My daughter had a birthday. We bought her a gift. She carefully opened the gift, looked at it, and thanked us for the gift. Then she pushed the gift aside and spent the next two hours thanking us for how she did not deserve the gift.
On four other occasions during the day she brought up our kindness to her. After the party, she went door-to-door telling the neighbors about all the lengths her parents went to buy her the unmerited gift.
The irony about all of this is that she hardly played with her gift. We were bewildered at how enamored she was over the means that brought her the gift, but not the gift itself. While I was appreciative of her gratitude for us giving it to her freely, it was befuddling that she did not seem to enjoy the gift.
Disclaimer: There is nothing true about this story except my daughter had a birthday.
Main Takeaway: The point of the story is to create a hyperbolic illustration of how our enthusiasm over the means (grace) in which salvation comes to us can marginalize the gospel (gift). I do realize that the conjoining of these two doctrines are so close that it hardly matters how you talk about them. But it does matter, as I will develop later.
In a similar way with the ordo salutis, there is regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, and adoption. These monmental doctrines happen "at the same time," but they are also distinct from each other and in a non-negotiable sequential order.
Grace is the undeserved means to the gift, which is Christ (or the gospel). You cannot have the gift of salvation without grace. There would be no point for grace if there were no gospel to give freely. But if you stretch grace and gospel like a rubber band and look at them independently, you can see the possibility of the grace mistake.
The issue in this chapter is how grace can supplant, in some Christian's minds, the beauty and power of the gospel. There is no question that it is right to celebrate the means that brought us to the gospel, but it can be dangerous if the means diminishes Christ–the good news (gospel).
(Hezekiah) removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). – 2 Kings 18:4
A "grace fixation" that diminishes the gospel reminds me of what happened to the Israelites, who began worshipping the bronze serpent to the neglect of praising the God who brought healing through the serpent on the pole (Numbers 21:6).
I realize I may be coming close to meandering off into church history semantics, but the discussion is critical because there are too many among us who are making this "grace mistake."
Paul was very clear when he said, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek." (Romans 1:16) The gospel is the power of God for salvation. Grace is the vehicle (God's empowering favor) that takes us to the Savior.
The Grace Mistake
Grace is the means or the "instrumentation" that allows the transformative power of the gospel to transform us. It is the gospel that changes us. It is grace (God's kindness or unmerited favor) that allows gospel-engagement.
Though I am thankful for my daughter's delight, in my fictional story, for the kindness (grace) that allowed her to enjoy the gift (gospel), my greater desire is for her to engage the gift. The issue here is not an either/or equation, but a matter of biblical prioritization. I want her to appreciate that we gave it to her freely and I want her to enjoy it too.
- Where do you put the accent mark–on grace or the gospel (Christ)?
- What do you talk about the most—the grace from God or the gospel, who is Christ?
It is clear from an eschatological worldview that the eternal accent mark is on the gospel–the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. – Revelation 5:11-12
Are you more fixated on the grace that permitted you to experience the gospel, or the gospel that transforms your life? Whatever characterizes your life will determine the kind of life you will have.
- If you are grace-centered, you will live a lesser life than what the Bible offers you.
- If you are gospel-centered, you will have your best hope of living in the fullness that the Bible teaches.
Typically, the most common way this theological infraction occurs is when a person comes out of a legalistic culture. Because of an insufficient understanding of the gospel, as it pertains to their sanctification, they create a "common-sense-false-opposite" in their minds.
For the legalist, the most common sense thing for them to jump into is grace, as they run from legalism. And they should take this amazing leap. If legalism is a "conditional relationship with God," based on a set of rules, it makes sense that they would want a relationship that is apart from "conditions." But this could turn into a "grace mistake."
The opposite of legalism is not grace, but the gospel. Grace is the means, the instrumentation, or the "vehicle" that permits you to receive the gospel. Grace was never meant to be the replacement or the opposite of legalism.
The real opposite in the Bible is when a person goes from legalism to the gospel. God's early response to Adam's legalism (Genesis 3:6-7) was a picture of the gospel as seen in how He responded to Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:4). It was grace that opened the door to this "gospel opportunity;" God did not have to show Adam a better way. It was kindness to show him true redemption.
Cain wanted to present the works of his hands (legalism) as the way to be right with God. God rejected his legalism while accepting a blood sacrifice (gospel) as the only way to be right with Him (Leviticus 17:11).
Grace does not make you right with God; the gospel does. It is by grace—unmerited favor—that we can get to the gospel, but it is the gospel (Jesus Christ) that does the work of transformation.
Let Me Reiterate: I am in no way making less of or minimizing grace. I am saying that grace cannot supplant the gospel, take our sights from the gospel, become the epicenter of our affections, or the main thing in our Christianity.
If anything gets in the way of our worship of the gospel (Christ), we may be teetering on the precipice of false worship. Do you worship the serpent on the pole, which was a means to salvation, or do you worship the Lord who provides salvation?
Tempted By Grace
The people who are most tempted by the "grace mistake" are typically those who have been in conditional relationships. The two most potent legalistic shaping influences are (1) the faultly rearing of a child and (2) a rule-based religious system.
There are other iterations of "conditional relationships" that will shape a person into a legalistic worldview, but the most common that I have encountered are familial and religious dynamics.
After you add our intrinsic legalistic Adamic natures to the above shaping influences, it is no wonder a person would struggle so much with legalism, while seeing something like grace as super-enticing. And it should be enticing, as long as it's the means to the main thing.
A child reared by (1) an angry, (2) abusive, (3) distant, or (4) passive dad will nearly always conform to legalistic tendencies. All four of those parental personality types communicate the same thing: "I like you under certain conditions."
Here are some of the ways a child could interpret a "conditional relationship" with a father who does not imitate God the Father (Ephesians 5:1).
- My angry dad would not choose anger toward me if I performed to his liking.
- My abusive dad would not hit me if I performed to his expectations.
- My distant daddy would pay attention to me if I were a better person.
- My passive father would engage me more if I were different.
All four of these family dynamics will train a child to perform for acceptance, and if he cannot garner the approval of the parent, the child will find his "approval drive" stroked outside of the family, which is typically where teenage love is given birth in the young person's heart.
Religion is another fertile ground where legalistic longings find nourishment. Because most of us have only experienced conditional relationships, it is rare for a newly born Christian to think of God as being different from all their other relationships, which is why there is a temptation to please Him through their efforts.
Whether trained by Adam, parents, or religious systems, the chances of partaking in legalistic environments is likely. The chances of being frustrated and dissatisfied in those contexts are also high, which means the discontented religionist will be looking for something radically different from legalism.
These dynamics are where grace is set up by too many churches to be the bait that lures folks away from legalism, a process that can be unfortunate because grace is the "vehicle" that takes a person to the gospel. Grace is a good start, but it is the gospel that transforms.
Failed By Grace
Nevertheless, the burnout legalist goes ga-ga over the means to the end, while never truly understanding the transformative gift (the gospel). This response is the most significant mistake of all. They become so excited about the rules not being relevant that they forget how the rules do matter–not for salvation but sanctification.
There are a lot of principles, rules, ideas, commands, teachings, or whatever you want to call them in the New Testament that matter. None of those instructions have anything to do with meriting (or losing) your salvation because God grants salvation by grace, but obedience has a whole lot to do with your progressive sanctification.
This tension creates a problem for the grace-centered, grace-loving, grace-talking folks because they find it extremely difficult to address the sinful things that are going wrong in their lives.
Because they have created an unnecessary tension between grace and legalism, if you say anything about their sin, they only have one interpretive grid for your comments: "You're a legalist; why are you talking to me about rules? I'm no longer a legalist; I live in grace." Yes, you do live in grace, I hope, but that "condition" does not relieve you from obedience.
Typically grace-centered people are hyper-sensitive, and can even be mean-spirited if you talk to them about their sin. Some of them will go so far as to round the corners off their sinfulness by re-labeling their actions to make them more palatable to their consciences.
Due to the powerful shaping legalistic influences, they can become paranoid about anyone knowing the truth about their lives, and they don't let anyone get close to them. The "grace-centered life" can make you dull of hearing (Hebrews 3:7-8). Don't underestimate the residual power of legalism.
- The legalist loves the rules.
- The grace-centered person may spurn the rules.
- Both of them could miss the gospel.
A Gospel Solution:The overarching pronouncement of the gospel is that the only opinion in the universe that matters is God's opinion of you, and if God has saved you by His powerful gospel, you are His beloved child, and He is well pleased with you. He saves you by His gospel, which comes to you by His undeserved favor (grace).
If legalism tempts you, please know that the gospel sets you free. God gives you the transformative gospel freely (grace). The gospel removes your fears while showing you how there is nothing for you to protect or to hide. You are empowered by the gospel to live out your obedience, which is God's free gift to you.
If the gospel has set you free, then you are free indeed (John 8:36)
Call to Action
You can test yourself to see if you've made the grace mistake by answering a few questions about the relevancy of the freedom and power of the gospel in your life.
- Has your experience been punitive when you shared your struggles?
- Have your most potent shaping influences been conditional?
- Are you free to talk about your sins with a few close friends?
- Does God's opinion of you have so much control that the opinions of others do not dominate your thought life?
Rick Thomas is an author, speaker, consultant, teacher, and podcaster. He has been encouraging and training Christians since 1997. Find him online at https://rickthomas.net/