Rethinking grace, yet again
by Barry Newton
Jesus’ straightforward message about the kingdom of heaven calls into question a recent prevalent understanding of grace. For if that notion of grace is accurate, several of Jesus’ parables would seem to be nonsensical.
Jesus described the kingdom of heaven as a giant net capturing all kinds of fish from a lake. Upon arriving at the shore, the fishermen sort their catch, throwing the bad fish away, but keeping the good ones (Matthew 13:47-48).
We do not have to rely upon our imaginations to glean an accurate interpretation. Jesus explained that at the end of the age, God’s angels would separate the wicked from the righteous out of this great net ushering the wicked on to their doom (Matthew 13:49).
The Son of God’s message is clear. While life goes on until the end of this age, the kingdom of heaven is attracting and capturing people. All sorts of people are hearing God’s message and responding to it.
Nevertheless, Jesus shocks us and his original listeners by insisting that not all of those in the kingdom, that is, in the net, will be saved. Some individuals are still found to be bad, causing them to be cast away into the fiery furnace!
Jesus’ simple message conflicts with a notion of grace that has become popular in recent decades. Some have interpreted Romans 8:1, as teaching that grace means the Christian cannot be condemned for violating a command of God.
Accordingly, this definition of grace empowers individuals to feel free to not be overly concerned about conforming to either the doctrine or the worship described in the New Testament. After all, “grace will cover it.” Accordingly, they feel empowered to serve God however they please.
Furthermore, such a perspective could also be used to support any number of libertarian lifestyles.
However, such anti-nomianism cannot be what the New Testament means by grace. For people can fall from grace through distorting the doctrinal teaching of the gospel (Galatians 5:4). Also, contravening God’s prescription for the Christian life is condemned (Jude 4,12,13).
Moreover, since Christ’s blood is sufficiently powerful enough to cleanse everyone’s sins, thereby making all of us holy, then at least when the net catches people, everyone ought to be all the same — good fish.
And yet, if they are good fish and grace means that none of God’s commands can then be used to condemn them, it would seem that there is no way for a good fish to become something worthy of being cast into the fiery furnace!
In contrast to such a libertarian perspective of grace, not only did Paul teach that grace instructs us to reject disobedience (Titus 2:11,12), but Jesus taught that those in the kingdom needed to be “faithful” and “watchful,” lest they be cast out (Matthew 25:1,13,14,23,30). Christians are to value faithful stewardship characterized by obedience.
Immediately the sentinels of the new grace will cry out, “But that is legalism! It leads to living with the fear of wondering if you have ever done enough! One’s salvation becomes merited through how good you have been.”
Undoubtedly, the peal of their warning bells will be internally accompanied by a severe pain of fear, fear that their self-empowered freedom might be threatened.
Standing at one extreme while denouncing the other extreme as being the only other option is hardly the framework for a healthy and open-minded pursuit of truth. There is another option, which appears to be a biblical one.
Only God can declare us righteous, since all have sinned and fall short of his glory. Through his grace, God offers us our only hope, Christ crucified and risen.
The blood of his death makes possible God’s covenantal promise, “their sins I will remember no more”(Hebrews 8:12). Those who rely upon Christ have a secure hope if they faithfully press on (Colossians 1:23).
Life in Christ is not about accumulating good deeds to earn salvation, since the Christian is already fully saved. Rather, the Christian life involves faithfully living out the ramifications of the salvation one has already received (Philippians 2:12-13; Ephesians 2:9-10; Matthew 25:34-40).
Those who disobediently rebel and carve out their own path, would seem to be like the salt Jesus described that lost its saltiness causing it to be discarded (Matthew 5:13).
God’s people are called to a lifestyle of serving God, not to earn their salvation, but to fulfill their purpose as those bought by grace. Grace does not empower us to do whatever our hearts desire.