Where Do You Draw the Line with Grace? – Steve’s Letter February 2015
FEBRUARY 4, 2015
I had lunch with a young man yesterday. He is a math and science teacher, and a very intense and focused Christian. He came to lunch with an agenda. First, he wanted to confess to being very angry with me when he first started reading my books and hearing me preach. This young man said, laughing, that I would be shocked by some of the things he wrote in the margins of my books. Second, now that he was no longer angry, he wanted to ask some clarifying biblical and theological questions.
I’m often asked, “Okay, I get this grace thing, but where do you draw the line?”
My standard answer is that you don’t; and when you do, it’s no longer grace. Grace covers white lies, murder and porn. It’s an umbrella that invites gays, lesbians, adulterers, liars and thieves. It’s for the pretenders of goodness and obedience. It covers the arrogant, the fat, the angry and the failures. It’s for everybody who is unqualified.
And then I will often ask, “Why do you want to draw a line?”
The drawing of the line is more often than not an effort to attain power, manipulate, affirm one’s own righteousness and keep out the spiritual cretins from the “family.” Drawing a line is the stuff of which religious institutions are made. I find myself getting quite irritated when people do that. (I know that’s self-righteousness too…and I repent. Grace covers the self-righteous…even those who, like me, are self-righteous about the self-righteous.)
Okay, nothing above will shock you. It’s the essence of the Christian faith and, if you’ve been hanging around Key Life for very long, you already know that is what all the voices of Key Life teach. But the young man I had lunch with yesterday was different in his questions. He understood the radical nature of grace. He was quite honest about his own sin and lack of qualifications, and rejoiced in the finished work of Christ on the cross. His question was, “But what about the ‘new creature’ to which the Bible refers and the clear directions of what it means to follow Christ?”
In the magazine, First Things, I read this morning, the editor, R.R. Reno, referred to James Burnham’s book, The Suicide of the West, a critique of political liberalism. Reno wrote that Burnham got it wrong in thinking that political liberalism was a philosophy or an ideology. Reno wrote that it was, rather, a technique for managing diversity, a flexible method of social control. The problem with political liberalism, according to Reno, is that it is a “dream of social justice without virtue…of virtue without censure…and of redemption without repentance” (First Things, January 2015, p. 7).
There is (and you know it’s true) a mushy kind of grace sort of like what Reno attributes to political liberalism. It’s a “let’s join hands and sing Kumbaya around the campfire. You’re okay and I’m okay…so just keep singing because the singing is the important thing.”
Because the young man was seriously concerned about himself and others, and had encountered “mushy grace,” I took his question seriously. Let me tell you, in essence, what I told him.
Those who understand the clear message of grace understand the clear message of the law. The Ten Commandments, as someone has said, are not “ten suggestions,” and the call of obedience and holiness is a serious call. The admonishments that call us to purity and faithfulness are clearly reflective of the mind of a holy God and his requirements. Anybody who ignores that fact will be shallow and superficial. And anybody who drops that reality from his or her spiritual vocabulary after “running to Jesus” will be even more shallow and superficial.
But here’s the important thing I told my friend: there are two reactions to God’s serious call to holiness and righteousness. One reaction is those who keep working at living up to the standard, creating a lifelong and back-breaking discipline of trying harder and harder. Sometimes, I suppose, making a little progress here and there, and hoping for more if they try harder still. I’m not too harsh about people like that given that I keep trying too.
On the other hand, there are those who confront God’s call to holiness, obedience and faithfulness with the realization that nobody can do all of that, be all of that or live up to all of that. It’s the heartfelt reaction of “You’ve got to be kidding, right?” And when one finds out that God isn’t kidding, there follows the absolute helplessness, absolute unworthiness and absolute lack of one who simply hasn’t, doesn’t and never will come close to meeting God’s requirements. It is the horrible realization that one has been “weighed” as Daniel wrote in his book and Johnny Cash sang in his song, “in the balances and found wanting.”
At that point, one either runs away or runs to Jesus. Those who run to Jesus are overwhelmed by his surprising welcome, forgiveness and love. Those are the Christians. And the degree of one’s inability to meet the standard is always correlated with how overwhelmed one is at that welcome, forgiveness and love. Jesus said about the prostitute, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
“But you don’t say much about obedience and sin,” my friend pointed out.
“I know,” I responded, “and that’s because the disobedient and the sinners don’t need to be told what they already know, and the religious folks will work at being more religious and righteous, and thus miss the whole point. In the process, they will make everybody else miserable…starting with themselves.”
The message of the Gospel was best said by Paul: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
The problem is that many Christians leave out the “of whom I am the foremost.” Leave that out and it becomes just more religion. You should never buy a used car from anybody who leaves that part out.
But what about being better?
Of course we get better. If you hang out with me, you’ll start smelling like pipe smoke. Just so, if you hang out with Jesus, you’ll start smelling like Jesus. Well, mostly. Sometimes we get better and sometimes we don’t. But that’s not what matters. If Jesus’ finished work on the cross is in fact “finished” and I’ve been given his righteousness as my own, my inability to measure up doesn’t matter anymore. I no longer have to please a God who is already pleased. Nothing I do or don’t do will be more sufficient than Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
What a relief!
I really thought I would be better than I am by now. I’m not, but I’m surprised and pleased when Jesus (because he likes me) shows me the “project under construction” and the work that is being done even in me. Of course, he doesn’t do that very often because he knows that if he gives me an inch, I’ll take a mile. So he mixes the knowledge of my sin with the reality of my ongoing sanctification. Jesus does both to make sure I don’t forget.
Then there is one other thing.
I told my young friend that those sour, condemning and angry Christians who seem so together are pretending. They know, in those times of an attack of sanity, they’re just as needy, sinful and screwed up as we are. Go and hug one of them and whisper, “I’m so sorry.” They won’t like it and it will probably make them angry. But do it anyway.
Well, Steve, you say, that’s the same thing you say all the time and not just to your new friend, the teacher.
I know. But I needed to be reminded and Jesus told me that you needed to be reminded too.
So consider yourself reminded.