Grace Without Buts and Brakes
When people talk about grace, listen carefully. I’ve listened long enough to listen for certain things. I listen for “buts and brakes.” We often speak about grace with a thousand qualifications which reveal a paralyzing fear that grace will be taken too far. Our greatest concern, it seems, is that people will take advantage of grace and use it as a justification to live licentiously. And since bad behavior is apparently the thing that scares us the most as preachers and parents, we end up saying more about what grace isn’t than we do about what grace is.
Matt Richard describes well how naturally we take it upon ourselves to reign grace in when we fear too much of it will result in lawlessness:
I have found that as Christians we many times attribute ‘lawlessness’ to the preaching of the Gospel. Somewhere in our thinking we rationalize that if the Gospel is presented as “too free, too unconditional or that Jesus fulfills the law for us” that the result will be lax morality, loose living and lawlessness. It is as if we believe that the freeing message of the Gospel actually produces, encourages and grants people a license to sin. Because of this rationalization we find ourselves strapping, holding and attaching restrictions to the Gospel so that we might prevent or limit lawlessness. In other words, the Gospel is placed into bondage due to our rationalization and reaction to lawlessness.
The truth, whether we admit it or not, is that grace scares us to death. It scares us primarily because it wrestles control and manageability out of our hands–introducing chaos and freedom. And so we find creative ways to qualify it. We speak and live with a “yes grace, but” tone. We’re afraid to simply let it be as drastically unsafe, unconditional, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and undomesticated as it truly is.
That’s one reason why I am rejoicing over my friend Dane Ortlund’s new book Defiant Grace. Dane has written a book on grace with no “buts and brakes.” He’s a fearless writer and scholar who rightly acknowledges the unsettling, messy, counter-intuitive nature of amazing grace–”beyond price and yet totally free.” In the introduction he writes:
For the grace that comes to us in Jesus Christ is not measured. This grace refuses to allow itself to be tethered to our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity, and balancing of the scales. It is defiant…However much we may laud grace with our lips, our hearts are so thoroughly law-marinated that the Christian life must be, at core, one of continually bathing our hearts and minds in gospel grace. We are addicted to law. Conforming our lives to a moral framework, playing by the rules, meeting a minimum standard-this feels normal. And it is how we naturally medicate that deep sense of inadequacy within. The real question is not how to avoid becoming a Pharisee; the question is how to recover from being the Pharisee we already, from the womb, are.
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Law feels safe. Grace feels risky. Rule-keeping breeds a sense of manageability; grace feels like moral vertigo. After all, if all that we are is by grace, there is no limit to what God can ask of us. But if some corner of our virtue is due to personal contribution, there is a ceiling on what God can ask of us. He can bring us only so far. He can only ask so much.
Such is not the call of Christ. The Jesus of the Gospels defies our domesticated, play-by-the-rules morality. It was the most extravagant sinners of Jesus’ day who received his most compassionate welcome; it was the most scrupulous law-abiders who received his most searing denunciation. The point is not that we should therefore take up sin. The point is that we should lay down the silly insistence on leveraging our sense of self-worth with an ongoing moral record. Better a life of sin with penitence than a life of obedience without it.
It is time to enjoy grace anew. Not the decaffeinated grace that pats us on the hand, ignores our deepest rebellions, and doesn’t change us, but the high-octane grace that takes our conscience by the scruff of the neck and breathes new life into us with a pardon so scandalous that we cannot help but be changed. It’s time to blow aside the hazy cloud of condemnation that hangs over us throughout the day with the strong wind of gospel grace. “You are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). Jesus is real, grace is defiant, life is short, risk is good. For many of us the time has come to abandon once and for all our play-it-safe, toe-dabbling Christianity and dive in. It is time, as Robert Farrar Capon put it, to get drunk on grace. Two hundred-proof, defiant grace.
Pure gold, huh? I think so.
So, as you listen to people talk about grace, here’s a helpful practice: listen for the “but.” You won’t hear it in Dane’s book. You won’t feel the tapping of the brakes and you won’t see a list of qualifications. What you’ll encounter is “grace unmeasured, vast and free.” It’ll frighten you and free you at the same time. After all, that’s what grace does.
As I’ve said before: whether it’s a sermon, a book, a blog post, or a tweet-if the lasting impression you get causes you to focus more on what you must do than on what Christ has done, the gospel of grace has not been communicated and the communicator (albeit, unwittingly) is no better than the Pharisees who were charged by Jesus with “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4). Beware of preaching that, in the words of Herman Bavinck, “acknowledges that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ but then seems to think that we are then sanctified by a holiness we ourselves have acquired.” It is through the preaching of grace that Jesus summons sinners (both Christians and non-Christians) and says, “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 11:28-29). The difference between “religion” and the gospel of grace is that religion gives burdens by announcing that Jesus plus something equals everything while the gospel of grace absorbs burdens announcing that Jesus plus nothing equals everything.
Thanks, Dane, for reminding us of this without flinching!