Grace is an amazing thing. There is no way it makes sense. It is God lovingly chasing us when there is no reason for it. When the psalmist caught a glimpse of the love and favor God had for him, he cried, “This is too much, too wonderful—I can’t take it all in!” (Ps. 139:6 MSG).
Neither can we. It may resemble the natural kindness and love that families and married couples share, but it plunges far deeper, and it is way more unconditional and deathless.
Paul prayed that his friends would have the “power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is” (Eph. 3:18 NLT). It takes “power to understand” God’s love and grace toward us—God has to help us see it.
I totally get how some think all this is too good to be true. How can it be true? How can God be so reckless about giving to us when we are so good at being so bad? But that is exactly what he is like. We matter to him, and there is nothing we can do to alter that.
Obviously this begs a question that must be addressed: If God is really like this, what prevents people from taking advantage of his grace?
This popped up in response to Paul’s teaching on God’s grace in the Bible. Paul claimed that all sin was already dealt with by God’s grace—that our sin is no longer an issue. He made securing forgiveness sound so easy and kept it so God centered that folks started thinking, If that’s the case, why fight sin? Why not just do it? If God responds to sin by giving grace, why not just continue to sin so that grace increases? (Cf. Rom. 6:1). It seems that for some grace became an excuse to continue sinning. But it isn’t true.
We can’t mess with grace. God designed a true encounter with grace to mess with us. Paul claimed his changed life and his motivation for obeying God was “the grace of God” (1 Cor. 15:10). In another place he wrote that grace “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). Grace messes with us.
Grace is a face-to-face encounter with God’s love, and when that happens, you end up loving God back. You can’t help it any more than I can keep my foot from kicking out when you thump me on that “spot” on my knee. It just happens—it’s an autonomic reflex. John wrote, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). If you have had an authentic revelation of God’s love and grace, it will produce love in you. It will change you. It is impossible to take advantage of grace, because if you really get it, it gets you.
God may seem foolhardy to forgive so easily, to accept and make us belong without caution, but he’s no fool—he knows his love ultimately alters us. Paul said “the riches of his kindness” (which is the recklessness of His love) always “leads” us to change (Rom. 2:4).
When Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery in the gospel of John, He did not condemn her. He told her, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11 KJV). He was telling her it was time to change. He never said, “Go and sin some more.” Grace doesn’t do that. It isn’t something that encourages us to continue sinning without considering consequences. When we encounter the love and grace of God, a transformation occurs that fosters change.
Oswald Chambers wrote, “If I receive forgiveness and continue to be bad, I prove that God is immoral in forgiving me, and make a travesty of Redemption. When I accept Jesus Christ’s way he transfigures me from within.”1
We can’t help it. Once we are caught by God’s love, we are changed, transfigured. However, the change is more fluid than permanent. I used to wish God would just change me permanently. When I surveyed my life, there were some areas I was strong in—I have never been tempted to rob banks. I have a stellar no-robbing-banks commitment. I have never even considered beating up people, even when they angered me. Arson has never tempted me. My behavior has always been impressive in those arenas. And I wanted to be as stable and absolute in my commitment to a consistent devotional life as I was in my “no-arson” commitment, as committed to not stretch the truth or procrastinate or lust as I was to not beat people up.
But transformation isn’t like that. It is much messier. It is a daily practice of finding the spout where grace comes out (like a shower). Grace is not native to us; sin is. We have to look beyond ourselves to experience grace. That is the “why” behind the classic spiritual disciplines of prayer, solitude, study, worship, fasting, and so forth. We use those practices to reach out beyond ourselves (yet we reach through the deepest part within ourselves) into the actual, tangible grace of God. It’s really there. It’s metaphysical but real. When we tap into it, it jacks us up spiritually and trashes the impulses of our lower nature.
We cannot change our own nature, but grace will. The task at hand is to figure out how persons with our unique personalities and mind-sets can best tap into grace. For me grace is most easily accessed as I ponder the Scriptures. As I wrestle with texts, grace dawns inside me. My wife, Gail, taps into grace as she sings and worships. Others touch God’s grace most by getting together with other believers or by retreating into times of solitude.
The point is, find the spout nearest you.
When Paul wrote about grace, he said to not let it be “vain” or an ineffective influence in our lives. He said that grace is daily, “now” thing (2 Cor. 6:2). Grace is not a yesterday, or a last-week, or a when-I-first-came-to-Jesus experience. It is like the manna God provided the Israelites in the wilderness—it had to be fresh to be eatable. We need fresh “grace bread” to experience the transformation it gives. When we’re bad, we need more grace.
Though it is free, grace demands participation. We need to work grace into our lives, which means we must tangle and wrestle with it through the spiritual discipline of seeking God. I’m convinced that the free, available, abundant grace of God is only secured as we weary ourselves in pursuit of it. At one point in Scripture, God says, “You have not called upon me . . . you have not wearied yourselves for me” (Isa. 43:22). Grace is free, but it is not secured without personal cost. Paul said grace was huge in his life because he “worked harder” with it than most had (1 Cor. 15:10).
Are you working to ensure grace is not “in vain” as far as you are concerned? Don’t walk into your day until you are jammed with spiritual energy, which will leave little room for your lower nature to blossom. Preventive grace is always much sweeter than recovery grace.
When Grace Goes Sour
For me, the most stunning aspect of faith is grace. Grace is that unmerited, incautious favor of God that most of us never tire hearing about. There is just something about it—whenever it comes, it changes what is into something grander. That is what I love about the gospel. It is a message of grace, and because of that, wherever it goes, it brings change.
But some groups who call themselves “grace” people make me nervous. I get the feeling that they spell grace g-r-e-a-s-e. They don’t talk about grace as something that changes them as much as something that lets them slide by with whatever they feel like doing—even sinful things. But grace yields freedom FROM sin, not freedom TO sin. Justifying sin by appealing to grace sours the grace experience by turning it into something God never intended to be. Grace never says, “Whatever.” It always says “No” to “ungodliness” and “Yes” to “upright and godly” living (Titus 2:12).
I’m convinced that the people who use grace as an excuse to sin aren’t experiencing it at all. They may have experienced grace in the past or they may have just heard about it, but they are not experiencing it now. You can’t experience the grace of God and continue being bad. If you are being bad today, it’s because you are not experiencing grace today. Grace doesn’t promise immunity from sinful consequences; it promises power to live above sin.
It’s true that if you miss grace to prevent sin, you can tap into grace that brings the forgiveness of sin. God has a very effective 911 system. But using 911 is not a thing to boast about. And if you use 911 flippantly, you get in trouble. Grace is never a license to sin. In fact, it is the grace of God that brings judgment for sin. Just as God tells us to discipline our children, and that if we do not discipline them, we, in effect, hate them (Prov. 13:24), he disciplines us too—because he loves us. But there are folks in the “grace” crowd that think God never does anything quite so negative. He only wants us to be happy, content, always having a good time—even if we are being evil.
But I think they might have God confused with Grandpa. Grandpa tends to overlook wrongdoing, and he always avoids confrontation. Grandpa’s goal at the end of the day is only that all had a good time. But Jesus didn’t tell us to pray, “Our Grandpa in heaven.” He said to pray, “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). Scripture is clear. God is our Father, and He “disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). God doesn’t just love us with a smile while he distributes playful impulses of joy into our souls. He sometimes gets hard with us and treats us in a way that doesn’t seem “pleasant at the time, but painful” (v.11). We are his sons and daughters. We are the chosen, His sent ones. He believes in us, he trusts us, and he calls upon us to represent him. You and I matter.
But if we say no to his plan, he will back off. That is a scary enterprise. When Israel said no to God, he said of them, “My people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices” (Ps. 81:11–12).
I don’t have any desire to be left to my “own devices.”
God is not the one who makes life ugly for us. But there are times he backs off and our own ugliness takes over. It’s called “judgment.” Judgment is not something God does to us as much as it is something he lets happen to us.
Jesus claimed that the Father doesn’t judge people (John 5:22). Judgment exists, but Jesus said it was his “word” that judged people (John 12:48). He talked about “the person who hears my words but does not keep them” (v. 47) and said he would be judged by the very words he spoke—not by the person of God. That means God is never out to “get you.” But, like any good father, God will eventually no longer protect us from the persistent negative actions that we refuse to renounce. If we don’t repent, he lets us experience the harvest of our sin. “Do not be deceived,” Paul warns. “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction” (Gal. 6:7–8).
The good news is, God usually hangs in there a long, long time, shielding us from our own devices for as long as possible and giving us every chance to turn away from our sinful actions. He does not withdraw his protection from us easily. He knows we are knuckleheads. The psalmist said it best: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities . . . for he knows how we are formed; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:10, 14).
But if we persistently resist him, he will eventually let us experience our own way. Here is a scary text: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Having God in opposition to us can never be a good thing.
The idea of judgment is simple. God is trying to help us. If we say no to him, eventually he leaves us alone. That is judgment—God backing out of our lives. It is the result of our refusal to submit to the person of Jesus—to his help and love. When we reject Jesus, we reject God himself, along with all his freedom and forgiveness. Where freedom and forgiveness are absent, there is judgment. It comes when we refuse God’s mercy. The Scripture says, “Did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change. You’re not getting by with anything. Every refusal and avoidance of God adds fuel to the fire. The day is coming when it’s going to blaze hot and high, God’s fiery and righteous judgment” (Rom. 2:4–6 MSG).
Grace helps us act right and recover from acting wrong. Anyone who would try to take advantage of grace could never get away with it. He may fool people in the church. He may fool parents and close friends, but never God. God “looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). He knows what’s going on. No one can misuse the grace of God.
The great grace man, the apostle Paul, heralded, “Notice how God is both kind and severe. He is severe to those who disobeyed, but kind to you as you continue to trust in his kindness. But if you stop trusting, you also will be cut off” (Rom. 11:22 NLT).
That said, getting out from under judgment is a simple matter. If you have been heading west for fifty years, but turn to head east, the change is instant—you are now heading east. If you ever come to a place where you think you might be under judgment, don’t fear—just turn toward God. Instantly you will abort all judgment and find yourself back in the favor and grace of God. (Remember the prodigal son story?) Why is it so easy? Because what Jesus did on the cross carries much more weight in God’s eyes than anything you or I could do or not do, and as a result, the grace of forgiveness is never held back from us. As long as you have breath, there is hope for you.