The eminent Reformer Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “This distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom, which all who boast of the name ‘Christian,’ or assume it as a name, can and ought to know.” (in Bayer, 59) By the same logic, then, an inaccurate distinction of both will lead to all kinds of errors. The erroneous kind of this art happens all the time. We put law where gospel should be and end up with a theological mess. We put provisions and provisos where Christ simply says, “Come unto me.” (Matt. 11:28) “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will freely give to the thirsty from the spring of the water of life.” (Rev. 21:6) We bastardize the gospel with pietistic fine print. And in so doing, we jettison the truth of the gospel altogether. Such is the scene in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
The Epistle to the Galatians stands out from among Paul’s other letters because of its fervency. Under the Spirit’s influence and authority, the apostle pens an impassioned letter with words that cut to the quick of the Galatians’ erroneous understandings of what constituted the good news. He was deeply concerned that the churches in Galatia had been duped by “another gospel” — not that there is another gospel to be preached, just that a false one had arisen to deceive and destroy people’s spirituality. With fiery bravado, the apostle exclaims, “You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you?” (Gal. 3:1)
Paul’s primary objective is to remind the Galatian Christians of the radically offensive nature of the gospel and to “stop kissing the ring of the law.” The former gospel had been lost in the wake of an anti-gospel that had risen up and muddied the waters. They were deceived by the Judaizers into believing that more merit was needed on top of what Christ had already accomplished. They had gone from trusting in a Person to trusting in their performances for their assurance. They had minimized the law and maximized their ability. And in the process, they lost the gospel. And so it is that we, likewise, try to add to what’s already finished. Both then and now, those who do this are called fools.
Paul’s message to the Galatian Christians is just as relevant now as it ever was. Like the Galatians, we are often given over to the allure of “another gospel.” The mantra of the modern church has morphed from “Behold and believe” to “Best behave!” Our Christian doing has become the basis for our Christian living. We have usurped center-stage and shoved Jesus to the sidelines. If shown an image of the present state of affairs in the church, I am sure Paul words would sound very much the same: “You stupid believers! Who has swindled your faith?”
Perhaps the most poisonous venom to afflict the gospel is the notion of “balancing” grace. The gospel of grace, as presented in Scripture, is radical and offensive, to the point where those in the church who read it often deem the message in need of curtailing. They thereby soften grace and lighten the law, and, in so doing, bastardize the good news and lose all hope in the process. As soon as we think the gospel needs our help, we have lost the gospel entirely. “Now if by grace, then it is not by works,” writes the apostle Paul; “otherwise grace ceases to be grace.” (Rom. 11:6) Mixing law and grace is a deadly drink. Grace has to be drunk straight or else it is not grace.
This is a truth that lies at the core of understanding how the Christian life operates. Or is supposed to operate, I should say. One deviation from this understanding leads one into all sorts of confounding and conflicting religious assumptions. Many today seek to throw the concept of complete pardon by free grace under the bus for its seeming inspiration of lawlessness. If too much grace is spoken of, it is concluded that something akin to wild anarchy is sure to ensue. All hell breaks loose at the declaration of God’s unmerited favor for the sinner, or so you are made to believe. Such is Satan’s grand sham, by which he has deceived generations of men and women in the faith — that this thing called “grace” is treacherous and foreboding and insecure. That it must be “balanced” and kept in check. That it is “too good to be true,” therefore, do everything and anything in your own strength and ability and ingenuity and religiosity.
This we might call sola boot-strappa, the sixth tenet of religion that is forcefully crammed into the pentagon of faith. We are enamored by the idea of pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps and attaining the righteousness of the law on our own. Even though we might claim we believe in salvation by grace through faith, we often function as though we are living under the heavenly pressure and burden to perform perfectly and make double-sure of our sanctification. Or else!
Don’t believe this lie. It is not the gospel. It comes from Satan himself, whose mission is to swindle the hope and peace which grace brings. Though the devil cannot destroy those who have been redeemed, by adulterating the unmerited favor of God, he succeeds in entangling the believer in the quagmires of distortion and distraction. In the muddied waters of confusing law and gospel. In the futility of balancing grace. The truth is, there is no such thing as “balancing” grace. Because countering grace with anything is adding to something that is already pure.
As soon as we attempt to mix the gospel with something else, we lose the gospel entirely.
As soon as the good news is co-mingled with anything else, it is forfeited.
Perhaps it’s time for a fresh discovery of “two-hundred proof grace” and watch it do its uncanny, unexpected, redeeming, resurrecting, life-changing work.
The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellarful of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof grace — of bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handed. The Word of the Gospel — after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps — suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home free before they started . . . Grace was to be drunk neat: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super-spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case. (Capon, 109–10)
This grace imposes no conditions. It is bestowed unilaterally, with no reciprocal caveats or regulatory stipulations. This grace scandalizes all our perceived sanctimony and offends our innate notions of fairness and righteousness. It is the Spirit’s rescuing and redeeming and resurrecting power which breathes new life into dead men’s bones. It is the only force in the universe that is capable of inspiring spontaneous acts of love, sacrifice, deference, and kindness. It is the crux of Christian living. This grace takes all our rules as to how religion works and flips them on their head. It gives to the undeserving the immeasurable offer of the King’s righteousness.
This article was originally written for 1517.
Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008).
Robert Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997).