“The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” Romans 5:20.
How many Christians (never mind people who are not yet Christians) do you suppose misunderstand grace? Surely there are tons.
One problem, as I’ve heard it put, is that law is our native language. We speak law fluently. There exists a native tendency toward self-righteousness, toward punitive justice, toward dead external works. Though the law should condemn us-and condemn us good!-we unwittingly believe ourselves able to rise up to the demands of the law. Of course, we would never say such a thing. We just live that way. We would never resort to the law for justification-we’re not legalists, after all. But, we do imagine perfection a genuine possibility. We make it a goal to “always strive for perfection.” What is that, but the law pronounced with more syllables? Surely the older we get the less confident we ought to be of ever attaining perfection. But we remain confident and committed to the goal of perfection because grace is not our native language; law is.
But there are other problems, too. Other ways we misunderstand grace. If we insist that grace is greater than sin, some think that “grace” becomes license to sin even more. The apostle Paul encountered those problems during his ministry. He anticipated those objections in Romans 6, where he asks rhetorically, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (v 1) And a little later, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (v. 15) Having anticipated the misunderstandings, the apostle doesn’t leave these rhetorical straw men standing in the field. He burns them down with a scorching, “By no means!” “By no means!” Grace is not license.
Well, why not? Why is super-abounding grace not license and enticement to sin? Paul develops a longer, wonderful argument in chapter 6. But for this post, I want to identify something he says at the end of chapter 5. Specifically, “grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Notice: Grace increases all the more in the presence of sin so that grace might reign through righteousness. It’s as though sin and grace are two warring kings, clashing in armored conflict for supremacy. Wherever sin rallies its knights, grace arrays its pikemen and archers to quash sin’s rebellion.
Can you tell I like movies set in the Medieval period of kings, castles, knights, and battles? The problem with those movies, however, is that once the king has defeated his enemies, the movie fades to black and we’re left to imagine what his peaceful and benevolent reign entails. We’ve not seen the movie about the king’s perfect reign. That’s partly the problem with our discussion of grace. We’re quite versed in grace’s victory over sin. We speak much of saving grace. But then the movie fades and we hear little of “reigning grace.”
But because of God’s victory over sin, we who believe are “under grace” as Paul explains in chapter 6. But what does that entail? Well, it entails being ruled by grace. Grace reigns over us. “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (6:14). Sin does not master us because grace masters us. Grace reigns. It rules.
And what is the character of grace’s reign in the Christian life? Grace reigns through righteousness. When grace vanquishes sin, it establishes the reign of righteousness throughout the realm until eternal life is consummated. That’s why grace and license are incompatible. License reigns through lust and sin and death. But we’ve been freed from that. We’ve died to the law and died to sin. We are each day to “count ourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11). Did you begin today considering yourself dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus? The benefit of that mental application is we no longer allow sin to reign in our mortal bodies by obeying its evil desires (6:12). Grace and license are incompatible because grace reigns through righteousness.
Perhaps that’s the point we most often misunderstand. Perhaps that’s why so many allusions to grace look to us like sly winks at sin. Have you heard Christians respond to the correct application of scriptural command with, “But we’re not under law but under grace”? Have you ever heard Christians oppose the biblical practice of corrective discipline by appealing to “grace”? From time to time, we hear Christians offering a soothing palliative to an unrepentant sinner, leaving them in their sins by saying in so many words, “it’s okay because it’s all about grace anyway.” Sounds suspiciously like the hardened unbeliever who proclaims God must forgive him his sins because “that’s what God does.”
If we’re guilty of thinking of grace in these terms, I suspect the Apostle Paul would correct us with an “Absolutely not! By no means!”
What’s wrong with many of these statements? Somehow they divorce the idea of grace from its reign through righteousness. They forget that “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It (saving grace) teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope-the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” Titus 2:11. Grace teaches us righteousness. Grace teaches us to “just say ‘no'” (that belonged to Paul before Nancy Reagan). Positively, grace instructs us in self-control, uprightness, and godliness-even in an age of lawlessness and darkness. Grace becomes for us a purifying agency, and creates in us a strong inclination to do good. Grace reigns in the Christian life, but it does so through the inculcation and cultivation of righteousness.
It would profit us greatly to beware that godless teaching that “changes the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” Jude 1:4. And we must beware of our own heart’s tendency to turn grace into lawlessness, or to resort back to the law as a means of righteousness. Both are gospel denying retreats. For the true grace of God turns the lawless into the righteous and brings eternal life where the law brought death.
Thabiti Anyabwile is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Cayman Islands. Pastor Thabiti is the author of what is a healthy church member?, the decline of african-american theology: from biblical faith to cultural captivity, and the faithful preacher: recapturing the vision of three pioneering african-american preachers. He also blogs regularly at pure church.