Too Much Grace?
Ever since the Garden, God’s been in the business of meeting our sin with his salvation, our guilt with his grace. Immediately following the Fall, God acted as that “hound of heaven,” earnestly seeking us, desiring us, wanting to be wanted. That’s the nature of God’s grace, his one-way love, a favor and acceptance that doesn’t wait for us to seek or reach or find him, if that were even possible (which it’s not). No, God’s grace and mercy finds us. Jesus, the very embodiment of grace, meets us where we are and there he does his radical, saving, justifying, sanctifying, and purifying work in us. It’s in the midst of our dreck and filth that Love meets us.
This is huge, and, likewise, the promise of Romans 5:20 is equally huge: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Literally, the phrase “grace abounded” means, “grace overflowed.” God overflows us with his grace; it exceeds measure. We can’t exaggerate God’s grace. However amazing or beautiful you believe it to be, it’s infinitely more amazing and more beautiful than that! This is what the apostle Paul spent the majority of Romans 4 and 5 speaking of: the enormity of the gospel and hilarity of God’s grace.
Boundless & Ballooning Grace
The grace of God has no lines to mark its boundaries, no limitations. Indeed, God bestows upon us a boundless, limitless, fathomless grace, a “vulgar grace,” as Brennan Manning asserts, “that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wages as the grinning drunk who shows up a ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — ‘Please, remember me’ — and assures him, ‘You bet!’ A grace that is the pleasure of the Father, fleshed out in the carpenter Messiah, Jesus the Christ, who left his Father’s side not for heaven’s sake but for our sakes, yours and mine.” (193–94) How amazing is this grace! “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” (Rom. 5:20) Make no mistake, dear reader: this isn’t an encouragement or “license” to sin, it’s a statement of fact. Where there’s a lot of sin, there’s even more grace. That’s a cold, hard fact. What’s more, it’s the message of Romans 5:20, and it’s the clear message of the gospel. However far you sink into sin, God’s gracious hand can reach you. This leads us to this amazing and scandalous truth: You can never, ever out-sin God’s grace and forgiveness. You’re never beyond the reach of it, nor are you outside of the need of it.
Sin might widen its circle age after age, but grace widened its circle and still went far beyond man’s transgression. Age after age sin ascended a higher pinnacle of rebellious ungodliness; but grace ascended along with it, and took its station far above it, like a bright canopy of heavenly azure. Age after age descended to lower and lower depths of hateful pollution; grace went down along with it, and when the soul found itself at the very bottom of the horrible pit, and expected to meet nothing there but hell itself, it found the hand of grace still beneath it, as mighty to save, as willing to bless as ever. Just as sin abounded, so grace did much more abound. (Bonar, 280)
The Cheap Grace Misnomer
What’s interesting to note throughout church history, is that Jesus was never accused of being a legalist. Likewise, many of the stalwarts of our faith were never faced with the accusation of preaching “too much law” (the apostle Paul, Martin Luther, etc.). In fact, just the opposite is true. They were accused of preaching lawlessness, or “too much grace.” Sola gratia is the doctrine that Luther spent the majority of his life defending, and is what sparked what we now call the Protestant Reformation. By grace, through faith, in Christ alone. (Eph. 2:8) This is what we affirm.
Coincidentally (or, more accurately, providentially), Luther was radically changed while reading none other than the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans. In this letter — Paul’s magnum opus and, perhaps, the greatest book on the gospel ever written — the apostle spells out everything the Roman believers would ever need to know about the Christian faith. Paul strongly desired to visit the Roman church, but as he was writing the letter to them, he was unsure if that would ever happen. Thus, Romans is essentially Paul’s systematic theology of gospel, and is truly everything he would’ve ever spoken to the Christians in Rome had he gone there. It’s a beautiful letter, and all throughout its pages are pictures and proofs of God’s radical grace. Which is, in fact, the message of the Messiah. Jesus Christ came to preach grace, to pronounce God’s one-way love for a lost and broken people. Throughout his entire earthly ministry, Jesus fought back against the legalists and their constant attacks and accusations that he was against the law. This is why he begins his transcendent sermon with the statement, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt. 5:17) This, too, is why every question that the Pharisees posed to Christ dealt with his interpretation of the law. They accused him lawlessness, of, what Luther coined, “antinomianism,” which is a fancy word for “against law.”
But this is not what Christ came to do or establish. Indeed, he spells out very plainly in that Sermon on the Mount that he fulfills the law and even enhances it to degrees that only he can match. (Matt. 5:18–48) “You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48 NLT) That’s the bar you have to get to if you want to inherit the Kingdom of God: perfection. It’s not your progress, you “getting better,” you doing more or trying harder. The measure of God’s holiness is perfection, and that’s the only thing he accepts. And this is why the church and many Christians alike are struggling today: they’ve been deceived by “cheap law,” asserts Tullian Tchividjian. “The greatest obstacle to getting the gospel,” he writes, “is not ‘cheap grace’ but ‘cheap law’ — the idea that God accepts anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus.”
Those who accused Jesus of preaching “too much grace” and not enough law were so blind to their own putrefaction. The truth is, Jesus wasn’t sent here to help you get better. He didn’t come to prop up and promote those who think they’re making it. He came to fully and freely deliver those who know they’re not making it, nor ever will be. Jesus came for the broken, for the destitute, for the desperate. (Luke 4:18-19) He came down to earth to transform lives, and that doesn’t happen unless you admit that your life right now isn’t working, it isn’t cutting it, it isn’t measuring up. Unless you see that, grace will never mean anything to you.
There’s no such thing as “too much grace.” It’s a misnomer. Those who think you’re preaching or teaching or talking about the gospel of grace too much don’t realize their own despondency. They’re blind to their own depravity. The fact is, being accused of being “antinomian” might, in itself, not be such a bad thing. Permit me to quote a lengthy passage from the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
If your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of Antinomianism you are probably not putting it correctly. What do I mean by that? Just this: The Gospel, you see, comes as this free gift of God — irrespective of what man does. Now, the moment you say a thing like that, you are liable to provoke somebody to say, “Well, if that is so it doesn’t matter what I do.” The Apostle takes up that argument more than once in this great epistle. “What then,” he says at the beginning of chapter six, “shall we do evil — commit sin — that grace might abound?” He’s just been saying: “where sin abounded grace does much more abound.” “Very well,” says someone. “This is a marvelous doctrine, this ‘Go and get drunk, do what you like, the grace of God will put you right.’” Antinomianism. Now, this doctrine of the Scriptures — this justification by faith only, this free grace of God in salvation — is always exposed to that charge of Antinomianism. Paul was charged with it . . . So I say, it is a very good test of preaching. You see — what is not evangelical preaching is this: It’s the kind of preaching that says to people, “Now, if you live a good life; if you don’t commit certain sins; and if you do good to others; and if you become a church member and attend regularly and are busy and active you will be a fine Christian and you’ll go to Heaven.” That’s the opposite of evangelical preaching — and it isn’t exposed to the charge of Antinomianism because . . . it is telling men to save themselves by their good works . . . And it’s not the Gospel — because the Gospel always exposes itself to this misunderstanding from the standpoint of Antinomianism. So, let all of us test our preaching, our conversation, our talk to others about the Gospel by that particular test . . . if you are not misunderstood and slanderously reported from the standpoint of Antinomianism, it’s because you don’t believe the Gospel truly and you don’t preach it truly.
God’s grace is so radical and his gospel so pervasive, that it’ll always be scandalously viewed as “antinomian” if preached and teached accurately. This isn’t condoning antinomianism (not at all), for the law of God has definite and specific applications for us today. But, it does point us to the nature of gospel of grace, which is, indeed, supra-rational, not irrational; it’s not against reason, it’s far above and beyond the limits of our finite intelligence — it defies human logic.
Even though Paul had never visited the Roman church, I love that he counts on their questions to the gospel within his letter. After the scandalous promise of Romans 5:20, the apostle proceeds, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1) Here, Paul begins to address the charge of lawlessness, antinomianism, that was laid against the gospel. And in verses 1–14, especially, he anticipates their confusion over the abounding grace of the gospel and answers the idea of “too much grace” in a very profound way.
Too often, the charge against the doctrine of free grace is that is produces lawlessness — that if we focus “too much” on grace, people will take advantage of it. This has caused many pastors and preachers to curtail their sermons on grace and reduce them to nothing more than moralistic messages. This reduction of grace does nothing more than cage and nullify it. By succumbing to preaching nothing more than mere moralism with a sprinkling of Jesus — “be good”; “try harder”; “be nice”; “do more”; “don’t do this”; “avoid this”; etc. — pastors have made the gospel, essentially, meaningless. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Gal. 2:21)
This caging of the gospel and confining of grace into means and circumstances we can understand and control is, indeed, heresy. By preaching grace with even a hint of exchange or demand, we negate it — we render it useless (Rom. 11:6), and prove the fact that we don’t really trust it to do its work. The fact is, if God stopped giving grace the moment we took advantage of it, he would’ve stopped doling out grace two millennia ago! God knows we’ll take his grace for granted and take advantage of his mercy, even before we do, and yet, he favors, accepts, and loves us, unconditionally, anyways. (Luke 17:15)
Let’s Go Deeper
What Paul shows us in Romans 6 is that the answer to lawlessness isn’t more law, it’s more grace. The apostle’s answer to, “Should we keep on sinning to experience more grace?” isn’t to run from the gospel, but to push further into it. Paul doesn’t castrate the gospel of grace by adding qualifiers or footnotes, by deferring to a moral-gospel, by preaching “Christianity-and.” No, he goes deeper into the gospel. In Romans 6, God, through the pen of Paul, shows us the substitutionary nature of the atonement, Jesus’s work of redemption for us.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 6:4–11)
Those who think they need to preach law in response to sin don’t understand the gospel, nor do they trust its power. The fact is, focusing on the law doesn’t make you more lawful, it makes you more lawless. Preaching moralism, with a little Jesus sprinkled in, doesn’t produce morality, it actually produces immorality; preaching the law doesn’t produce lawfulness, it actually produces lawlessness. Honing in on the law and all the demands of what we need to do eventually causes people to give up. And who’s to blame them? If all we ever hear is “do this,” “do that,” “try harder,” “be perfect,” what’s to stop us from throwing in the towel altogether? We know in our heart of hearts that we’re not making it nor can we ever measure up to Matthew 5:48, so why don’t we just give up now and stop wasting our time? May it never be!
Lawlessness and moral laxity don’t occur when we hear too much grace, but too little of it. Grace doesn’t produce lawlessness — it doesn’t give people a license to sin — grace produces devotion and loyalty. If you trust in the grace of Jesus, everyday you wake up to something infinitely better than a “clean slate” — we wake up every morning being perfectly loved and forgiven and accepted by God despite our unclean slate — we’re showered with grace despite and in spite us. This is the “newness of life” that Paul speaks of (Rom. 6:4) — a life free from the burden to save yourself and justify yourself and validate yourself and establish yourself — it’s a life free from pressure.
The Pressure’s Off
In the gospel, says J. D. Greear, “Jesus puts acceptance before change because he knew we’ll never have the power to change if we never had the power of acceptance.” God’s acceptance is the power that liberates us from sin; it’s not the reward for having liberated ourselves. You can never earn or win God’s favor, acceptance, or grace; it’s not attained, it’s obtained. That’s what makes it so radical. And it’s what makes the words of Christ, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” truly remarkable. (John 8:11) To the self-righteous, insisting upon his own goodness and merit, God gives that solemn reply, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matt. 7:23) To the despondent, those who are all too aware of their desperate need for grace, he says, “Your sins are forgiven . . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:48, 50) Christ’s gospel of grace doesn’t make you love God less, it spurs new and deeper love for him. We don’t deserve one ounce of God’s grace and love, and yet, we’re drowning in it! Indeed, “if grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking.”
The more we understand and come to grips with the enormity of the gospel, the more we’ll follow God’s will and obey his commands, willingly. When we truly understand the nature of God’s grace and love, we’re compelled, “constrained,” to serve God and live for him. (2 Cor. 5:14–21) What God’s after isn’t just some blind obedience, he’s after a whole new kind of obedience: an obedience that grows from desire. He longs for you to seek righteousness because you love righteousness; for you to seek God because you crave God. And you’ll crave God when you realize the gravity of his forgiveness. (Matt. 18:21–35) “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. And he said to her, Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:47–48) Our problem isn’t that our desire for sin is too strong, it’s that our desire for God is too weak. Our passion for God doesn’t grow as we’re told to grow, but only as we marvel at his grace. “The ultimate measure of our spirituality,” says Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “is our amazement at the grace of God.” As you come to grips with your own desperate need for grace, your devotion and desire for the gospel grows. The more we realize the radical forgiveness and amazing grace of God, the more we’ll want to do everything we can to live for him. It’s grace that spurs us, grace that carries us, grace that “leads us home.” Too much grace? There’s no such thing.
Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954).
Brennan Manning, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2011).