A lot of conversation has been happening with regard to the nature of the gospel and its role in sanctification. First, Kevin DeYoung and I engaged in a healthy dialogue about this a few months ago (see here, here, here, and here) and then over at the Reformation 21 blog this week Bill Evans and Sean Lucas have had a healthy dialogue about this (see here, here, here, and here). I have intentionally stayed out of the most recent conversation because I’ve already said in many ways what I would say again if I weighed in.
Without addressing all of the important details, nuances, and perspectives, the simple fact is that if someone is giving short-shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives, it’s because they are not glorying in the indicatives of the gospel. Their problem is not first and foremost that they aren’t giving full-throat to the imperatives. It’s that they’re not giving full-throat to the indicatives. I’ve never met anyone who revels in the gospel of grace who then doesn’t want to obey God. It’s a phantom fear (see this brilliantly creative post).
Matt Richard describes well how naturally we take it upon ourselves to reign the gospel in when we fear too much of it will result in lawlessness:
I have found that as Christians we many times attribute ‘lawlessness’ to the preaching of the Gospel. Somewhere in our thinking we rationalize that if the Gospel is presented as “too free, too unconditional or that Jesus fulfills the law for us” that the result will be lax morality, loose living and lawlessness. It is as if we believe that the freeing message of the Gospel actually produces, encourages and grants people a license to sin. Because of this rationalization we find ourselves strapping, holding and attaching restrictions to the Gospel so that we might prevent or limit lawlessness. In other words, the Gospel is placed into bondage due to our rationalization and reaction to lawlessness.
Disobedience and moral laxity happens not when we think too much of grace, but when we think too little of it (Rom. 6:1-4). Grace is not the enemy of radical obedience–it is its fuel! That’s all I have to say about that.
There is, however, something specific that has come up in the conversation that I do want to address. It’s the idea that since our culture is relativistic, licentious, and morally lax, is preaching grace what this culture really needs? Or, to put it another way, is preaching the gospel of grace really the means by which God will save licentious people? I mean, surely God doesn’t think that the saving solution for the immoral and rebellious is his free grace? That doesn’t make sense. It seems backwards, counter-intuitive. Given our restraint-free cultural context, what does make sense to me is that preachers in our day should be very wary of talking about grace at all. That’s the last thing lawless people need to hear. Surely they’ll take advantage of it and get worse, not better. After all, it would seem logical to me that the only way to “save” licentious people is to show them more rules, intensify my exhortations to behave.
Well, besides the fact that the Bible makes it clear that the power which saves even the worst rule-breaking sinner is the gospel (Romans 1:16), and not the law (Romans 7:13-24), there’s another reason why preaching the gospel of free grace is both necessary and effective (counter-intuitive as it may seem) even at a time when moral laxity reigns supreme: moralism is what most people outside and inside the church think Christianity is all about-rules and standards and behavior and cleaning yourself up.
Millions of people, both inside and outside the church, believe that the essential message of Christianity is, “If you behave, then you belong.” The reason they come to that conclusion is because many of us preachers have led them to believe that. We’ve led them to believe that God is most interested in people becoming good instead of people coming to terms with how bad they really are so that they’ll fix their eyes on Christ “the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). From a human standpoint, this is precisely why many people outside the church reject Christianity and why many people inside the church conk out: they’re just not good enough to get it done over the long haul. (Then there are those who ignore the gospel because they’ve deceived themselves into believing that they really are making it, when in reality they’re not.)
In his article “Preaching in a Post-modern Climate”, Tim Keller makes this point brilliantly:
Some claim that to constantly be striking a ‘note of grace, grace, grace’ in our sermons is not helpful in our culture today. The objection goes like this: “Surely Phariseeism and moralism is not a problem in our culture today. Rather, our problem is license and antinomianism. People lack a sense of right or wrong. It is ‘carrying coal to Newcastle’ to talk about grace all the time to postmodern people.” But I don’t believe that’s the case. Unless you point to the ‘good news’ of grace, people won’t even be able to bear the ‘bad news’ of God’s judgment. Also, unless you critique moralism, many irreligious people won’t know the difference between moralism and what you’re offering. The way to get antinomians to move away from lawlessness is to distinguish the gospel from legalism. Why? Because modern and post-modern people have been rejecting Christianity for years thinking that it was indistinguishable from moralism. Non-Christians will always automatically hear gospel presentations as appeals to become moral and religious, unless in your preaching you use the good news of grace to deconstruct legalism. Only if you show them there’s a difference–that what they really rejected wasn’t real Christianity at all–will they even begin to consider Christianity.
As I’ve pointed out before, in Romans 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul answers antinomianism (lawlessness) not with law but with more gospel! I imagine it would have been tempting for Paul (as it often is with us when dealing with licentious people) to put the brakes on grace and give the law in this passage, but instead he gives more grace-grace upon grace. Paul knows that licentious people aren’t those who believe the gospel of God’s free grace too much, but too little. “The ultimate antidote to antinomianism”, writes Mike Horton, “is not more imperatives, but the realization that the gospel swallows the tyranny as well as the guilt of sin.”
The fact is, that the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God’s radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners. It was the kindness of the Lord that led you to repentance (Romans 2:4). What makes you think that same kindness which flows supremely from the gospel of free grace won’t lead others to repentance?
Here’s a great scene from Les Miserables illustrating how powerful the radicality of grace is in melting hard, undeserving, law-breaking hearts.