Grace: What It Isn’t, What It Is (4)
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. 1 John 2.1, 2
“Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” Luke 17.3, 4
Grace and forgiveness
Of course, the greatest, most amazing and most marvelous aspect of the grace of God, is that it deals effectively with the problem of our sin.
But what’s the problem with our sin? Those who don’t believe the Gospel don’t seem to have a problem with sin. They don’t talk about things like sin or wickedness or evil because to them, morality is relative. They insist that people are basically good, and that, therefore, all moral conduct is in some degree good, or at least, good enough.
There are exceptions of course – murder, theft, rape, enslavement, embezzlement, and so forth – but even among those who practice such evils, justifications are not hard to conjure. And because such morals are relative, we have witnessed constant slippage even in these categories, as in the now-normative status of such previously heinous moral actions as adultery, abortion, prostitution, and lying.
Among the communities of those who believe the Gospel, sin doesn’t seem to be a central concern, either. As we’ve seen, where sin abounds in the churches of the land, “grace” much more abounds – thus ensuring that sin will continue to abound, and we’ll all be just OK with that.
All this notwithstanding, the problem of sin remains. All human beings are born in sin. A law of sin exists in our souls, and inclines us toward rebellion against God and His truth and love for self as the defining virtue. We are stained and corrupted before birth, and even when we want to do what is right and good, we more often than not end up doing what is best for our own interests.
What’s so amazing about the grace that is revealed in Christ Jesus is that it overcomes the sin problem in two ways. First, it deflects the judgment due for our sin away from us, so that we don’t have to bear the punishment our selfishness deserves. And second, it lands that deflected wrath squarely onto Jesus, hanging on the cross. He becomes the sin-bearer for the world, and the scape goat Who takes our sins away and separates them from us as far as the east is from the west. He pays the price of our sin, and He takes our sins away. What a Savior!
But the work of Christ is not a blank check for the forgiveness of sins. There are conditions.
Not for salvation
The work of Christ is not a blank check for the forgiveness that leads to eternal life – salvation. Just because Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the grave doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be saved. At first glance, John’s words might seem to give that impression. If Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world”, then doesn’t that indicate that the whole world will be saved?
Well, no. Jesus Himself warned that many are called to the gift of salvation, but only those chosen by grace (a concept we will consider more carefully in future installments) will experience the grace that accomplishes salvation by faith. The grace of Jesus is effectual to save those on whom God sets His love for salvation.
At the same time, the work of Christ, and the grace that work embodies, is sufficientto forgive the sins of every person who ever has lived or will live. All who desire to know the grace that leads to salvation can turn to Jesus, receive grace and forgiveness, and believe in Him for eternal life. But not all will do this. Many, as Scripture testifies over and over, will die in their sins, and this will have been their own choice. Rather than follow-up on the knowledge of God embedded in their very being, to seek Him and find in Jesus the grace that leads to salvation, many people reject that seed of knowledge, burying it under the concrete of unbelief and unrighteous lives, and daily adding to the denial of the knowledge of God by their continuing worship of self-interest (cf. Rom. 1.18-32; Acts 17.26, 27). Such people are still the recipients of grace, as the God of grace continues to woo and strive with them by His abundant goodness; but by rejecting the saving grace of God in Christ, those who will not believe consign themselves, by their own choice, to eternal perdition. The grace of Jesus is sufficient to pay for their sins, but it will not be effectual thereunto in those who refuse to believe.
Not for sin
Nor is the grace of God a blank check of forgiveness for those who sin and do not repent. Here is an area where Christians, out of the best of intentions, sometimes contribute to the watering-down of grace by their too-ready granting of forgiveness to those who sin against them.
We need to make a distinction between forgiveness and love. God loves all human beings. He lavishes His grace upon all people, even those who deny or despise Him, even His enemies (Matt. 5.45-48). God loves all because He is love, and this is what love does.
But God does not forgive everyone. Forgiveness is a transaction in which wrong is admitted, justice is satisfied, reconciliation is achieved, and God and His glory and truth are vindicated. As we’ve seen, those who will not admit wrongdoing and receive the grace of forgiveness that is free and available through Jesus, choose to remain unforgiven and are thus condemned. God continues to love them. But He does not forgive them.
We should follow the divine example. Jesus said that when someone sins against us, we should forgive him when he comes to us seeking forgiveness (Lk. 17.3, 4). We must continue to love those who sin against us, but we overstep the bounds and function of grace if we forgive those who are unrepentant, and whose subservience to the law of sin thus makes it impossible for justice to be satisfied and reconciliation to be achieved.
So if grace is neither mere good feeling, nor a license to sin, nor a blank check for forgiveness, what is it?
1. What’s the difference between saying that the grace of Jesus is sufficient and that it is effectual? How do each of these aspects of God’s grace apply to you?
2. Why is it inevitable that some people will never realize the saving grace of God? What is our responsibility toward such people?
3. What’s the difference between love and forgiveness? Why is it important to understand this distinction?
Next Steps – Demonstration: Who are the people in your Personal Mission Field (Don’t know? Watch this brief video.) How will you show the grace of God to each of them today?
Grace flows from our relationship with Jesus Christ. The better we know Him, the more His grace will do its work in us. Our book, To Know Him, can help you in drawing closer to Jesus and increasing in Him. Order your copy by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Not a Blank Check for Forgiveness
- T.M. Moore
- August 26, 2019
We must love all, but we may not forgive all. God doesn't.
Grace: What It Isn’t, What It Is (4)
T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.