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Grace: Freedom to Sin?

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Grace is a wonderful gift from God. Yet it is much misunderstood. What is grace? How can you be sure that you are making the most of God’s grace in your life?

"Grace" is a word many Christians use, but surprisingly few understand. Maybe you “say grace” before eating a meal. Maybe you think of grace when you see an expert dancer or an act of great politeness. Or maybe you owe money on a credit card and its “grace period” lets you wait almost a month to make your payment.

Christians, however, talk about grace in a very specific way. In our Christian lives, grace is the free and unmerited favor God gives to those who seek Him.

But if grace is really free, some wonder, doesn’t that mean I can do anything I want? Over the centuries, some have wrongly taught that once Christians “accept Jesus,” it does not matter what sins they commit; they are supposedly assured of salvation even if they do not give up old habits of murder, idolatry, and all sorts of other awful behaviors. Surely, that can’t be right. But, on the other hand, since grace is God’s free gift, how can there be any “conditions” attached to it?

Clearly, many people do not understand God’s grace. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that most people—even many Christians—do not really understand what salvation is, or even what sin is. Yet the knowledge of sin and salvation is vital to understanding how grace works in your Christian life! In this article, we will briefly explore what it means to receive God’s grace, what that grace means in the life of a Christian, and how it relates to salvation and forgiveness of sin.

“Cheap Grace”?

If grace is a free gift, how much is it worth to us? Do we treat it as something valuable? You may have heard people talk about “cheap grace,” but what do they mean? The famous German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, “Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before…. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin” (The Cost of Discipleship, translated by R.H. Fuller, 1963, p. 46).

Bonhoeffer contrasted this with what he called “costly grace.” He wrote, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us” (pp. 47–48).

Are you responding to the grace God has given you? Or do you treat God’s grace as “cheap grace”? Do you take God’s gift for granted and live the way you have always lived? Many Protestant evangelicals have grown up hearing the slogan, “once saved, always saved.” That would be reassuring—if it were true. In reality, we all have seen many people “sincerely and honestly” respond to the emotional pull of an altar call and believe that they are “saved,” only to go back to their old patterns of sin as soon as the emotional “high” wears off. If “once saved, always saved” were true, these people would be just as “saved” as those who ceased from their old habits of sin—who repented.

This vital point—repentance—is what is too often missing from people’s definition of salvation. God does not just grant us grace; He grants us repentance if we come to Him sincerely. We cannot honestly say that we “trust” Him if we say we accept His grace but do not accept His gift of repentance. As the Apostle Paul asked Christians in Rome, “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4). Yes, dear readers, when we respond to God’s grace, that response includes repentance—and more.

Peter’s Sermon

On the day of Pentecost in 31 AD, in the first, inspired sermon of the New Testament Church, the Apostle Peter spoke in Jerusalem to several thousand people, after which they became convicted of their part in killing Jesus the Messiah. Thousands asked Peter and the other Apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37).

Here was Peter’s opportunity to tell them that they did not need to do anything more than “trust” or “believe” in God. But he didn’t say that. What did he say? “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38).

Peter proclaimed wonderful news—that sinners could be forgiven of their sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And for this to occur, he insisted on two points—that they repent and that they be subsequently baptized.

If you had been listening to Peter, grieving over your part in Christ’s death and wanting to change your life and receive forgiveness, what would you have done? Would you have argued with Peter, saying, I won’t repent, I won’t be baptized, because those are works and I don’t have to earn my salvation? If you had responded that way, you would have been arguing against many of God’s plain instructions, including these basic New Testament teachings.

Of course, no one can earn salvation. But a willful disobedience to God’s instructions is a sure sign that you have not truly repented.

So, how did the crowd respond on this first Day of Pentecost in the New Testament Church? Scripture shares the wonderful news: “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:41–42).

On that day, 3,000 new Christians obeyed God’s instruction—they repented and were baptized. They did as Jesus had told all Christians to do: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14–15).

Think Differently!

When we repent of sin, we are deeply sorry for having transgressed God’s law. We no longer have a hostile attitude toward God and His law of liberty. We no longer have a carnal attitude that “is enmity against” the law of God (Romans 8:7). After repentance, we want to be in harmony with God’s law of love—the Ten Commandments. Repentance brings a deep change in our thinking and a commitment to live by every word of God. As Jesus said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4).

Repentance is more than an intellectual awareness of sin. Genuine repentance brings deep sorrow for our sins. Think of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:37–38)—what she showed was deep repentance.

We should be aware that there is also a worldly sorrow that is not genuine repentance. Notice Paul acknowledging the Corinthians’ repentance: “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9–10).

Some criminals express worldly sorrow, outwardly saying that they are sorry for their crimes—their sins—when in fact they are inwardly saying, I’m sorry for getting caught, I’m sorry for suffering the penalty for my crime, but if I get a chance to commit another crime, I will. And it is not only criminals who have this worldly sorrow. Many who become addicted to oppressive and unhealthful habits—such as sexual sins, drug abuse, or misuse of alcohol—may feel a kind of sorrow, regretting the consequences that come with their behavior. However, without a genuine change of heart and a lasting change of behavior, their continual sinning will result in death! That is where the sorrow of the world leads!

Godly sorrow—true repentance—brings different, better fruit. Notice its characteristics, as described in Scripture: “For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter” (2 Corinthians 7:11).

Act Differently!

When a Pharisee asked Jesus Christ to name the greatest commandment, how did He respond? “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40). As we learn to think like God, we also learn to act like God.

If we think we have “been saved” but we continue to practice sin with no change in our attitude or behavior, we have not genuinely repented. Psalm 51 is David’s acknowledgment of his sin, and reading that psalm will help you to understand repentance more deeply. Notice that David did not ask for “justice”! Justice for David would have meant the death penalty, since “The wages of sin is death” for us all (Romans 6:23)! Rather, in his repentant attitude, David asked for mercy: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1–2).

Yes, David acknowledged his sin! He prayed earnestly for God to cleanse him. Have you ever prayed that way? David went on to pray, “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight—that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge” (vv. 3–4).

How did David sin “only” against God? David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. He had sent Bathsheba’s husband, the soldier Uriah, to the front lines to be killed. Certainly David had “sinned against” them. But God commands, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13–14). David had sinned against the Lawgiver and had earned the death penalty.

David’s repentance sets an example for all of us. We all need that humble and contrite attitude! “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).

Grace as a License to Sin?

After we come to the point of repentance, as David did, and we obey Christ’s instruction to be baptized, we are forgiven of all our past sins and we begin to walk in newness of life. How, then, should we continue to respond to the grace—the unmerited pardon—that God has given us? Notice: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1–2). Should a newly begotten Christian, whom God has granted unmerited forgiveness and pardon, continue to transgress God’s law and disobey God? Paul says plainly, “Certainly not!” The biblical evidence is overwhelming: We cannot continue to disobey God willfully and be given the gift of salvation! Paul was dealing with false Christians who were trying to use grace as a license to sin—as many do today!

The Apostle Jude also condemned this unbiblical approach to grace: “For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4, King James Version). The New Revised Standard Version states that these “intruders… pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness.” The New International Version words it this way: “They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality.”

How many professing Christians today are doing exactly that? Those who pervert the grace of God are saying by their conduct: We are free to transgress the Ten Commandments; we don’t need to obey God! That is wrong! That form of rebellion is carnality, not conversion! Converted Christians recognize that keeping God’s commandments is an expression of love. The first four commandments show us how to love God, and the last six commandments show us how to love our neighbors. As the Apostle John wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3)—or “not grievous,” as the KJV has it.

So, as Paul strongly stated, we cannot continue to live under grace if we are practicing sin at the same time. No truly repentant Christian would want to practice sin while claiming grace. The true Christian has “died to self” at baptism, as Paul explains: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3–4). That “burial” is symbolized by the repentant sinner’s complete immersion in water. After baptism, the forgiven sinner begins a new spiritual life.

The Holy Spirit

We cannot grow spiritually without God’s Spirit. God gives a repentant sinner the gift of the Holy Spirit after baptism and the laying on of hands.

God expects us to exercise active faith. He expects that we will trust Him to the point that we will actually do what He tells us to do. Jesus warned His followers, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). We need to do as He did! Remember, even Jesus Himself set the example of being baptized in obedience to God’s instructions!

The Holy Spirit is the spiritual power from God that begets us as His children and empowers us to grow spiritually. Notice that this gift of God’s Spirit is given by the laying on of the hands of God’s true servants. The Apostles “laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).

We need the Holy Spirit to overcome the downward pull of human nature. Paul described his struggles with human nature: “I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:25).

Notice Paul’s attitude of obedience. Will God give the Holy Spirit to those who have an attitude of disobedience? No, He will not! As Peter plainly stated, the Holy Spirit is something that “God has given to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:32). God will not give the gift of the Holy Spirit to those in an attitude of disobedience.

Peter and the other Apostles continually demonstrated an attitude of obedience to God. Notice Peter’s boldness in speaking to the Sanhedrin. This council had commanded the Apostles not to preach in the name of Jesus. What was their response? “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29).

One of the main themes of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that obedience to God brings blessings and disobedience to God brings curses. You can receive God’s grace—His wonderful blessings and His gift of eternal life—through Jesus Christ our Lord. Remember, though, that God will only give His free gift of salvation to those who are willing to repent, to believe, and to obey Him. As Peter wrote, “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now ‘If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?’” (1 Peter 4:17–18).

Respond to God’s Free Gift!

Your Bible reveals God’s awesome plan of salvation. Salvation is a free gift that we could never earn. Most Bible students are familiar with one of the fundamental scriptures on this subject: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). Notice that while God’s grace is a gift, faith for salvation is also a gift of God! The next verse is often overlooked by those who try to turn grace into a license to sin: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). A righteous response to God’s grace produces good works, and a servant of God walks in them—that is, continually produces good works. We must bear the fruit of true Christianity in our lives—for this is the living proof of our faith in practice, as the Apostle James so rightfully said: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

By analogy, John describes the process of bearing spiritual fruit as Christ being the vine and the Father being the vinedresser (John 15:1–8). How do we honor our Father in heaven? Jesus states, “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (v. 8). If we “abide” in Him” (vv. 4, 7), we continually have a close relationship with Him and rejoice in His grace or favor.

The book of Acts gives several examples of grace (charis) as favor. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia puts it nicely, reminding us that “charis is also used to say that someone had favor in another’s eyes: the early Church found charis with ‘all the people’ ([Acts] 2:47). Stephen recalls that Joseph found favor with Pharaoh (7:10), and David with God (7:46)” (ed. Geoffrey Bromiley, 1982, vol. 2, p. 552).

Paul begins several of His letters with a blessing that goes something like this: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:2). And the final verse of the Bible gives us this encouragement: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:21). You and I need God’s favor, forgiveness, and continual grace.

Jesus Christ is our living Savior. We shall be saved by His life (Romans 5:10), but we must continue in obedience! We at Tomorrow’s World hope you will accept God’s grace, obey His will, seek His favor, and participate in His wonderful plan of salvation!

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