One thing I love about our church is the Pastors’ Wives Program that is designed to equip and encourage women whose husbands are in the church’s Reformed Evangelical Pastors’ College. We meet each week to learn about how to shepherd and care for women, how to come alongside our husbands in loving the church, and how to cultivate our own families to love God and the church. Last year we were tasked with each writing a talk on an attribute of God. I learned quickly that writing a talk is very different from writing a blog post! I was thankful for the months we all spent learning how to write, communicate, and speak.
For this week’s post, I’ve just used my transcript from my talk recording about the attribute of God’s grace. It was challenging for me to write (I quickly realized I actually knew very little about His grace!), and yet God taught me and encouraged me through learning about grace in His Word than I ever could have imagined!
I look forward to posting transcripts from the other Pastors’ Wives ladies over the coming months, and hope you’ll be encouraged!
If you’d rather listen, you can find a link to the Unshaken Podcast here.
In the summer of 2018, a boys’ soccer team and their coach became trapped while hiking in a cave in Northern Thailand. 12 boys ages 11-16 and their 25 year old coach had been hiking together in a cave when an unexpected storm with torrential rain hit the area. Water flooded into the cave blocking their only exit and trapping them nearly 3 miles from the cave’s entrance. I remember watching the news coverage as military operations and rescue teams from around the world worked together to devise a search and rescue plan. Without a rescue plan, the boys would die. The 2.5 mile trail they had taken into the cave was full of water from floor to ceiling. They had no food with them. Even if they did have food, they were limited on oxygen in their cavern…the water blocking the exit passages made their cavern like an air bubble with a finite amount of oxygen. But even if they did somehow get food and oxygen, the approaching rains of monsoon season would soon flood the caves and drown them.
They were helpless.
They were as good as dead.
There was nothing they could do to save themselves.
They waited in that dark, silent cave day after day hoping that someone would find them in time.
They didn’t realize it in the moment, but miles away at the mouth of the cave, a grand rescue plan was being organized. The rescue team was composed of 10,000 people…military members, cave experts, medical personnel, and professional scuba divers from around the world had set up camp and were frantically racing against the clock to save them before the next rainstorm would drown the boys. They decided they would send scuba divers through the pitch black flooded miles of cavern to look for them. This was extremely dangerous. It would require diving for multiple hours at a time through dark tunnels of water with a limited amount of oxygen. With one wrong turn a diver could easily get lost in the flooded labyrinth and run out of air. But they were willing to risk their own lives to save the lives of these boys they had never even met.
The divers entered into the cold cave and charted their way through the caverns. First, they had to place guidelines and chart accurate maps so the divers wouldn’t get lost…they only had a few hours of oxygen in their tank, they couldn’t afford even one wrong turn. Then, they began to systematically search every cavern and flooded tunnel in the cave. They rotated divers to give them rest and meals in between their hours long dives. Cavern after cavern and tunnel after tunnel returned no sign of the missing boys.
Yet the rescuers persevered on.
Miraculously, 10 days after the boys had gone missing, divers surfaced in one of the flooded caverns to see 13 pairs of eyes looking back at them in disbelief. The boys and their coach had been found. They were cold, filthy, and weak, but they were all still alive. But the hardest work was still to come.
What ensued was a high stakes, intense removal rescue operation. The boys could not be removed all at once, it would need to be one at a time. The boys had no scuba gear, it would need to be swam into them. They had no scuba experience, they would need a diver’s expertise. The length, risk, and difficulty of the three hour dive out of the cave meant the boys would need to be sedated to prevent them from panicking or using up the oxygen tank too quickly (beacause they needed slow and steady breaths to conserve oxygen…probably hard to do in a dark, claustrophobic, underwater environment.) So over the course of several days, each of the boys was individually sedated, suited in an oxygen mask, and tethered to a scuba diver. Doctors trained them in how to give each boy an injectable sedative. The scuba diver would have to surface in various air bubbles in the cave to re-sedate the boy they were carrying. If the boy woke up during the rescue dive, he could panic and sink both himself and the diver. If the boy was too sedated during the dive, his airway could close and cause him to die from lack of oxygen. Amazingly, all 12 boys and their coach survived the ordeal.
It is hard for me to imagine being one of the 13 trapped in that cave. With no hope of survival. Patiently waiting for death. Can you imagine what it would be like to go 10 days in darkness, and then see the light of that diver growing brighter in the black water until your rescuer emerged from the darkness?
How would surviving such an ordeal impact your life?
How would you be forever changed?
You and I have experienced a rescue. It is a rescue more miraculous than even being trapped in a flooded cave. Colossians 1:13 says:
“He rescued us from the domain of darkness,
and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Before Christ, you and I had no hope. We were like those boys stuck in a cave staring death in the face. We were dead in our trespasses and there was nothing we could do about it. There was no way to rescue ourselves…it would be like trying to hold our breath and swim through 3 miles of underwater cave. Completely impossible.
Ephesians 2 says:
“But God, being rich in mercy,
because of His great love with which He loved us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
made us alive together with Christ.”
“It is by grace we have been saved through faith;
and not of ourselves, it is the gift of God;
not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Christ saved us from certain death…rescued us from the cave of sin and death. It is a gift of grace, not our own works. Yes, we, like those 12 Thai boys, have experienced an incredible, life-saving rescue operation. And it should change everything about us.
But sometimes, it doesn’t.
Defining Cheap Grace & Legalism
It is by grace we have been saved.
Yet sometimes we forget this.
We hear the word grace so much that I think we often forget what it actually means.
We forget the weight of what God’s grace means for our lives.
Sometimes we fall into cheap grace, where we focus so singularly on God’s grace that we minimize many of His other attributes and the reality and danger of sin. We begin to elevate the attribute of God’s grace above His other attributes and can forget that, while God is gracious, He is also just, omnipotent, and so many other attributes. Cheap grace talks about grace so much that it becomes numb to what grace is and how it should impact our lives and so, our lives end up looking not much different than the world around us.
And then sometimes we fall into the other side of the spectrum- we fall into legalism, where we rely on our own works for salvation and forgiveness. We rely on our own behavior for our righteousness. And although we may look pretty good on the outside, a legalistic heart lacks true repentance.
It is by God’s grace we have been saved through faith.
It is by God’s grace we have been rescued from the cave of sin and death.
After such a rescue operation, our lives should look different.
As I’ve spent time digging through the Word and what it says about God’s grace, there are two things in particular that have stood out to me concerning how His grace should impact how we live. And these are the two things I want to focus on during our time together:
- Grace should bring about repentance
- Grace should bring about obedience
What does this mean and what does this look like practically? Let’s dive in! (pun intended!)
Cheap Grace And Repentance: Does God Care What TV Shows I Watch?
Alright, First. Grace should bring about repentance
“Do you think lightly of the riches of God’s kindness and tolerance and patience?”
“Do you know that the kindness of God should lead us to repentance?”
These are the questions Paul asks in Romans 2:5 to those reading his letter.
Repentance is acknowledging our sin before God and turning from it with the help of the Spirit. A repentant heart is critical in the life of a Christian. When we acknowledge how God has saved our souls through the gift of His Son, it should make us want to confess, repent, and turn from sin in our life.
I remember in college watching a reality TV show that I really enjoyed. It had been a tradition to watch it every week with friends, and it became a weekly event I really looked forward to. But one week as we were watching I began thinking about if what I was doing was honoring to God. There were pretty obvious themes, language, attire, and messages in this show that clearly went against things the Bible calls us to as godly women. I felt conflicted.
I wondered: Should I keep watching? Was this okay?
And then I tried to justify to myself:
Wasn’t this show just for fun and to spend time with friends?
Surely I wasn’t really being that influenced or living like those people on the screen.
Does God really care what I watch on TV?
I was assured by myself and others that it wasn’t a big deal, and even if it was sin, there’s grace for that!
Now the Bible may not specifically talk about watching TV, but it does talk about dwelling on things that are honorable, pure, and lovely…and avoiding things that are immoral, impure, or full of passion, evil desire, and greed. And this TV show certainly included a lot of those things we are called to avoid.
My attitude about watching this TV show was one of cheap grace.
I was treating the grace and kindness of God lightly.
I wanted to do what I enjoyed without having to give any thought as to whether or not it was sin. Because I knew I had forgiveness through Christ, I didn’t want to have to look at all aspects of my life to see if there were things that needed to change. That’s a lot of work! If it wasn’t specifically mentioned in the Bible, I would rather just rely on grace and not worry about if I was honoring God. But I knew this attitude was wrong. I knew it was abusing God’s grace towards me. I confessed and repented and, in His kindness, God helped me to desire filling my time with things that honored Him.
Maybe for you, it isn’t a questionable TV show that causes you to cheapen God’s grace (or maybe it is! I don’t know!). But are there other things in your life that you do that may not be inherently bad, yet you know don’t honor God? Maybe books you read, songs you listen to, social media images that come across your feed…could you ask God’s blessing on the things you do during your day or in your free time, or would it feel shameful-a little slimy- to ask His blessing?
Cheap grace leads to an unrepentant heart and apathy, or even hopelessness, towards sin. Cheap grace believes that God’s grace is not powerful enough to truly change us. It tells us to just accept sin and trust that God will forgive us later. Giving up watching a questionable TV show may seem like a trivial example. But how many women do you know who live enslaved to anxiety, perpetual anger towards their children, bitterness, or same sex attraction. They justify sin because they believe that it’s just who they are, that they can’t change, that their hormones or personality make this sin part of their identity.
But this is a lie.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can fight sin in our lives. We can have hope that God will help us fight sin and that we don’t have to forever be slaves to it. Don’t believe the lie of cheap grace. Instead, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.
When it comes to repentance, cheap grace tells us not to bother repenting because there is no hope for living a life that honors God. Cheap grace tells us our actions don’t really matter.
Legalism & Repentance: Why Trying Harder Isn’t Enough
Legalism, on the other hand, tells us not to worry about repenting because we are the hope for living a life that honors God.
Have you ever been in a cycle with a particular sin that you feel like you just can’t break? Maybe you’re a single woman in a relationship that is in a cycle of sexual sin. Maybe you’re a mother who feels like you are continually yelling at your kids. You sin, feel bad, and then…commit to trying harder. Next time, you won’t give in to temptation. Next time, you won’t get mad at your children. But then next time comes and it happens again. And the cycle continues. Sometimes we think if we just try harder we will be free from a certain sin. But in all of our efforts, and even in our good intentions, we neglect to ask God to change our hearts. We neglect to repent and ask the spirit to help change us, and instead rely on our own efforts to break the cycle of sin.
The truth is, our hearts are deceitful above all else and desperately sick. Without Christ, we are dead in our trespasses. We cannot break the cycle of sin on our own. Let’s go back to the boys in the Thailand cave. They could not escape the cave in their own effort. They needed a rescuer. No matter how hard they could have tried, it would have been impossible for them to rescue themselves. We cannot free ourselves from sin in our own efforts alone. We need Christ, our rescuer. We need the Spirit to help us as we fight sin.
God’s grace should lead us to repentance. Is repentance a consistent part of your life? How often do you acknowledge your sin before God and ask Him to help you turn from it? Is it just a Sunday-during-church thing? I need the reminder to be daily turning to God, repenting of my sin, and asking Him to help me live a life that glorifies Him.
God’s kindness leads us to repentance. It leads us to a changed life and heart.
I wonder how the lives of those 12 boys in the Thai cave look different now. If I had to guess, I bet they don’t go caving anymore. God has been unfathomably kind to rescue us from sin and death. Are there parts of your life that don’t look different now than they did before you knew Christ?
Both cheap grace and legalism lead to unrepentant hearts. Cheap grace leads us to be apathetic about obedience so we begin to forget the importance of repenting. Legalism causes us to focus so much on what we do that we also begin to forget the importance of having a repentant heart.
Because of the kindness and goodness of His grace towards us, our response should be a true, repentant heart. God sent Jesus, His only son, to die on the cross for our sin. Through Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, we can have forgiveness and eternal life with God.
So, first we said grace should bring about repentance.
Next, and second, grace should bring about obedience.
So grace should bring about repentance. And grace should bring about obedience.
Cheap Grace & Obedience: When Rules Feel Too Restricting
We have received grace to bring about the obedience of our faith.
And we see throughout the Bible, God calls us to obey Him. He gives us specific instruction in how to live godly lives. He tells us about the blessings that obedience brings and the curses that disobedience brings. But when cheap grace and legalism distort our views of God’s grace, our view of obedience is also skewed.
Cheap grace skews our view of obedience…let me explain.
Let’s jump back to the cave in Thailand.
When the rescue diver approached the first boy to help him prepare to leave the cave, he gave the boy specific instructions. Can you imagine if the boy had replied saying “no thanks, I don’t want your help putting that oxygen mask on. Actually, I don’t think I even really want to wear it at all. I don’t like oxygen respirators and I find them uncomfortable. I don’t want to be strapped to you during this dive, that seems too restricting.”
That response would be ridiculous. But when we subscribe to cheap grace, this is our response to God. When we cheapen His grace, we cheapen the importance of obedience. We start to view obedience as optional and fail to see how critical it is to honoring God.
Now I know this part of the analogy breaks down at a few levels, but my point is these boys knew who their rescuer was and so they obeyed what they were asked to do…even when it didn’t make sense. Even when it was scary. They trusted their rescuer and were grateful for the life the rescuer gave them. They knew it was wise to not disobey or disregard the instructions of the rescuer. You better believe they hung on to his instruction like their lives depended on it! And for them, their lives really did depend on it! Praise God our salvation cannot be lost even when we sin God, but the gift of His grace should lead us to want to obey Him.
God calls us to obey Him, and He shows us in His Word and through His Spirit exactly what this means. If my heart truly understood the incredible gift of being saved through His grace, my actions and heart should follow. My heart should be bothered by sin. I should desire to obey Him in thought, word, and deed.
Grace brings about obedience.
Cheap grace is an attitude of not caring whether or not we obey.
Then, there’s legalism.
Legalism & Obedience: How Do You Get Into Heaven?
So legalism, on the other hand, is an attitude of putting our hope in obedience instead of Christ.
Here’s an example for you:
When my husband and I were newly married, we worked together in campus ministry at a local university. We spent many of our days on campus sharing the Gospel and meeting with both Christian and non-Christian students. When talking about the Gospel with students, I often would ask them this question: Where do you think you will go when you die and why?
Interesting enough, there were a lot of similarities between Christians and non-Christians when they answered this question. Both types of people gave answers rooted in works. Non-Christians would typically say something like “I think I’d go to heaven because I’m a pretty good person…at least, I haven’t killed anybody and I try to do my best.” Christians, on the other hand, would often say something like “I think I’d go to heaven because I was baptized when I was little and I go to church.” Many Christian students found righteousness in the amount of mission trips they went on, how many people they shared the Gospel with, and how well they knew the Bible.
And, if I’m honest, there have been times when I too have relied on my obedience over the work of Christ- times where I diminish God’s grace and look to my deeds for hope: I’m right with God because I…shared the Gospel today, didn’t yell at my kids today, wrote my husband an encouraging note today, read my Bible today…the list could probably keep going. Maybe you can relate.
Now doing things God has called us to is good! It is good to share the Gospel, to be patient with our children, to encourage others, and to read our Bible. These are good things that God has called us to do in His Word! But they become legalism when we look to these good things for righteousness. They become legalism when we do good things but our hearts are unrepentant.
If I were to ask you- like I used to ask those college students- where do you think you will go when you die and why…how would you reply?
For the Christian, we can have confidence that when we die, we will be with Christ in glory. Not because of the good things we did, or the number of times we went to church, or because we were baptized and said a prayer…but because God has saved us by grace through faith. We have been saved by grace, not by our works so that none may boast.
Our obedience to Him is a reflection of our changed hearts, not a means of salvation.
So, to summarize the relationship between grace and obedience:
Finding peace through God’s grace is a good thing!
Doing things that glorify God…working heartily to obey Him…is a good thing!
But these things must be tied together. If we relish His grace but don’t obey His Word, we have cheapened His grace. If we obey Him but have unrepentant hearts, we are putting hope in our obedience and actions over the work of Christ…we are legalistic.
In order to obey God’s Word, we most importantly need His Spirit. God gives us His Spirit to help us obey His Word. Which also means, we need to know God’s Word. When you think about your relationship with the Bible, how well do you feel you know what it says? It is a living and active Word that we will always be learning new things from, but it is so easy to not spend intentional time learning what it says. Responding to God’s grace through our obedience will be very hard if we don’t know how He calls us to obey. Let’s treasure God’s Word and always be asking Him to help us live lives that glorify Him.
Cheap Grace In My Life: Translation Issues & Linguistic Gymnastics
Now as we treasure God’s Word and diligently seek to learn it, it can be helpful to be aware of how we lean towards cheap grace or legalism…and how this might impact how we read the Bible.
For example, let’s say you sit down one morning in your comfy, Bible-reading spot in your home. You’ve got a cup of hot coffee in one hand and are ready to start your day! It’s warm and cozy, but then you come across a verse that makes you stop in your tracks:
“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
What do I do with that?
It’s a hard verse. One that tends to make people a little uncomfortable. And so we have a choice to make. Will we engage with the hard truths in God’s Word? Or will we turn to cheap grace and legalism to help us deal with a verse like this?
Here’s how cheap grace deals with Matthew 5:48.
Cheap grace reads “therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” and says…”Perfect? Perfect? PERFECT? Nah. It can’t mean that. Must be a mistake. Or a cultural issue. Or a translation issue. Yes. A translation issue!”
Do you know what happened when I typed in “Matthew 5:48” into google? I found article after article and blog post after blog post about why Jesus could not possibly have meant to use the word “perfect” in this verse. The Christian authors of these articles and posts did all kinds of linguistic gymnastics to soften this verse. They desperately wanted to soften it into something that felt achievable. They thought “No, I can’t be perfect, but I can be whole or mature…yes, this verse doesn’t mean perfect, it means mature! Jesus wants us to be mature Christians!”
Cheap grace like this sees a verse like Matthew 5:48 and says “there is no way I can be perfect.” And, they are right. We are sinful. And yet this verse says “be perfect.” How is this possible? In our own efforts, it is not. We cannot make ourselves perfect before God. We need His grace. We need the gift of Christ…the one who was and is perfect. Through Him alone can we have forgiveness and righteousness through Christ.
Cheap grace looks at Matthew 5:48 and finds a way to change the meaning of perfect. But changing our views of God’s expectations for obedience does not change His expectations. Watering down or re-defining what God’s Word says about men and women, anxiety, forgiveness, anger, and obedience does not change what God’s Word actually says on these things. When we water down God’s Word, we miss how powerful and magnificent His grace is. We miss how good and gracious Christ is and we turn the focus to ourselves. When we water down the Word, we cheapen God’s grace.
The reality is that if God actually means to be perfect, there are things in my life that would need to change. It means I would need to give up things- maybe like a TV show- that I actually really enjoy. I don’t want to give it up. My heart does not want to give it up. It is so easy to rest in the fact that I can’t be perfect (so why try) instead of resting in the power of God to change my heart and change my life to better glorify Him.
I do not have the power to change my own heart. Instead of cheapening and lessening God’s expectations, I must ask and trust Him to change my heart to obey what He calls me to do.
I will not do it on my own.
I need Him.
I need His grace.
Legalism In My Life: Just Do All The Good Things
Legalism, on the other hand, reads verses like Matthew 5:48 (“Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) and responds thinking “God calls me to be perfect…so…I. will…be perfect! I can do this!” Legalism puts the emphasis on the “I.” It misses that perfect obedience cannot be achieved in our own power. Legalism is kind of sneaky, because it can be very hard to identify…on the outside it can look like true obedience. It may look like someone who really does seem to be trying to obey God perfectly.
-A person can read the Bible daily, go on mission trips, and attend church every Sunday and yet not know the grace of God.
-A person can share the Gospel, work in full-time ministry, and be involved in social justice causes and yet not know the grace of God.
-A person can have many children, memorize Scripture, and be hospitable with their home and yet not know the grace of God.
Legalism has outward deeds but no inward change. It has the appearance of obedience but a heart that lacks repentance.
Obeying God and living how He calls us to live is a good thing! Contrary to cultural belief, obedience is not a bad word, and it is not a bad thing!
Obedience is not legalism.
Obedience without a repentant heart is legalism.
Real obedience has outward actions and a repentant heart.
So, to close our time, let’s review:
Both cheap grace and legalism lack repentant hearts. Both believe grace can be earned through our own actions. Both lack repentant hearts because both lack an acknowledgment that grace comes through Christ alone.
Cheap grace tolerates and excuses sin, is apathetic towards God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience, and leads to a lack of repentance. It waters down God’s expectations to something we can achieve on our own.
Legalism puts hope in obedience instead of Christ alone, and puts trust in ourselves and our actions. It proudly thinks forgiveness and salvation can be earned.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we can probably all identify areas in our lives where we lean towards cheap grace and other areas where we lean towards legalism.
Where in your life are you operating under cheap grace? How can you tell?
Ask yourself…am I free from sin? Is there change in my life? When we identify ourselves by our sin, we are embracing cheap grace. When we embrace depression, anxiety, bitterness, unforgiveness…we are embracing cheap grace. God’s grace through Christ is powerful enough to not only forgive every sin, but to change our hearts as well. Do you trust God to help you turn from sin, or do you accept certain sins as just a part of who you will always be?
You have been saved by grace through faith.
We are no longer slaves to sin.
There is hope in Christ!
Where in your life are you operating under legalism? How can you tell? Ask yourself…is my heart repentant? Do you ask God to help you turn from your sin? Is repenting more than just a Sunday thing for you? Am I trying to turn from my sin by just “doing better” or do I look to the Spirit for help?
God is gracious. When we develop a Biblical understanding of God’s grace, it will lead us to repentance, obedience, and humility. It will cause us to praise Him and glorify Him! We have done nothing to deserve the grace He gives us. Praise God.
In July 2018, 12 boys and their coach were miraculously rescued from a flooded cave of certain death, and it changed their lives forever.
Through the grace of God, we have been rescued from darkness and transferred to the kingdom of Christ.
It is by God’s grace we have been saved through faith.
This truth has likewise changed our lives forever, even into eternity.