Talk of sin and grace is out of style. Now, before we attack the culture, secularism, or those other Christians who are not part of our tribe, it’s important to ask two questions: Do I believe in sin and grace as a reality? Do I recognize sinfulness in my own life, and do I see God’s ongoing, supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in my life as a work of God’s grace?
Sin and grace are core doctrines of Christianity. Sin, rebellion against God, a state of defiance—this is not just something I do, but something I am. To be a human being, Christian or non-Christian, is to be a sinner. This is important because only sinners are saved by grace, and Christians remain sinners. Holiness, sanctification, the work of the Spirit is only begun—Christians won’t see perfection in this life.
We are declared saints and we are becoming saints, but we don’t completely model sainthood yet. We still sin. We still have twisted desires. We still feel the tensions of this present evil age working within our heart. Anyone who is married can confirm this. A spouse is a good mirror to reveal our worst side. So how does our denial of sin and grace show itself in our life?
1. We reveal a grace-denying heart when we treat God casually.
To treat God casually is to lose a sense that God is holy. It’s an attempt to tame God, to ignore the sides we don’t like. It’s like treating a lion as a house cat. Michael Horton explains it this way:
[T]he transcendent God of majesty and holiness succumbed to a casual familiarity. Although only one in ten Americans say that they have ever doubted God’s existence, most say that they view God exclusively as a friend rather than as a king and “only a small minority” report having ever experienced fear of God. (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, 53)
When you read the Bible, you don’t find a God to be taken lightly. God is king over all creation. God is holy. God is working in the world to save it. God is not my homeboy, nor is God a genie granting wishes or a grandfatherly figure who turns his face from evil.
2. We reveal a grace-denying heart when we treat the gospel therapeutically.
To treat the gospel therapeutically shows itself in many ways. Tony Robbins’ I Am Not Your Guru is a good example (although please do not watch this if vulgar language offends you). The people who come to events like Tony Robbins’ pay a lot of money to find themselves, improve themselves, become successful, or find healing from some tragedy.
These are all legitimate pursuits, and maybe people like Tony Robbins, despite his language, can help people. But this is not Christianity. Christianity is not a wholesome alternative to self-improvement. God never promised prosperity or comfort in this life. The apostles were not successful by the world’s standards.
It’s true that God cares about our well-being. He provides for our needs. He wants to heal our broken lives. He wants to help us in our weaknesses. He wants to move us to good works for the sake of others. But the difference between therapy and the gospel lies in one important distinction: God cares about so much more than our emotional well-being. The gospel is not a self-help program to make us feel better. Michael Horton explains it this way:
[A]s religion is privatized into a kind of therapeutic usefulness, sin and redemption are translated in subjective rather than objective categories. Christ, then, is the answer to bad feelings, not any actual state of enmity or guilt before God. Everything that used to be considered a sovereign work of God, through his appointed means of preaching and sacrament, is now attributed to the self (or the evangelist) working through the most efficient steps and techniques. We recognize this pragmatic orientation in the “how-to” literature that lines the shelves of Christian bookstores and pastors’ studies. (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity, 53)
Salvation is more than therapy, and often the gospel leaves us weak, broken, and suffering so that God can demonstrate his grace in our lives for the sake of those around us. This seems counter-intuitive, but that is the point. God gets the glory when God keeps us dependent upon his grace and mercy.
3. We reveal a grace-denying heart when we make excuses for our own graceless Christianity.
It’s important in these discussions to realize that I am just as guilty for a therapy approach to Christianity. It’s easy to find a sinless and graceless Christianity in everyone else, but that is not the point. Self-help religion is our natural wiring. It’s easy to see this in others, but much harder to see this in my own heart. The answer to the temptation to turn the gospel of grace into a self-help religion of good morals or successful living demands practice.
We need to hear the law. We need to hear that we ourselves are still sinners. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need to engage in regular self-reflection and self-criticism. We need to expose our own sinful hearts, and allow the light of God’s Word to reveal our sinful desires. We need to confess our sins and our continual need for grace to God. We need to pray: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:14). We need to continually hear the message of grace: that God accepts us as his children through faith in Jesus and that God gives us the Holy Spirit to help us, to keep us focused on Jesus, to draw us to love those around us.
We need to look at other people tempted by the same self-help religion and love them. We need to be a gracious presence in their life. We need to remind them of the gospel. We need to pray with them and for them. And we need to hope that they will do the same for us.
When hearing about self-help religion, it’s easy to become proud thinking that we are immune and that we are the solution, that we need to go around pointing out sins and exposing people’s graceless approach to Christianity. But we need to watch out that our approach is not itself graceless self-help.
If we think that we are the “successful” Christians who have all our theology figured out and are truly committed to the way, we need to ask ourselves some important questions: “Is this the heart that the Holy Spirit produces?” “Do I treat others expecting that the Holy Spirit will help them?” “Is my approach toward people kind?”
Self-help religion is a problem, but so is being a graceless jerk. May God help us in both areas to continually seek the grace of acceptance with God and the grace of the Holy Spirit’s power to love people as much as doctrine. As Christians, our hope is not in how much we believe grace or how much our lives reveal the effects of grace. Our hope is in the grace of God, and the gospel is the good news that God is gracious and merciful to us.