The Grace Boys

Those who (realize that they) are forgiven must love much (Lk 7:47). We can even say that love/gratitude is the highest motivation for Christian living. What we can’t say is that it is the Christian’s only valid motivation. Not by a long shot.

I know a little about God’s grace. I’ve experienced God’s grace in Christ in my own life. I’ve written three books with grace in the title. I’ve preached grace as an ordained minister for 28 years. Yet I am disturbed by certain ministries that only preach grace. They proclaim no other message. They know no other motive for the Christian life. They recognize no other gospel and insist that any formulation of the gospel that differs from their own is no gospel at all.

Essentially what the grace boys preach is this: sanctification by realization. Realize what Christ has done for you; realize His great love; realize His costly sacrifice; realize His gracious gift of salvation; realize your adoption and your security in Christ; realize the ongoing gift of the Spirit of Christ and His power for sanctification; realize all this and you will have all the motive you need to enter and sustain the Christian life.

When we succumb to temptation, or when we indulge our lust, when we bow to the idols of materialism and success, when we act selfishly or fail to love it is a sign that we need more gospel. No, we don’t need to be scolded (what the Bible calls “rebuked”) or warned or reminded of our duty, or threatened. No, no, no. When we indulge carnality and worldliness we don’t need LAW (a very scary word in these circles). We need to hear more, ever more about God’s love, His grace, His gifts, His Christ. These alone will provide the proper incentive to live the Christian life.

Is there a problem with this? Indeed, there is. The grace boys are being one-sided in a realm in which they need to be multi-sided. Undoubtedly they have identified the central motivation for the Christian life. Love mixed with gratitude is a powerful incentive. When we realize what God in Christ has done how can we not want to please, honor, and serve Him in return? Those who (realize that they) are forgiven must love much (Lk 7:47). We can even say that love/gratitude is the highest motivation for Christian living.

What we can’t say is that it is the Christian’s only valid motivation. Not by a long shot. What might be another valid motivation? Fear. “Conduct yourselves with fear,” says the Apostle Peter (1 Pet 1:17). “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” the writer to the Hebrews warns (Heb 10:31). “Terrifying?” Is this a part of the vocabulary of the justified? Apparently so.

Any others? Sure. Threats. God motivates believers by threatening them. He does this in Scripture all the time. In that great Epistle of Justification, Galatians, the Apostle Paul warns the church that those who practice the deeds of the flesh “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:19-21). He threatens the same to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9, 10). Threatening believers (it is to them that he is writing) with exclusion from heaven is a powerful incentive to obedience, is it not?

The holiness of God is meant to motivate us. We are to be holy because God is holy (Lev 11:44ff; 1 Pet 1:15, 16). His holiness is an incentive for our own. Yes, the cross is a great motivator for the Christian. So also is the holiness of God. The goodness of God, not just His grace, is also meant to motivate us. Because God causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, we are also meant to be good to all (Mt 5:43-48). Warnings play a significant role in the motivations for obedience throughout the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. Mt 5:21-48; 7:21-23). Both the promise of rewards (Mt 5:3-12; 2 Tim 2:5, 6; 4:8) and the threat of punishments (1 Cor 3:12-15; 4:`18-21) are valid incentives for Christian living.

What about the countless exhortations to do and go and be (not just “realize”), but actually get off our duffs and mortify, even crucify the flesh, die to self, put on the new man, and be filled with Christ’s Spirit (Rom 6:12ff; 8:12ff; Gal 5:24; 2:20; Eph 4:22f; 5:18ff; etc.)? Certainly we are exhorted in light of who Christ is and what Christ has done (e.g. Rom 12ff follow Rom 1:1-11; Eph 3-6 follows Eph 1 & 2). However, the facts of redemption are not endlessly repeated (as though the problem were, oops, I forgot again! Please remind me. What has Jesus done for me?), or worse, used to nullify the threats, warnings, and exhortations of Scripture.

The grace boys seem to recognize none of this. Human beings, even redeemed human beings, are complex. God uses a variety of means to motivate us. He uses carrots. He uses sticks. The richness is lost and the whole counsel of God is buried when the grace formula is imposed on every text of Scripture. In fact, distressing volumes of preaching in our day, even in our ecclesiastical circles, has become predictable, cliché, and boring. All of the Bible’s sharp edges have been blunted, ignored, or explained away in the name of grace preaching.

Simply put, it ain’t so. Oh, we’d love to think that none of the hundreds of warnings, threats, and exhortations applied to us. We’d love to believe that the Apostles never appeal to duty, hard work, sacrifice, and fear. We’d love to think we were beyond rewards and punishments. Yet we aren’t and they do. And we don’t do anyone any favors when we hide these biblical appeals in the name of preaching grace. We’re not sanctified merely by realization, unless we include the realization that we’re about to “get slapped upside the head,” as we used to say, if we don’t shape up. Realization, mortification, vivification, study, prayer, discipline, and consistent attendance at public services are all necessary ingredients in a successful and fruitful approach to the Christian life.

TE Terry Johnson, a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga.