Grappling with Grace

Grappling with Grace

Most writers are probably familiar with the saying “Writing is easy…just open a vein.” We pour passion into our words. And once pen hits paper, our vulnerable selves are open to critique. Sometimes the response is harsh, à la “Nobody reads your blog.” Other times the response is constructive, like “This would work better if…” The latter is what we always hope to hear, but it doesn’t often work out that way—especially when those words are on the Internet. (Anonymity has a way of breeding cruelty, does it not?)

For some, a negative response dries up their creative juices and convinces them to give up writing altogether. Others refuse any criticism—constructive or not. But for the tenacious, critique can inspire them to hone their craft.

Likewise when we decide to follow Jesus, we sometimes grapple with the realization of how sinful we really are. Though we’ve accepted Christ’s gift of grace, the label of “sinner” still remains—in fact it’s in accepting that label that we acknowledge we can never earn salvation through our own efforts.

But what happens after receiving this gift? Some hold fast to—and attempt to enforce—a series of dos and don’ts. Others proceed with business as usual—life continues pretty much as it did before. Still others are disheartened knowing no one can ever fully escape the sinful nature.

This topic has been on my heart lately, especially as we draw near to remembering Christ’s redemptive work on the cross. So I sat down with author and philosopher/theologian Kenneth Samples to discuss people’s distorted understandings of salvation from sin, what he calls “gospel perversions.”

The Legalist
With a mindset that “God will love me more if I do this and don’t do that,” some people come across as rules-oriented, often self-righteously so. But those who struggle with this issue may actually be working out of a sense of fear. “In reality,” Ken explains, “we can’t be accepted any more than we are now.” Still, so desperate to be received in Christ’s church—or perhaps so humbled by the forgiveness of sins—these believers focus heavily on the works of the law. Paul touches on this point in Galatians, “Do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

The Self-Satisfied
Sometimes considered the opposite to legalists, antinomians are those who do little to adjust their behavior because they know they are already forgiven. Though we will never remove ourselves from our sinful condition, God’s mercy in our lives should call us to repent. As Paul says, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Additionally, as Ken points out, being saved by grace is not incompatible with desiring to live a godly life. It motivates us to become more Christlike.

The Despairing
Perhaps the saddest of the three groups listed here are those who believe in God but struggle to believe He could love them. The guilt they experience can become so intertwined with faith that it suffocates spiritual growth and feeds doubt and despair. This feeling may be especially problematic for those who have had the “bigger debt canceled.” But Jesus addresses this clearly in Luke when he says to the woman who lived a sinful life: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Ultimately, each of the three “pitfalls” listed above can skew the balance between accepting the grace extended to us and making an effort to live a holy life.

Just as writers have their own way of responding to an unfavorable review, each believer responds to the label of “sinner” in his/her own way. But whether it’s a harsh evaluation of our work or our hearts, we would do well to allow such criticism to propel us toward gratitude and growth.