“Many Christians seem to understand the concept of being saved by grace, but they have missed the concept of being sustained by grace.” –James D. Mallory, Jr.
This quote struck a chord with me because it concisely explains what I’ve been trying to figure out how to say.
For several years I’ve understood grace to be the cross of Christ, the fact that we are even being given an opportunity to be reconciled with God. Of course, I saw grace in forgiveness when I repented for my sins after becoming a Christian as well, but there is still much more to it.
What makes grace so difficult is the ever-present argument of grace vs. works. You start to talk about one and end up having to spend more time just explaining how what you’re saying relates to the other. This is so unfortunate because in my experience, especially when applied to grace, it takes the power out of the truth.
An excellent quote by John Piper explains: “Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned. Grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin. Grace is power, not just pardon.”
The law and the commands found in the New Testament are not just given to show us what we can and should do, they’re given to crush us. They’re given to keep us dependent on God’s grace.
We’re all different and we all can probably fall into the category of having a tendency to either be a Pharisee or a prodigal. I’m more of a prodigal by nature, and my personality is such that I get overwhelmed and give up very easily. My faith has been defined by relentless cycles of both zeal and overwhelming burden and depression. Though I blame this partially on who I am, I’ve found that having a proper understanding of grace has changed my faith in an unexplainable way.
For me, becoming a Christian was very black-and-white and it was difficult to reconcile the fact that we will continuously be growing, and yet at the same time we should be completely changed in Christ. When I inevitably failed (and I held myself to basically perfect standards), I would be overcome by guilt and frustration that I was not where I thought I ought to be by that time. Sometimes this snowballed and led to a disinterest in spiritual things. It burdened our marriage and was made worse by my husband’s also limited understanding of grace – two young Christians with unrealistic expectations and little mercy led to many ups and downs and spiritual confusion.
I was coming out of one of the worst of these depressions and spiritual disinterest when my husband came across a book he thought I’d be interested in called “Give Them Grace; Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus.” Expecting a typical parenting how-to book, we were both intensely drawn in when the first several chapters were unexpectedly devoted to explaining the gospel in ways we hadn’t fully understood before.
It was at this point that I started to see the beauty in dependency on Christ; how His grace does enable us to change, but it is Him working through us, not any doing of my own. We will always need His grace; we will grow and change by it, but our nature will never be perfectly like His and it’s when we can see those failures and go to Him, thank Him for His grace and recognize that no matter how much we grow and do good, we will never not need Him, that we glorify Him most.
I’m reminded of the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee who both offered their prayers in the temple. While there is a very basic and simple meaning, I learned a deeper appreciation for it once I began understanding grace. I had always differentiated between the sinner and a Christian: the sinner’s attitude was obviously something we should strive for, but I had difficulty reconciling how to pray like him once becoming a Christian. To me, his humility was what we needed to come to Christ, but once we are changed by Him, where does that leave us? If I’m not “living in sin” and if in my own small mind, I can relate more to the Pharisee who doesn’t commit these blatant sins, how can I approach God with the humility of a sinner?
“‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” – Luke 18:12
The thing is, since learning more about how God’s grace plays out in my life, I’ve found myself praying like that multiple times a day.
Does this mean I’ve begun sinning more? Interestingly, no. It means I’ve become more aware of my sins, and quicker than I used to, since I found out about grace. I’ve realized how broken I am, and how much my recognizing that pleases God.
Before, I depended so much on myself…without realizing it at all. I reasoned that God gave His grace through the cross, and now it was my job to live to be like Christ. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that I could do it.
It’s a fine line for sure, but it has made all the difference to me.
I still strive to do the same commands I did before, I still absolutely believe that “grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin” but I’ve learned to release myself from the burden that overcame my spirituality before, and trust in God completely, admitting my inability apart from Him and natural brokenness, ungodliness. I’m ashamed when I sin, but instead of taking it out on myself, I take it to God, recognize my sinful nature, am more amazed by His perfection and greatness that exceeds anything I could ever aspire to, I thank Him for His grace despite my ugliness, and I pray fervently for whatever I need: a softer heart, humility, a desire for Him when my human nature is to forget Him despite all that I know of God and of myself.
“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14
Do you know what happens? I move on. I’m happier. Hopeful. Secure. Reliant on Him. Enabled to live for Him, to conform to Christ.
Do you know what happened before? Yes, I prayed, but I was blinded and I would wallow for hours, days. I would continue to fail while I was wallowing, so I’d wallow more until the burden was too great. Sometimes I would just give up on Christianity…not because I gave up on God, but because I gave up on myself.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” – Matthew 11:28
So many times, verses like these and concepts like grace ended at the cross, or at the waters of baptism for me. This was His call, I responded, and then it became a different game.
But that thinking won’t get you very far. Either you’ll be like me, and find the burden of the law too much to bear, or you’ll be like my husband who responds well to rules in general and as a result blinded himself to his faults, relying on his own works without realizing it, and yet saying it was all in the name of Christ.
Can grace, can the gospel, be explained in a short blog article? Sadly, no. So, no this isn’t exhaustive, yes there is sooo much more I wish I could say. Sure, some will want to add their two cents about “Yes, grace, but…” and part of me wants to write in a way that anticipates objections or explains more fully, but we’d be here all day. So, this is just a little, incomplete devotional thought that struck me today. And the all-encompassing title is misleading: this is not the only way grace has changed my faith. I’m just very slow in figuring out how to voice all of those changes. ;)
“Even though our children cannot and will not obey God’s law, we need to teach it to them again and again. And when they tell us that they can’t love God or others in this way, we are not to argue with them. We are to agree with them and tell them of their need for a Savior.
The law of God also hinders our advance toward righteousness because, in our pride, we think that if we just try hard enough or repent deeply enough, we’ll be able to obey it. We read the promises of life for obedience and think that means that we can do it. The promises of life for obedience are not meant to build our self-confidence. They’re meant to make us long for obedience and then, when we fail again, they’re meant to crush us and drive us to Christ.
…Again, that doesn’t mean that we don’t teach our children God’s law. We are commanded to do so but not to make them good. We are commanded to give them the law so that they will be crushed by it and see their need for a Savior. The law won’t make them good. It will make them despair of ever being good enough, and in that way it will make them open to the love, sacrifice, and welcome of their Savior, Jesus Christ.” – Elyse Fitzpatrick, Give Them Grace
“So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” – Luke 17:10