Understanding Grace

The bedrock of our salvation as Christians is found in God’s grace given to us through His Son, Jesus Christ. One of the classic passages of Scripture on the subject of grace is given by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:1-10 in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved,through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The two verses in this passage that many Christians are familiar with are highlighted in red (Ephesians 2:8-9). Grace “is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” Unfortunately, being human, we have a big tendency to fall back on our “works” (as in what we do) as “proof” of our salvation. However, when it comes to grace, it is not about anything that we do. It is about what God has done for us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. What we do we do by faith (James 2:14-26). [For more information on faith, see Faith: The Misunderstood Doctrine,” “Faith, The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” Taking Action,” and also an article on GotQuestions?org titled,Why is faith without works dead?”]

On the subject of God’s grace, the following information is provided by GotQuestions?org at this link:

Grace is a constant theme in the Bible, and it culminates in the New Testament with the coming of Jesus (John 1:17). The word translated “grace” in the New Testament comes from the Greek word “charis,” which means “favor, blessing, or kindness.” We can all extend grace to others; but when the word “grace” is used in connection with God, it takes on a more powerful meaning. Grace is God choosing to bless us rather than curse us as our sin deserves. It is His benevolence to the undeserving.

Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves.” The only way any of us can enter into a relationship with God is because of His grace toward us. Grace began in the Garden of Eden when God killed an animal to cover the sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21). He could have killed the first humans right there for their disobedience. But rather than destroy them, He chose to make a way for them to be right with Him. That pattern of grace continued throughout the Old Testament when God instituted blood sacrifices as a means to atone for sinful men. It was not the blood of those sacrifices that cleansed sinners; it was the grace of God that forgave those who trusted in Him (Hebrews 10:4Genesis 15:6).

The apostle Paul began many of his letters with the phrase, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7Ephesians 1:11 Corinthians 1:3). God is the instigator of grace, and it is from Him that all other grace flows. Grace can be easily remembered by this simple acrostic: God’s Riches AChrist’s Expense.

God shows both mercy and grace, but they are not the same. Mercy withholds a punishment we deserve; grace gives a blessing we don’t deserve. Consider this illustration: you were stopped in your old clunker for going 60 mph in a school zone. The ticket is high, and you can’t pay it. You appear before the judge with nothing to say for yourself. He hears your case and then, to your surprise, he cancels your fine. That is mercy. But the judge doesn’t stop there. He walks you outside and hands you the keys to a new car. That is grace.

In mercy, God chose to cancel our sin debt by sacrificing His perfect Son in our place (Titus 3:52 Corinthians 5:21). But He goes even further than mercy and extends grace to His enemies (Romans 5:10). He offers us forgiveness (Hebrews 8:12Ephesians 1:7), reconciliation (Colossians 1:19-20), abundant life (John 10:10), eternal treasure (Luke 12:33), His Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13), and a place in heaven with Him some day (John 3:16-18) when we accept His offer and place our faith in His sacrifice.

Grace is God giving the greatest treasure to the least deserving—which is every one of us. (Quote source here.)

There is much out there in our culture today that tries to convince us that because of God’s grace which is freely given to us, that sin isn’t really an issue anymore. There is no effort in that line of thinking to move forward in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is little or no talk of “transformation” (as in being “transformed by the renewing of our minds” –see Romans 12), or of “persevering” in our faith (see James 1-2). It is as if we have been given approval by those teachers (see 2 Peter 2, and Jude 1) who are endorsing this philosophy (for lack of a better word) that we can remain just as we were before we believed in Jesus Christ without any type of transformation that is promised to us through the power of the Holy Spirit (as we can’t do it on our own)–and that is anything but the truth. In fact, Paul gives us a lot of information on how the grace of God is not given to us as a license to continue in sin in Romans 6-8. Let’s look at Romans 6:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The wages of sin is still death, and that hasn’t changed just because we live in a culture with a zillion excesses available to us on a 24/7 basis. We’ve been inundated with teachers who say that we can use God’s grace as a license to continue living however we want or live under the illusion that if we just can’t stop doing it (whatever the “it” happens to be) that it’s okay since God’s grace covers it all. Sin hasn’t changed to be a convenient excuse for us who claim to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord to keep on doing what we know isn’t right. And if sin rules, Jesus is not Lord of our lives.

The teachers who teach that grace as a license to keep on doing whatever we want to do and that “grace covers it all” are counting on the fact that we don’t do our own homework, and that means keeping in closing communication through prayer with our Savior, and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us every moment of every day. And they count on us not taking the time to read the Bible and pray on a daily basis and to depend on listening to them for our guidance (and monetary support that usually goes along with it).

Back to BasicsThe outflow of this has been that the grace given to us by God through Jesus Christ is not often extended to others that we come into contact with, especially those others we either don’t know or don’t particularly like for whatever reason (often from a source of gossip). Whenever we follow anyone who keeps us focused on ourselves and what’s okay for us to do or what we want or “fill in the blank” without looking to Jesus as the source for everything in our lives, we extend that lack of grace to others around us and treat them accordingly. And the Pharisees were very good at that, too–having a righteousness of their own and looking down on others. And we are often good at pointing out the sin in others while totally ignoring our own.

Another outcome of this “sin doesn’t matter anymore” mentality among Christians especially as it has proliferated over the past several decades is that we are losing a generation of young people who just don’t get what genuine Christianity is all about because it hasn’t often been modeled to them by their own parents or religious leaders in their own lives. And there in much in this world of ours that will fill that vacuum. In an article titled, The Church’s Lost Generation,” on Beliefnet.com, the author, Ron Dreher, made the following comments:

In March, I traveled around the country to give speeches at three Christian colleges. At each stop, I spent some time talking to professors, asking them what they’re seeing in their classrooms. And at each stop, the anguished answer was the same:

These kids know almost nothing about their faith.

It’s not that they are bad kids; it’s that the basics of Christianity are unknown to them. Mind you, these are college students who were raised in Christian homes, and who chose to attend Christian colleges. And yet, their teachers are discovering that when it comes to the Christian faith, most of them are blank slates.

Let me repeat: these are Christian students, in Christian colleges. In California, a Baptist theologian who teaches at an Evangelical college told me the ignorance of his students astonishes him. “It’s all Moralistic Therapeutic Deism with them,” he said. “Maybe you’ve heard of that?”

Indeed I have. MTD is the name that the top sociologist Christian Smith gave nearly a decade ago to what he calls the “de facto dominant religion among contemporary teenagers in the United States.” Simply put, it’s a pseudo-religion that says faith is about nothing more than “feeling good, happy, secure, and at peace” . . . .

I came home from these college visits discouraged, but also challenged to put my own complacency behind. My children are still young. We attend church regularly, and have a pastor who teaches clearly and strongly. But he can’t carry the weight alone. Mom and Dad are the primary religious educators in the family. Now, each night, I sit down with my kids and teach them from a catechism.

God willing, my children will grow up as committed Christians, but if they walk away from Christianity, unlike most of their generation, at least they will know what it is they’re leaving behind.

The following statement is taken from an article titled, American Christianity: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?” (2014), on Patheos.com, by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, describing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and how it has embedded itself into American Christianity:

Some time ago I read a blog post identifying the degradation of American Christianity into what was termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It’s given me much pause for thought and the analysis seems to me to be spot on. . . .

Moralistic in replacing vital sacramental, evangelizing Christianity with a set of rules and regulations. Different sets of rules and regulations exist for different sub sets. For a smart suburban congregation the rules might be those of respectability and good manners. For a liberal, socially aware or hipster group the rules might be all about ecology, the right attitude on human rights issues and the right political stance. For a conservative Christian group the rules would be focussed on sexual morality, modesty and the right religious devotions. While none of the rules and regulations are necessarily wrong, the error is in mistaking the rules and regulations for real religion.

The “therapeutic” part of the definition refers to replacing religion with therapy. As in the “moralistic” part of the definition the “therapy” takes many different forms, but at the heart of the problem is the need for the religion to help me in some way. For a smart up-to-date community church it might be all about recovery from addiction, advice on money matters or help with parenting skills. For a classic, suburban church it might be the therapy of feeling good about oneself, one’s “blessings” i.e. wealth, and using church to get the kids into good private education, the right college and a “good” job.

Another dimension to the therapeutic aspect is how we want our religion to make us feel good. Whether it is warm, fuzzy charismatic worship or high church aestheticism with ornate ritualism or whether it is a feel good sermon and sentimental music, we want our religion to be like our morning drink: warm, comfortable and sweet. Now, there is nothing wrong at all in receiving a good feeling from religion, but just as the rules and regulations are not the religion, so we must remember that the good feelings should not replace the religion. The religion is our worship and service to God.  The regulations are the rule book for the game. The good feelings are the enjoyment we get from religion, but it is not the religion itself.

Deism is the belief that God is “out there” and not really involved in our lives on a day to day basis. We believe in this distant God, but we do not have a regular transaction with Him. Because he is disconnected our religion reverts to being a system of rules, regulations, therapy and feeling good. (Quote source here.)

Sound familiar? Unfortunately . . . way too familiar. That should give us some idea of what has been invading our church cultures over the past several decades. And it has often replaced biblical literacy. I have often been shocked at the biblical illiteracy of my own generation (the Baby Boomers), so I can only imagine how much worse it is with their children and now their children’s children. It doesn’t take very long at all anymore to see how shallow the younger generation can be towards Christianity in general and specifically regarding faith issues. Faith in what or who? The material world and lifestyles of their parents have blinded them to the reality of a real, living faith, and has overshadowed what genuine Christianity and faith in Jesus Christ is all about. It would be interesting to take a survey of young people today to see just exactly who they think Jesus Christ is as I find that mostly it appears that He doesn’t mean much if anything to those I have talked with lately. They have found other things in this world that hold their fascination and given them a measure of perceived power, and have been left believing in a weak, insipid version of Jesus Christ that is about as far removed from the truth as one can get, if they believe in Him at all.

Whenever the focus is on us and what we want in this life and not on God and Jesus Christ, we become myopic. We want what we want and we usually want it as soon as possible, too. And we don’t stop to count the cost of much of anything anymore as we are too busy trying to accumulate more of whatever it is we think we want or need. And don’t think our children haven’t noticed. This mentality has been passed down to the younger generations in our midst today which is why they so often don’t really have a clue who Jesus Christ really is, as I’m not sure their parents really know. I worked at a Christian college for over four years and I saw this focus on self not only in the attitudes of some of the students but in the lifestyles of some of the staff (generally speaking as individuals and their own personal commitments to Jesus Christ vary). We have so “Americanized” our version of Christianity that it is losing its meaning to us and has now been passed down to the younger generations. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Until we learn to get the focus off of ourselves, nothing is going to change. We can’t very well extend grace to others if we really don’t understand what it means in our own lives. And it is not a license to do anything we want, nor is it a set of rules we have to live up to or forced on others who don’t seem to measure up to what we think they should measure up to, either (as in the description of MTD above–unwritten but embedded rules in many of our church cultures today). And what have we taught the younger generation? We’ve taught them how to say all the right words and how to look and act oh so very Christian when they need to, but there is absolutely no depth because they have no proof of it’s reality other then what they get from others, and they have no actual living faith in Jesus Christ. Again, I’m speaking in general terms as, fortunately, we haven’t lost the entire younger generation, but there are a lot out there who have learned how to play the game and play it well (and that’s exactly how they see it–as a game), and that’s a travesty of major proportions.

We need to get back to the basics of genuine Christianity if we even recognize the basics anymore, and the only place to do that is in the Bible, and praying for an understanding that only God can give us to get back on the right track. Repentance is a good place to start, too . . . .

In fact, it’s the only place to start . . .

How about starting today? . . . .

YouTube Video: “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” sung by Chris Tomlin:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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