of-our-life change to conform to what we can see in the Man, Jesus. What degree of that progress is by grabbing our own bootstraps and getting going on… that I truly do not know.
My Response: I do not ascribe to any view of grace that suggests our behavior doesn’t matter. As I read Titus 2 a real engagement with grace will “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” Those who think grace washes out the impact of our failures on ourselves and others have a very shallow relationship with God and no real concept of sin and how it damages humanity and human relationships.
But, yes, I do know some people who claim to embrace grace, even teach it, and live unapologetically in selfishness and duplicity without a concern as to what their actions do to other people. They claim it does not matter since it is all covered by grace and God will ultimately accomplish his will in the world anyway. So, yes, that seems to be a growing conclusion some people are grasping for in their reaction to religious performance and obligation. But no one growing to know God as Father would ever use grace as an excuse to hurt others, tell lies, or pursue the indulgence of their flesh.
The problem stems from people only seeing grace as a theological concept. They try to parse out their beliefs about grace, sin, and repentance, but it all leads to nonsense outside of a growing relationship with Jesus himself. Grace is the portal to engaging him without guilt or shame. But engaging him brings transformation to our lives. Those who teach a theology of grace that does not embrace a relationship become quite destructive in the world. Finding out God is not holding their sin against them seems to negate the only motivation they had for holiness. How sad is that?
My contention is that if they grow to live loved by the Father, they will begin to learn how to love others around them and that will begin to transform their existence in the world. That’s why I do not talk of “unconditional love”, but of “transformational love”. Living loved will transform you. Embracing a theology of grace without a relationship of love will only mess you up. That transformation, however, does not come by human effort (the ol’ bootstraps) seeking to make itself conform to God’s ways. It actually begins when we lose confidence in our own ability to change ourselves and seek his help. And it is a process that comes over time out of a growing relationship with God that first learns to rest in his love, and then to grow in trust for him and the way he works in the world.
No, I don’t know any way to measure that, but I don’t think it takes a long time in being with someone to sort out whether their passion derives from a theology they only espouse, or whether they are truly getting to know the Father of our Lord Jesus. If the latter, then I give them a wide berth. I know transformation takes time and if I push them to conform to some external principle that isn’t rising out of their relationship I am pointing them down the wrong road.
In my view, our bigger problem today is not those who abuse grace, but those who are captive to shame and condemnation, who are trying to do in their own strength what only God can do. That’s why Paul talked about the righteousness that faith (or trust) produces, and the passion he had for that. And in the same breath he is admitting that he has zero confidence in his own flesh to promote that transformation.
I don’t know how to describe that outside of a relationship with Jesus. In him these things make sense and we find a pathway of growing trust that transforms us in his love. Outside of that we are in the ever-constant search for the illusive balance between legalism and licentiousness and I don’t think we’re good enough to define that on our own terms. Those who truly know God as Father will want to be like him and will find themselves in honest dialog with God as that transformation unfolds.
Yes, there are many who teach a grace doctrine that is only an excuse for their unrepentant living. I see that as much a problem as the legalists who think they can engage God through their performance.