Reflections on the Paradox of Grace
So let’s be honest. Paul gives us a very good reason not to fall away by becoming transgressors — fear of damnation. But when it comes to why not be lazy? why not do the least possible? why not take it easy and rely on grace? Well, Paul doesn’t make any real threats.
I think there are actually really good things to fear with that attitude, but that’s not Paul’s approach. He just keeps teaching grace. And to legalistic ears, that’s nonsense and so we look for ways to fix Paul — such as by inserting a passage from James or refusing to teach salvation by faith without including a long litany of warnings that severely erode grace.
But Paul is smarter than us. He was much closer to God than us. And so here’s where we mess up —
Unlike Paul, we don’t teach the story of the Scriptures. We don’t see God’s long redemption history leading toward our salvation.
Unlike Paul, we radically decouple getting saved from life as saved people. We urge baptism to achieve a change in “state” — from lost to saved — but not from “serving the flesh” to “following Jesus.” We promise salvation but say nothing of the cost of following Jesus.
Unlike Paul, the doctrine of suffering and sacrifice as typical — even essential — to the Christian life is entirely missing from our preaching.
Unlike Paul, we only hold Jesus up as Redeemer. We don’t hold him up as Example, as Image. We’re not that big on Jesus as Lord. We don’t teach God’s purpose of transforming us into the image of Christ.
Unlike Paul, we ignore the Spirit, both in our initial salvation and in how we live our lives. We don’t teach transformation by the Spirit. We don’t teach God writing his laws on our hearts and leading us.
Unlike Paul, we don’t teach following Jesus, doing good works, and being servants of God as the fulfillment of God’s cosmic purposes, indeed the very reason Jesus died on the cross. No, we pretend that getting saved is the end of all Christianity, leaving the rest of our lives with Jesus as about earning salvation (again and again) and quibbling over rules.
Paul’s theory seems to be that if our members will be brought to a true understanding of grace — not just how free grace is but how costly following Jesus is — if we learn to live within the paradox — then our members will get it. They’ll be more open to God’s transforming power. They’ll be more grateful. They’ll feel the love of God and respond accordingly.
An example from adoption
I think of friends of mine who recently adopted an older child from an abusive situation. The child was very disobedient and needed discipline — but they realized that the child needed to feel loved far more than discipline. And the child, having been repeatedly abandoned, had to learn that their love was unconditional — that they’d never, ever abandon him.
He misbehaved just to see whether his new parents would still love him — and they did, and so he stopped misbehaving. After all, once he finally gets it and trusts his heart to them, he’d far rather feel their love and approval than their love and disappointment.
For every scolding or time out, there were dozens and dozens of hugs. They made sure one parent or the other was with him at all times — so he’d never feel left behind. And the child responded by becoming very nearly a new person.
An unconditional love that offers far more grace and affection than threats and punishment, that promises never to abandon the object of its love, that kind of love changes heart. We were created — designed — to be loved, and in the absence of love, our hearts wither and die.
But when those of us who’ve been abused receive unconditional love, we have trouble believing it. Indeed, just as the adopted child did, we test it. We might feel obligated to do the things we were always afraid to do — to be lazy, to miss services, to be a little bad — just to see whether a church that teaches grace will still love us.
Now, sometimes we never get out of the adolescent, rebellious phase of our Christian walk, but most will soon grow up and become far more obedient after learning about grace than before. Indeed, in my experience, it’s those who understand this the best who are the most dedicated servants of God.
You see, decades of teaching grace have taught me that there is nothing to fear in grace properly taught, because students who get this become powerful servants of God. Their hearts change and grow and soften — as they allow the Spirit to have his way. It works.
The fear that we might create a church filled with licentious, sinful people by teaching grace is absolutely groundless. Experience proves it false. We can only ask why — not whether.
But there are, of course, lazy Christians. There’s no sense pretending otherwise. How do we help them become more worthy servants? Well —
* We absolutely do not change theology to meet the need. We don’t start preaching hellfire and brimstone. We teach the same grace we teach to the mature.
* We teach Jesus as Example and Image. We hold him up as the example of what God expects from us. Some of our members have just never heard this!
* We cover all the points above that we’ve missed and trust God’s Spirit to help the members see the connections.
* We warn our members, just as Paul does, that grace can be forfeited. We can fall away. The danger isn’t that a bad weekend or slip of the tongue will damn us. But the reality is that sin is a drug, and any sin — especially laziness — can deaden our senses and make it easier to sin even more, to slip further away from God. Hence, laziness risks following a path away from God in which we are deceived into thinking we’re safe when we’re not.
(Heb 3:13 ESV) 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
You see, sin’s deception leads to hardening of the heart. The further we are from God, the less effectively the Spirit works on our hearts — and our hearts become harder and less responsive.
That’s seriously dangerous, because the combination of deception and hardening makes it very hard to rescue yourself from sin. Safety is found in striving to stay as close to God as possible — and in friends who are close enough to see your failings and to call you to account.