The thread that God started to pull that unravelled my jersey was on this issue of grace. I am 36 years old, gave my heart to Jesus at age 3, reciting Eph 2:8
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God
Back then I knew it was about a gift, but it’s funny that the longer we are chrisitians, the further we get away from “gift” and the more we get into “the grind” ( as some of my hip hop SoCal friends call it). I suppose if I had to melt everything down for my first 31 years as a christian I believed that I was saved by grace, i.e. I can’t earn it, but then that I should work hard on being the best christian I can be to show God how grateful I am for his gift to me.
Now that doesn’t sound too bad right, but it’s amazing how a little nuance can become a grand canyon after 31 years. Apparently they say if you fly from New York to Cairo and are just 1 degree north when you leave, you’ll end up in Moscow. Sounds crazy but that’s what happened to me. I had the best intentions and I was sincerely trying to serve God and be obedient to him, and allowing him to run my whole life (I was the dude at the front of church during worship times lying on the floor while we sang songs about surrender). However all this time I was loosing my grip on grace and becoming more legalistic by the second in my endeavor to show God how grateful I am for his gift of salvation.
The problem, though I didn’t see it as one at the time, is that I had what I considered to be a very “balanced” view of grace. I believed that on the far left you have legalism (hypocrites live here), on the far right you have license (sinners live here) and in the middle you have grace (where I have lived self righteously for most of my life). You see like most “real christians” I knew legalism wasn’t the answer, but I wanted to treat sin with the seriousness it deserved, so we tried not to keep the rules to a bare minimum, but keep enough around so that we don’t slide into open sin. This was how I viewed grace for most of my life.
This was the big lie I had believed most of life, that grace by itself would lead to sin because most people use it as a “get out of jail free card”, so you need to add just the right mixture of rules to keep you on the “straight and narrow”. This is actually not grace at all but rather mercy under a legalistic system. Mercy in that you don’t get what you deserve according to what the law says, it is still a legalistic system. It was here that I started asking the question “Well just how water tight is this division between law and grace?”
The answer is that they are a universe apart, the difference between badminton and rugby. I have learned you can only have one or the other, but not both. If you want the theological equivalent of a “spinning class” go read through the book of Hebrews carefully where it makes this distinction very clear. The easier option is to read through Galatians in The Message and look for how Paul makes this distinction.
So what have I found Grace to mean in the bible and in relation to God? It actually makes an authentic, and healthy relationship possible with God. When I lived legalistically I would work hard at my spiritual disciplines and in serving God in different ways, slowly but surely I would feel more intimate with God, getting closer to him, but then in an instant I would again commit a sin that I was struggling with and slide all the way back down the ladder. I felt like I had disappointed myself and God, I felt a deep sense of shame too. I would feel distant from God and I didn’t want to be near him because of this. (I would put on a brave face for my christian friends and those I was leading or discipling, so that I could be an example to them and besides, I knew I could be forgiven, this next time I would have to just try harder. This was the sick cycle of legalism I was trapped in.
However when I discovered Grace, I let go all the rules, all of them (I can hear the nervousness of some people out there, and the warnings of “hyper-grace”) and I took hold of love! Now when I sin, I don’t feel like I have disappointed anyone, I know I am loved by God, my sin no longer has the power to separate me from my intimacy with God. In fact my sin actually becomes one of the ways I have built intimacy and trust in this loving God of ours. When I sin, he is a safe place for me to come and to deal with my sin. Sin still has physical consequences, and that’s why I want to deal with it and take it seriously, but now I process the brokeness in my life that causes such sinful actions, and all the time God, not me, is building his character into my life through his love, not through laws.
The legalist looks at laws as his way of dealing with and preventing sin, but the bible and history both testify that laws can’t do that. At best it makes people secret sinners, just suppressing this from public view. People into hyper-grace or licentious living just want a way to sweep sin under the carpet, or make it a non-issue, but I have found that true grace is to experience the transforming power of God’s love working in the deepest places of our hearts.