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10 Misconceptions About Grace


A repost from 2011

'Isn't it wonderful that we're now under grace?' they enthuse.

'Sure is,' you say.

And then they explain what they mean by 'grace' and you wonder what it is they've really found themselves 'under'.

Here are 10 common misconceptions.

1. Hallelujah, God has lowered the bar!  He used to care about loads of stuff.  Now it's just a few things.  You know, important stuff.  We don't sweat the small stuff anymore.  Just the big stuff.

2.  Hurrah!  Now we obey God out of gratitude for what He's done, which is an entirely new concept.  Thank God we're free from the law, which obviously was only ever about stoic duty and nothing to do with gratitude for past salvation (Exodus 20:2).  Now that we've got gratitude it means all legalism is a thing of the past.  So long as we're grateful.  Properly grateful mind you.  Grateful enough to empower a whole heap of obedience.

3.  Phew - now we don't have to get hung up about the laws of the land.  So don't ask me to pay my parking ticket - Pharisee!

4. Isn't it great - it's not about duty-bound works, it's all about love.  Of course the law had nothing to do with love.  Nasty law.  Now, as long as we stress love we're avoiding all forms of legalism.  Speaking of which - what is your love-meter reading today?

5. Grace is about treading that tight-rope between legalism and licence.  It's getting the balance just right between celebrating our freedom and not indulging it too much.  Cos, you know, we're forgiven, but let's not go crazy.  Let's live in "grace" which is the safe middle-ground between moralism and immorality.

6. God used to be fierce and judgemental now He's chilled and sweet.

7. God used to be about pragmatics, now He's just into dogmatics.  He used to be interested in deeds, now He's interested in creeds.

8.  Legalism is all about obeying the law in my own strength.  Grace is about obeying the law in God's strength.  Grace is the fuel for my car.  It keeps me going towards the destination.  It's a heck of a long drive but, Praise Jesus, there's fuel in the tank.

9.  Discipleship used to be important but now it's about grace.  Which means... you know.  Not really discipleship.  More... you know... grace.

10. It used to be about my works.  But now it's about my faith.

No, non, niet, nein!

In the flesh it was about your work.  In the Spirit it's about Christ's work.  That's the difference.  Not so much "works versus faith" as "you versus Christ".  It's His work outside of you.  His redemption.  His Person in Whom all the promises of God are yes and all the laws of God are fulfilled.   He defines the realm of grace.  Not abstract qualities like gratitude or lovingness or certain mental states - all of which might be worked up apart from Jesus.  Neither is it about God's own disposition softening in His old age.  And neither is it about the absence of certain obligations, from the state or Scripture or conscience or Christ or wherever.

It's about the kingdom of the Beloved Son in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and over to which we have been delivered apart from any merit of our own (Colossians 1:13-14).   It's the position we find ourselves in - sealed by the Spirit into Christ, hidden in Him at the Father's right hand - lavished with mercy and honour and kindness, our old man crucified and put away, His Spirit put within us.  A new realm, a new Master, a new Power, a new freedom, a new destiny and we've done nothing to deserve it.  And it's all real and it all holds true not by my own workings or feelings but by the Almighty Father, who raised Jesus from the dead and raised me up with Him.

Grace is not like a new and improved religious programme that's nicer, less draconian - less duty, more love and groovy vibes.  Grace is the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus expended on your behalf while you do nothing but cause His death.  It's the mighty resurrection of Christ in which you are swept up to glory entirely apart from your own efforts and merits.  Grace is where you find yourself - in Christ - and you're in Him not because but in spite of yourself.  Now compare with the 10 misconceptions above.

How do we get it so wrong?

Perhaps my favourite verse:

I was crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20)

I don't know any better way of explaining biblical grace than the David and Goliath story - here's an older post on it. Or just click the grace tag for more.

Which of those 10 misconceptions do you hear most commonly?  Any more to add?


27 thoughts on “10 Misconceptions About Grace

  1. Melanie

    To be honest, the thing I hear most of recently is "it's grace therefore Jesus didn't expect anybody to obey his commands. It's grace therefore the sermon on the mount is a psychological trick designed to make you despair of obeying and trust Jesus INSTEAD. It's grace therefore don't strive to be holy. It's grace therefore Jesus tells the leper to stay a leper and look at how healthy Jesus' skin is. It's grace therefore discipleship is legalism. It's grace therefore God doesn't deliver you from your lifestyle messes but rather he tells you that Jesus didn't have them. It's grace therefore any commands in the Bible are referred to Jesus. It's grace therefore I'm positionally holy and practically the same as I ever was. It's grace therefore the gospel happens in your head not in your life."

  2. the Old Adam

    It's grace and you are DECLARED HOLY AND RIGHTEOUS…for Jesus' sake. Not even for your own sake.

    The law says 'do' (and it is never done)…and grace says 'done'.

    "It is finished."

    Those are NOT misconceptions …those are gospel truths.

    As much as some would want to add their little bit.

  3. Melanie

    The Old Adam. Yes, trusting Jesus means that all our sins are forgiven by his blood and God credits trusting Jesus as righteousness... AND trusting Jesus means that we put off the old man and put on the new, obeying Jesus because we love him. Real grace accepts us just as we are but does not leave us as we are. Real grace sets us free from both the guilt of sin and the power of sin... not as a reward for effort but as the free gift based on what Jesus has done.

    When I went to your blog I found your approval of a guy who said this: 'To believe we are now required to do NOTHING for our salvation is a tough pill to swallow. I don’t go to church. I don’t give to the needy. I don’t even love my fellow man. This does not make me evil or damned to hell. It makes me human. As a human I believe I am saved because Jesus told me I was over 2,000 years ago. With that belief I will welcome my death and go to my grave. Maybe I’ll be saved maybe not, but the choice is HIS. Nothing I do in this earthly form will change HIS mind about me. So If you want to be a brave christian, do what GOD wants you to do. NOTHING! Let Jesus make the decision, because HE already has. 2,000 years ago.'

    That is one of the utterly human views of 'grace' that deceives people. THAT is the view of 'grace' that James condemns. Such a faith, that doesn't trust or love Jesus enough to obey him or attend his church or even bother with his love at all, is a denial of the direct teaching of Jesus.

    Invent a 'Jesus' and a 'faith' and a 'grace' that is comfortable with your system but contradicts the Bible at your peril.

  4. Glen

    Hi Melanie, welcome to the blog. Yes I often hear those misconceptions too.

    OldAdam, surely as a Lutheran you believe in an active righteousness before the world (though, obviously, you'd take pains to distinguish it from a passive righteousness before God)? In which case telling folks to go to church, give your money, forgive your enemies, love your families, serve the poor, etc, etc, is completely what God's grace entails right? God has given me His life in Jesus - utterly freely - "Now live it" is a perfectly sound and joyful implication of the gospel, no?

  5. Melanie

    That sounds great, Glen. Live out the freely given righteousness. BECAUSE God has freely given me Jesus therefore I can follow him with no fear of condemnation but just with the joy of following him out from slavery to freedom. If I obey in order to be saved then it is a tyranny, but if I obey because I HAVE BEEN saved and HAVE BEEN set free... wow! that is grace in all its glory. Thank you, Glen.

  6. the Old Adam

    No Glen.

    I don't believe in an active righteousness. Only that we live out our lives in faith. Trusting not at all in what 'we do'…or 'don't do'.

    Sure, we go to church to hear the Word. But even that is something that Spirit of God does in our lives. We need to hear the promises, after all.

    Those other things you mentioned are law. We won't do them as we ought. We just flat out refuse to. And if and when we do do them…our motives are tainted so what good are they to God? "Filthy rags".

    We walk by faith…not by sight.

  7. Cal

    Old Adam:

    How do you understand Jesus' command to love and his statement that those who obey him are those who love him?

    I think that's the perfect law of liberty James talks about.


    Then again, I'm not quite on board with the law/gospel distinction from Luther. Shadow/fullfillment, yes, most definitely. Thus the Torah, which stood only to condemn us un-spiritlike creatures, is fulfilled in the true Torah, Christ, given to us. In him, we can live the blessed life. Not as moral program, but because it is actually human. Salvation is a precondition to living, not as an ordo salutis of justication/sanctification as reformed make, but as growing into a reality already gained.

    I have to thank you Glenn. You got me to see that anytime grace is conceived as a some-thing, an energy or an effect or a circumstance, it is way off. That's why the Calvinism-Arminian debates are so wrong footed, they've drank the medieval scholastic cool-aid. Christ is the grace of God. Receiving him is receiving a person, not being infused with a substance.


  8. the Old Adam


    Do you obey His command to love others?

    Do you do it out of pure love and desire to help others…or because it is a command?

    NO ONE loves God and their neighbor as they ought.

    Jesus also told us that we "must be perfect…".

    These commands expose us. They condemn us.

    But then He says to the leper, "I will heal you."

    There it is. The law/gospel paradigm.

  9. Cal

    It's impossible, yes, but its an impossible imperative,as Bonhoeffer put it.

    He forgives the woman in adultery and tells her "dear woman, neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more". The lame is healed, no strings attached, but now he can get up and walk. Walking is not a program, its what it means to be truly human, so to speak.


  10. Tim Coomar

    Glen, would this post have anything to weigh in with on the whole Robertson/Tchividjian debate going on the past few days over "One Way Love"? I've been a wee bit confused as it seems they both have decent points to make...

  11. Melanie

    Yes, thanks Tim. I just spent the afternoon following David Robertson's excellent and faithful response to the One Way Love idea.

    "Why is two way love not grace? The grace that enables me to say yes to Jesus and no to ungodliness. When the Bible says we love because he first loved us, it is describing two-way love. There really is no way round that."

    THAT is the heart of this. The love of Jesus does not leave us unchanged, but shares that love with us and in us. We love and obey as a fruit of his love. When he tells us to be free of our sinful lives, to walk into freedom as we follow his ways and commands, he is not setting a condition upon his love but describing the effect of his love in us.

    The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, so that we are set free to love others rather than being locked into self-love; it sets us free from the love of my things and begin to really love people and God.

    Jesus did not simply love the leper and tell him to rejoice in Jesus' own healthy skin; or tell the lame man to marvel at Jesus' own ability to run around; or tell the blind man how wonderful Jesus' eyesight is. In each case the love and grace of Jesus, for no price - freely and graciously - met them in their mess, forgave them and then changed them. That change was in no sense a price of the change... but the freely given effect of his love.

    Though we now only ever see in part, and continue to do what we don't want to do... though Jesus commands us to pray for the forgiveness of our sins every single day, yet Jesus really does change us. Every day we ask for forgiveness, yet every day we seek his will to be done in our lives as he patiently commands us to once again take up our cross and follow him.

    Though we are called holy in him, yet he also sets us free to express that holiness in ever increasing ways in our daily walk with him. He always loves us no matter how often we fail him, even if we make him angry and provoke his jealousy- even THEN it is precisely his freely given unconditional love that means he is jealous for us and will not let us go.

  12. Melanie

    Just spent a couple of hours listening to Tullian. Brilliant communicator and a passionate proponent of this Law Gospel distinction. Fascinating to hear what it is all about.

    My honest reflection is this... first, it sounds like law/gospel is a system or philosophy developed by these medieval Reformers that he thinks must control Bible reading. I worry that it is a kind of meta-system that prejudges Bible reading - especially when he quoted Luther as saying that it is virtually impossible to understand his system of law and gospel!

    I can see why he finds it compelling and I can see why it is a way of handling life situations but I genuinely thought that the Law was simply what was given at Sinai - the whole sacrifice, washing and feast stuff.. I just don't see how these medieval reformers use the word Law to mean anything in the Bible that is a command! Where did those reformers get that from? Perhaps Tullian might have verses that show this much more generalised idea of 'law' but he didn't really mention them.

    I wonder if it is better to focus on the Bible itself rather than constantly pre-judge the Bible and try to force it into these two medieval columns.

    Second, this Law/Gospel thing sounds a bit like a very very abusive relationship. I know that sounds bad, but it seems strange to constantly beat people up only to then tell them it's all ok. Is that a healthy relationship?

  13. Melanie

    I need to repent of that last statement... too harsh. I suppose what I mean is this: I can see why there is nothing but utter rejection when we are outside of Jesus. We need to see that there is no hope, no righteousness, no life or comfort in our own strength... no matter how zealous or self-improving we ever try to be. Right. BUT, when we are growing up to maturity in Jesus, as members of the local church family, trusting Jesus, each day praying in his way... then shouldn't the relationship be one of nurturing growth and discipleship? Do both the outsiders and the disciples both need to be [in tullian's words] utterly crushed all the time? I can see that repentance is the life-long work of the Christian, but is it really a matter of constantly being treated as an unbeliever, crushed and then comforted? When the prophets and the apostles provide all that brilliant wisdom for living the way of God... isn't that something more nurturing and discipling than simply crush or comfort?

  14. Glen

    Hi OldAdam,

    What I mean by active righteousness seems to be what you refer to when you affirm "that we live out our lives in faith. Trusting not at all in what ‘we do’…or ‘don’t do’." It seems to me that faith refers to our receiving God's righteousness in Christ passively. But love refers to living out Christ's life in our neighbour actively. Of course no-one is suggesting that such love can add to the perfect righteousness of Christ (which is credited to me freely, apart from works). But it is to affirm that this righteousness *is* given to us, and given not simply as a heavenly bonus to kept in trust. Rather this righteousness is expressed (by the Spirit) in the life of the Kingdom of the Beloved Son. The essence of this Kingdom is indeed forgiveness (Col 1:13-14). But its essence is also obedience and love. The flesh may wage war against the Spirit - and will do so until we see Christ - but nevertheless the Spirit is alive and bearing fruit in us.

    "God has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace."(2 Tim 1:9-10)

    Such a holy life is, of course, not payment for salvation. But it is the very *nature* of salvation because (chiming in with what Cal has said) salvation is Christ.


    Well I wrote this post in 2011 (and it just happened to be the next re-postable article on the blog). But my post on Reformation Day was directly inspired by reading David Robertson's review of "One Way Love."

    Points 1, 2 and 4 are reminders to Tullian's side:

    * We need to avoid speaking of grace as a substance,

    * We need to stop casting everything as a matter of psychological motivation

    * Having distinguished things properly, we need to big up "active righteousness" and proclaim it as the good life that it is.

    Point 3 is a reminder to Robertson et al. I think command and promise do need to be distinguished and not simply balanced. I find it really unfortunate that the correctives to Tullian et al seem to be all about a "balance" between faith and works (or grace and holiness, or whatever). There are ways of disagreeing with Tullian's stuff, but that's not one of them.

    Hey Melanie,

    It can sound pretty artificial to talk about 'distinguishing law and gospel' and a lot of people (including, *sometimes*, Tullian and Liberate) can sound like their concern is to guard some kind of gratitude-based motivational system. Obviously that's just silly.

    All it is, really, is an affirmation of what you say here:

    "When he tells us to... follow his ways and commands, he is not setting a condition upon his love but describing the effect of his love in us."

    Very well put. And, in a nutshell, that's the distinction - there is a good life of love (the law) that can never earn salvation and there is a free gift of love in Jesus (the gospel) that saves sinners. And yes indeed, it saves them for a life of holiness (what *other* life would we want to live!?) - but for sinners to trust Jesus we need Him truly offered to sinners. Salvation is always from the LORD, therefore it's always coming to me from outside of me. Those concerned for a right distinguishing of law and gospel are really concerned for a right distinguishing of me and Jesus. They're really concerned for Christ alone.

    It's always tempting to think that there's a 'natural' way to read the Scriptures. But 'natural' Bible scholars are rebuked by Jesus for not reading the Scriptures with *Him* at the centre (John 5:36-47). They knew the torah and tried to obey the torah but they refused to come to Jesus to have life, when the torah itself was constantly witnessing Him.

    Law/gospel, at its best, is trying to be faithful to that. It's trying to be faithful to the fact that the written Word of God is always to be read as witnessing the eternal Word of God, Jesus.

    It does feel very artificial to be crushing and comforting in every sermon, you're right. I'm not sure that's the way forward. But somehow we do need to give voice to the shape of the Word - death and resurrection. We do need to honour that repeated Scripture about humbling the proud and giving grace to the humble. We do need to distinguish between us and Jesus and show how it's Christ alone in revelation and salvation. And we do need to be pointing people beyond themselves to the Jesus who comes to us in spite of our sins, suffering and weakness.

  15. Melanie

    Thanks Glen. I need to think a lot more about all this.

    I get your explanation of that medieval law gospel system. Just a thought but if you are right wouldn't it be much better to call it the "Jesus and the sinner" system? Law gospel sounds too artificial and impersonal, but Jesus/sinner makes sure it is always about Jesus rather than a grace "substance" or an abstracted law.

    Thank you again Glen. I've learned loads this weekend. Fascinating blog.

  16. Brian Midmore

    Hi Glen,
    I have recently been engaged with some blog sites advocating radical grace (Joseph prince is the most famous advocate of this). One Scripture they particularly dislike and describe as 'law' is Matt 6.14-15 which is a commentary on Matt 6.12. On the Tullian site I was therefore intrigued to find this quote ' Law and Gospel are distinct when it comes to threats. Walther puts it simply: “The Gospel contains no threats at all, but only words of consolation. Wherever in Scripture you come across a threat, you may be assured that the passage belongs in the Law”. Now this was exactly the argument that was made on the radical grace sites for effectively rejecting Matt 6.14-15. As these verses contain a threat do we need to say they are LAW and what does this mean. For the radical grace teachers it means throw them out as irrelevant for Christians. My problem is that Matt 6.14-15 combines both gospel and law. The glorious promise of forgiveness with the threat that we will not be forgiven if we fail to forgive others. Sorry to be such a curmudgeon.

  17. Glen

    Hi Brian,

    I don't know much of anything about Joseph Prince, but I'd guess that he and TT have a different view of law. TT believes in the 3rd use of the law - I imagine that JP does not. Therefore, at least for TT, identifying something as law does *not* make it "irrelevant for Christians" (I couldn't comment on whether it makes it irrelevant for JP). Law is not bad and it's not irrelevant at all. I've heard TT say, the law is like the train tracks of the Christian life - it lays out what the liberated life of the Spirit looks like. It just doesn't doesn't produce that life - that's the distinction that TT wants to make - not that he wants to get rid of the train tracks, just that he wants to point to where the engine lies, i.e. in Christ Himself.

  18. Brian Midmore

    If you watch God TV you'll see JP. I think JP is antinomian though he denies this. I'm glad to hear TT is not antinomian though I still find his Law/Gospel hermeneutic (or is it a homiletic I sometimes think these things are muddled) at the very least confusing. When TT says that something is Law on the basis of its having a threat E.g. Matt 6.14-15 is he saying that this is part of the Torah, the old covenant Law of God. Or is he saying that it has some of the qualities of that Law e.g. a threat. Having decided something is law what is the relationship of the Christian to those verses? Should Christians seek to obey them, what happens if they fail to obey them? Doesn't the law/gospel hermeneutic give a strong bias to the epistles over the gospels the latter having the difficult sayings and commands of Jesus which might be construed as Law. Once we designate something as Law whether we want to or not we give it a pejorative label. The law brings death after all; labelling Jesus commands as Law does little to promote them and will make many imagine that they do not apply to them.

  19. Brian Midmore

    I have been looking up some more L/G information on the net. As far as I understand L/G is about starting with Law (which then crushes as Spurgeon has it) which then leads to the consolation of the gospel.. This is often done in the context of sermon, so L/G is in my view is a homiletic and not a hermeneutic. L/G is a poor hermeneutic because not all the Scripture fits this model. Take the woman taken in adultery. Jesus says 'neither do I condemn you' but then adds 'Go and sin no more'. Gospel leads to Law not Law to Gospel. The same could be said for the sermon on the mount. In it Jesus sets out the rules for his kingdom which is entered into by grace. Law follows Gospel. Now if we look at Romans we get a much better fit to the L/G hermeneutic. Maybe this explains why evangelicals have majored on the epistles and minored on the gospels.

  20. Glen

    Hi Brian,

    Yes in isolated Scripture passages (and in isolated pastoral moments) the journey from law to gospel will not always be there - and should not be forced. But Sunday worship is certainly one place where you want to have a Good Friday => Easter Sunday movement. And I'd argue that "the written Word" *overall* has a death => resurrection shape most fundamentally because "the eternal Word" has a death => resurrection shape. The details in isolation may tell a different story - and those details are important. But at some stage (and the sermon is top of the list for this) that overall shape should be on show.

    I wrote this article last month:

    Point 3 of the four is about distinguishing command from promise (and TT is good at pointing this out). But the other 3 points I don't hear enough of from TT. And as you'll see from the end of the article and from comments - there is a massive place for law in the Christian life and we shouldn't run from it.

  21. Brian Midmore

    What you are describing is a death/resurrection hermeneutic but this is definitely not the same as a Law/Gospel hermeneutic. You cannot say that because the Law brings death and the gospel brings life that these are one and the same thing. As they say 'the devil is in the detail' we wouldn't be theologians if we thought otherwise. You seem to be saying that we should only apply L/G where it is appropriate but how do we know where it is appropriate. Some say that when Jesus said 'Go and do thou likewise' to the lawyer who asked how to obtain eternal life, that he meant the man to have a go at works justification, to fail, and then to turn to the gospel of justification by faith. Thus we have our Law to gospel model. In L/G Jesus commands are cast as something he expects us to fail at and not something he expects us to do. This is true if we apply L/G to the SOTM. The purpose of Jesus commands become to raise the barrier of the Law, to make it even harder to do so that we are sure to fail. But if we know we shall fail to keep Jesus commands why should we try? There are better ways of understanding the significance of the SOTM.

  22. Glen

    Hi Brian, I've never seen law/gospel as a way of setting aside the law. It still remains the good life. Having been liberated by Jesus, there's really no other way to live than the way described in the law. I think some people can certainly misconstrue L/G preaching - making the law into a set of arbitrary hoops that are only good for convicting us of guilt. But its proper sense is to lay out the holy, righteous and good life of God's Son.

    As for how to understand 'Go and do likewise' stay tuned for today's post. I think Jesus gives us a law/gospel parable with the Good Samaritan. Having killed and raised us in the gospel He then calls us to live the good life of the Samaritan, but only once we've had the death and resurrection experience. Anyway, I'll post it up later this morning.

  23. Brian Midmore

    I've had some more thoughts about death/resurrection and how it applies to the SOTM. Jesus is talking about the gospel of kingdom of God (see Matt 4.23). This is a kingdom we enter by death and resurrection through baptism and faith. Jesus is therefore describing the resurrected life. We should therefore keep Jesus commands by the power of spirit because we are in his kingdom. We are in no way trying to get into his kingdom by obedience since we are there by faith. L/G fails because here we have a situation where Law is in effect part of the gospel message. In Jesus kingdom (which is entered by faith) we are subject to his laws. I.e sanctification must follow justification.

  24. the Old Adam

    The law is not part of the gospel because the law always demands something from us. The gospel is given freely to the undeserving, the ungodly. Given to His murderers.

    Sanctification is done to us by the Spirit of God. He justifies. He sanctifies.

    It is actually "good news" that there is nothing left for us to do.

    And as the late, great Dr, Gerhard Forde said, "Now that you don't have to do anything…what will you do?"

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