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Four Thoughts on Grace for Reformation Day

Luther PreachingI've written previously about The Trendy Trifecta - Trinity, Grace and Idolatry. We love to preach them but it's so easy to speak of these topics anthropologically. We preach Trinity because it connects with our need for love. We preach grace because it gives us our motivation for the Christian life. We preach idolatry because it explains our psychological struggles with sin.  On reformation day, let me say a couple more things about that middle topic: grace. Here are four things it's important to affirm as we speak of grace:

Grace is not a substance.

Quite often among those who want to spotlight God's grace, it's spoken of in impersonal terms, as a concept, even as a liquid that Christians should be drunk on. Grace, Grace, Grace, they say. And I think "She sounds great but I think I'll stick with Father, Son and Spirit."

Remember the medieval church was all about "grace" too. But, again, it was more like a liquid, dispensed through the sacraments with the priests controlling the taps. Certainly we Protestants have done away with such intermediaries, but the chief error is the thought of grace as a substance.  Properly, grace is the Father's free gift of Jesus given by the Spirit. He's the One we proclaim, not "grace" in the abstract.

Grace is not, primarily, a motivation 

Again the medieval church was full of "grace" as a motivator. Infused grace filled you up and helped you live the Christian life. Ironically, there are many who say we need a reformation today (Amen, may it come) but they seem to champion "grace" chiefly in terms of its motivational qualities. Apparently Jesus, freely given to me, is mostly important because of the gratitude fuelled ethics that flow from His gift. And then it becomes very important to discern the motivations of my heart - whether they've originated by command or promise.

Well... motivation is important but that's not where the law/gospel distinction should be pressed. In the bible, God graciously saves me in Jesus and gives me the new life to live. So off I go - and yes, I work it out with blood, sweat and tears. And no, I don't for a minute think that such "effort" is opposed to grace. Because grace is not distinguished from law in terms of what goes on in my heart! That distinction happens far above my pay grade. Or at least, it ought to. Which leads us to...

Command does need to be distinguished from promise

The grace preachers are correct when they say that law and gospel must be distinguished. There is far too much co-mingling, leading to what Mike Horton calls GoLawspel preaching. The good news of Jesus gets mashed up with principles for holy living and the Christian is left without a promise to rest their hope on - only a string of conditionals they must fulfil. Many people who complain about the grace-preachers counter it with calls for balance.  This, to my mind, is a great mistake (for more, read The Monstrous Evil of Balance: Or Why Nuance is Always, Always Wrong). Gospel and law are not to be balanced. Faith and works aren't opposite ends of the spectrum that require a happy medium. We don't need the pendulum to swing back from 'too much grace' so that we add in some holiness to compensate. We are grace alone people and works come - MUST come - on the far side of a radical insistence on the blood of Christ alone.

Passive and active righteousness need to be sharply distinguished

Having distinguished law and gospel, here's the other vital distinction: Before God you can only receive righteousness in the gift of Christ Our Righteousness. Before the world, you are to pour yourself out for the family of God, for your neighbours, for the nations (this is the distinction between passive and active righteousness). We live by faith as regards God, by love as regards the world. Therefore calling the Christian to an active righteousness in their Christian walk is not anti-grace at all. Grace flows downhill into exactly that kind of life.

Therefore I don't need to be forever agonising over the motivation of the saints if I want them to stop sinning in this way or that. Absolutely I should set everything in the context of the gospel and when we rebuke each other it should be because "they are not walking in line with the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14). Yet Galatians 2 - itself a stunning proclamation of the gospel - speaks of opposing folks to their face because they are wrong. Paul commands Peter to stop and he's not particularly bothered about unearthing the depths of Peter's emotional commitments in the moment. Similarly, if I discover that my brother in Christ is cheating on his wife I will feel no qualms about taking drastic and forceful steps to try to end it. None of that is a betrayal of the true grace of God because telling folks to behave like Christians is totally what the grace of God produces. Of course you should be faithful to your wife - God has claimed you in Christ, you belong to Jesus, you are acting out of line with your true self, cut it out!

Commands are totally, totally awesome. It's just, they don't make you right with God. And you and I are quite prone to linking our active righteousness (with the world) to our passive righteousness (with God). So preachers should take care to distinguish the two. But having done that, commanding Christians to obey is not only permitted. It's necessitated by the fact that - by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone - we belong to God. Therefore, be generous, give sacrificially, love your spouse, practise hospitality, forgive your enemies. You're free now - free to live this life. So go do it.

But - someone might ask - won't the gospel itself produce these characteristics in us by the Spirit? Yes and no. Yes, in that those behaviours are the fruit of the gospel and our teaching about them must be organically tied to the gospel. But no in that you and I are flesh as well as Spirit. Therefore, let's allow the good law to shape (even to pummel) our fallen flesh, not because our identity with God depends on it (it doesn't), but because our graciously secured identity entails it.

To summarize

Let's love and proclaim the grace of God in Jesus. But let's make sure it's Jesus we're spotlighting, not a substance or motivational spur. Let's distinguish clearly between law and gospel, making sure to offer Jesus as the Gift He most clearly is. But let's not shy away from commands in the Christian life. In Jesus, God graciously gives us a new life, entirely apart from our works or worthiness. This life is secure with God, but wonderfully it is to be lived before the world. Thus commands regarding our active righteousness do not negate the gospel but flow naturally from it.

8 thoughts on “Four Thoughts on Grace for Reformation Day

  1. Cal


    Regarding point 4: I use the analogy from John 15. If we're branches, we can do nothing without our Root. We have to drink in that holy sap in order to produce fruit!


  2. Glen

    Yes, and sometimes there's pruning too! But it's all the gracious work of our Vinedresser :)

  3. Michael Baldwin

    Sorry I'm a bit slow on this one.."Therefore, let’s allow the good law to shape (even to pummel) our fallen flesh, not because our identity with God depends on it (it doesn’t), but because our graciously secured identity entails it."
    Why doesn't that count as law-gospel-law?

  4. Glen

    Good question! I guess, from the pulpit you want to aim for law-gospel (because you want a death-resurrection shape to worship) and the active righteousness applications can be covered in the initial law bit. Even in law-gospel preaching the law is not abolished by the gospel but fulfilled by it. The good life described in the law is still good, etc, etc. What I had in mind for the law pummelling us is more in terms of pastoral situations.

  5. the Old Adam

    "...thus commands regarding our active righteousness do not negate the gospel but flow naturally from it."

    We are righteous. Not because of any commands. But because we (the ungodly) are declared righteous…for Jesus' sake.

    That's why the Reformation was such a nuclear explosion.

  6. Steven

    I don't fully understand the second point, and need clarification.

    Are you saying (in the first paragraph) that, since we view grace primarily as a motivation, it follows naturally that we pit grace and law against each other? I just want to make sure I'm following your train of thought properly.

    And so you're saying that our motivations are important; grace as a motivation IS good, but this should NOT naturally make law as a motivation a bad thing... correct?

    We ought to obey out of gratitude when we can.. and I imagine we wouldn't have much of a choice.. but we should also obey, at the very least, because God says so?

    I think, what I'm seeing in that second point is an underlying message that this pits grace against law but it shouldn't. Maybe it's clearly stated and it's just over my head for some reason.

  7. Glen

    Hi Steven, welcome to the blog.

    Point two is probably more basic than you're expecting (I'm a simple soul really). I'm just saying that the law/gospel distinction is not primarily about motivation. We don't distinguish law and gospel primarily according to how they motivate our Christian lives (with law motivating according to duty and grace motivating according to gratitude). How they *motivate* us is of minor importance compared to where the distinction really lies: the difference between God's demand and God's offer.

    It's just a point about locating the distinction in God objectively, rather than in us subjectively.

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