Grace has been hijacked, its definition has been sabotaged to mean about the same as an indulgence.
Grace means graciousness, not license to indulge in the dysfunction of sin and remain in disharmony to the principles of reality. Disharmony and distrust is sin, and we were redeemed in order that we might be cleansed of sin, not licensed to continue in it, hurting others, ourselves and God's heart.
The mindset that grace is in any way an excuse to keep sinning because God was paid off by the sacrifice of His Son in our place is directly linked with the blasphemy that pits Jesus against the Father and involves appeasement or commerce in some way. Imagining that God demands payment before justice can be satisfied comes directly out of paganism which in turn originated with Satan and his notions of commerce, debts and credits. So long as our thinking about God's disposition towards sinners involves notions of debt and credit we are susceptible to perversions of the meaning of grace.
Many who claim to be defending God's law maintain a theology of debts requiring satisfaction before God is allowed to forgive. Such struggle greatly with how to perceive the function and nature of grace. They either view it as a legal cover under which sins might be safely hidden from God's view while people continue sinning, or they imagine it as a legal absolution under which only our previous sins are pardoned while our present sins must be overcome and some other part of grace, maybe undeserved power from God, is provided as assistance for us to overcome sinning until the close of probation cuts off that supply too and we had better be finished with that job of perfection or else we will be lost.
All of these approaches to defining grace are predicated in false assumptions about the nature of the problem of sin. They view sin as a legal predicament that must be resolved relying on legal maneuvers or one can never achieve salvation. Such approaches also perceive sin as doing bad things that offend God, thus incurring a legal debt with a law that now must be satisfied/settled/balanced or we are in big trouble and justice will demand that we be punished with death. These approaches, though they appear to be incompatible on the surface, are improperly predicated on false beliefs about the nature and function of God's laws, for they define law in such a way as to make it appear even more powerful than even God Himself, though they will usually strenuously deny that fact.
So long as our sin problem is defined in terms of legal complications with God, it will be impossible to find a satisfactory definition for grace that is not tainted and distorted by commercial logic. But grace is not a commercial term and true grace does not operate in that venue. Our problem with sin is far deeper than any of the shallow, superficial claims that religion uses to explain both the problem or its solution. Yet until we come to see this we will continue debating which version of atonement and salvation is the right one and which ones are bogus.
Any atonement theory that involves payoffs is tainted by the logic of commerce and has elements of deception that will continue to confuse and muddy our understanding of what we really need in order to be delivered from sin and restored to righteousness. Any theory of salvation that depends on legal solutions instead of relational restoration to full trust and confidence in God's unconditional love for us is inadequate to save us from sin. Sin is not a legal complication that Jesus was sent to fix; rather it is a rupture of the family of God that must be exposed, acknowledged, and a relationship of trust restored.
If we back away far enough to see a much larger view of the real problem of sin, and we disassociate ourselves from the false legal construct that sin and salvation have been cast in by religion for too long, we can begin to see better where grace fits into the picture. The more clearly we perceive the truth that sin is distrust in God's heart and all our resulting malfunction springs from that distrust, the easier it will be to define how grace addresses that damaged relationship and why Paul stated that it is God's kindness that is the real power to restore that relationship, not God's threats.
Or do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath, revelation, and of the righteous judgment of God. (Romans 2:4-5)
Other translations use the word kindness. I like this version that brings another perspective to the issue.
Or is it nothing to you that God had pity on you, waiting and putting up with you for so long, not seeing that in his pity God's desire is to give you a change of heart? But by your hard and unchanged heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of the revelation of God's judging in righteousness. (Romans 2:4-5 BBE)
Note here that there is no reference to any supposed debt needing to be absolved before God is willing to be reconciled to us. In fact, Scripture is clear, especially in the teachings of Paul, that God is not the one who needs to have His mind changed about us, meaning that all of the change of attitude needs to take place on our side for reconciliation to happen. Most theology insinuates that in some way God's attitude, disposition, thinking has to be adjusted before we can be reconciled. Yet this is one of the extremely subtle schemes of the enemy that has been highly successful in keeping us afraid of God, for so long as we imagine that something or someone has to influence God enough to get Him to change His mind about us, we will be susceptible to any number of false notions that purport to be able to fix that imaginary problem, not realizing they are all rooted in false presumptions about reality and justice.
Again, grace is not in any way some means of protecting us from the fury of God Almighty through some mythical legal transaction by which a child sacrifice was able to assuage His wrath and provide us a shield to protect us from God. No, grace is intended to protect us from God's anger at us but rather describes what God is like all the time and what we need to reflect in order us to become safe enough to live in His presence of passionate love so intense it is described as like rivers of fire.
Growing up immersed in religion as I was, I could never make sense of all the explanations of grace I was taught. In fact, grace seemed to be an issue that many people in my life seemed reluctant to talk about it much for fear I might be seduced into using it as a license sin even more. To avoid that ditch (that those other churches promoted), grace was discussed more in terms of what it was not rather than what it might be, except as a means by which God could overlook my past sins during some event called justification. Beyond that grace was restricted to being a measured out assistance by God to supplement my efforts to get rid of sin until I finally might arrive at a state of perfection where I would no longer need grace because had achieved perfection. Once that point was achieved I could be sealed and finally relax and slip into heaven now that I was saved and doing only good works. I realize that very few would admit to this simplistic description of typical perceptions of grace and works, yet this summarizes the average thinking among many who shared my brand of religion.
What is now becoming more clear to me is how much grace and works play in most of our definitions of grace. In fact books have been written using both of those terms in their titles because our mindset has so grounded in believing that grace and works are somehow tied to each other. We imagine that what God demands of us is to be perfectly righteous before He will save us, and because our definition of righteous always involves doing good works, we assume that grace is in some way supplemental power we must get in order to accomplish enough good working so we can at last be fully acceptable to God and earn our reward of eternal life. At least that was the line of logic of many in my clan. The 'opposition' had a different formula for grace and works, yet still retaining the root presumptions about the sin problem and the necessary solution required to fix it.
The opposition taught that since it is impossible for sinners to stop sinning (at least until they are magically changed when they go to heaven), yet good works are what the law demands in order to be saved by God, then the only thing that could achieve salvation was for a perfect someone to be substituted for us who achieved a perfect record of good works and then have their works credited to us in exchange for our bad works debited to them and then receiving punishment in our place. This is the pervasive view of most of Christianity today, yet it is misleading and even fatal in its line of logic.
One reason such theories are powerless to save is that they offer a false hope based on misunderstanding of the original problem. Imagining that the works and the death of Jesus can be claimed by sinners as a substitute through some legal switcharoo whereby God can be tricked into seeing us as being perfectly righteous like Jesus (even though in reality we are still infected with selfishness and continuing to malfunction) misses the real issue. Such philosophy purports that because righteousness (good works) is what the law demands, yet it is beyond our ability, but until we have this credit God cannot accept or love us, then the only thing we can think of is that our records have to be (falsely) credited with the good works of Jesus so God will accept us because our sins are now hidden from His view. Linked to this switcharoo of merit for sin in our records is the idea that because our sins demand punishment, then the innocent child of God could be punished for us on the cross by the fury of God's wrath poured out on Him. This punishment could then be substituted for what we deserved so we could get His deserved rewards for His good works. This is where most thinking about merits comes in and has been abused throughout Christian history.
Merits for good behavior became something of a monetary system whereby excess merits from saints who were so good they had merits left over from their holy life that could be purchased by sinners who came up short because of the debts incurred from their many sins. According to this thinking, a transaction could be arranged whereby merits of others, or maybe of Christ, could be acquired some way and transferred in the record books of heaven so that the balance scales of justice could be tipped enough in the favor of sinners that God would relent to allow them into heaven based on enough merit.
Notice that no matter which version of theology you consider that works and merit are actively present as a means by which to affect God's disposition towards sinners. Whether it is our own good works or the good works of Jesus, works and merit play a central role in achieving what we imagine as salvation, the acceptance of our record by God, the great gatekeeper of life and death. Yet all these versions of salvation are rooted firmly in notions of commerce and false ideas about justice, for counterfeit justice is an enforcement of the system of commerce demanding a balancing of imaginary scales involving credits and debts through a system of merits offsetting wickedness related to rewards and punishments.
So long as our explanations of sin and salvation revolve around concepts involving commerce (earning, deserving, debts and credits, good and evil balancing) we will be unable to grasp the true nature of grace as it will be viewed as a means of satisfying demands of a commercial law rather than relating to relationships and bonding. Under such artificial law, grace is little more than a mechanism by which the impossible is somehow allowed and deception of the judge is achieved by use of legal fiction. Yet tricking the Judge into thinking we have not sinned and are now free of debt because an innocent victim paid off our debt by accepting our punishment is all predicated on commercial law and does little to restore confidence, trust and love in our hearts about the Judge. It only diverts us toward placing our trust in a dubious transaction that at best leaves us hoping God will never figure out what happened lest He get mad at us again.
Some years ago a new thought about grace came to me that has helped me to view this word in a totally new light. Because grace was always used in this commercial, legal way, it made little sense and had little attraction for me, and it certainly had ability to lead me to love God more. But one day the thought came to me that maybe grace was supposed to mean the same as gracious, what a gracious person might be like. That came as quite a surprise at first, yet logically the two are obviously related as coming from the same root. But because of all the confusion caused by the religious use of the word grace, in my heart they felt nearly opposite in how I perceived them.
For me, a gracious person conjures up an image of a large, inviting home where lives a beautiful young lady with large white dresses who acts so kindly and, well, graciously, that one is overwhelmed with amazement as with smiles of assurance she ushers in a total stranger in ways that makes them feel like family. She incessantly anticipates their every need and goes to great lengths to make them comfortable and welcome. For me the idea of a person acting graciously means someone who is so overwhelmingly kind, competent, resourceful and generous that the heart is soon melted by such treatment even though it is undeserved and unexpected. There is no need to beg or earn or feel embarrassed, for such a host is always one step ahead with whatever is needed or desired. Such a gracious person is someone who, after settling the guest into their room, invites wonderful conversation so meaningful and heart-warming that one feels like they have come home to a long-lost friend and feel genuinely welcome.
Since I had that insight I try to remind myself to switch these two words when I want to better grasp the true nature of God's grace. The old definition of grace had nothing of this nature in it and left me rather fearful in that legal framework of religion. But to allow myself to see God as being truly gracious and overwhelmingly kind and solicitous is such an opposite way of perceiving Him from how I saw Him most of my life, and it fits perfectly with Paul's insistence that the real power of God is in His kindness, goodness – graciousness. To embrace God as being gracious like what I attempted to describe above is to defy the stern, legal, fearful images of Him that kept me afraid and distant from Him far too long. I believe this is why Jesus was sent by God to this earth, to dispel all such lies about God as not gracious and to reveal that He is in fact, scandalously more gracious than most of us are willing to accept.
This brings me to where my reflection of God has been too often sadly out of sync with what God is increasingly revealing to me about Himself. If indeed God is this gracious and far beyond this, how can I begin to be more gracious so that others might be drawn to want to know Him better as I am starting to know Him? What will it take for me to begin acting more graciously, especially towards those who cling to dark views of God that cause them to act sternly and harshly because they imagine He is stern and harsh? How may my life and demeanor be transformed to be less like them and more like the gracious God that is beginning to be more evident in my experience with Him?
Well, the thought came to me this morning that if the word sanctify means to transformed into being a sanctuary, a safe place where God can hang out and relax and feel safe, then maybe the same rendition of the word sanctuary into sanctify might be applied to graciousness. What if God's graciousness could become so vivid and real to me, so affect my heart and mind and life that it could gracify me? I like that idea personally, even if others might be uncomfortable with my abuse of the rules of language. I do want to be sanctified, to be transformed into a safe place where God can live and hang out without danger of my misrepresenting Him. Maybe part of that might also involve being gracified so that His true graciousness might be at least dimly reflected in improved ways that I relate to others.
The more I have learned the truth that God is not angry at me or taking offense when I malfunction, but rather is gracious even when He has to correct me, the easier it is for me to feel attracted to Him and appreciate His work in my life. This makes me want to be more gracious like He is gracious and be like Jesus revealed Him to be in the way He related to all kinds of sinners while living here among us.
The more I come to realize that God does not operate according to commercial terms with us but rather longs for intimacy to be the center of our relationship with Him, the easier it is for me to see that my works are not the basis of my acceptance with Him but are merely the symptoms of how I perceive Him. Because my actions and the way I relate to others is symptomatic of how my heart imagines God relates to me, I now see that to remedy the continued symptoms of sin in my life, the most effective solution is to get to know God better so that my reflection of Him comes more better alignment with the reality of His overwhelming graciousness, which is the real truth about what He is like all the time.
Father, please intensify your work of gracifying me and sanctifying me so that the image reflected in my life increasingly resembles Jesus. Thank-you so much for your patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and compassionate, relentless love for me. It seems so foreign to me much of the time as I am so unaccustomed to perceiving you this way. Yet you do not condemn me – ever. That just challenges my fear to the core, for I too long imagined you were angry with me and always waiting to punish me. Yet you knew I was deceived and never let any of those lies that caused me to malfunction upset you. You have relentlessly pursued my heart no matter how much I have thrashed about in fear and resistance of your love. Now hold me in your tight embrace and cause me to know your ways even better as I learn how to emulate true grace – your graciousness. For it is by grace – the overwhelming graciousness of God, that I am saved, saved from malfunction, fear, sin, ugliness and selfishness. I am saved from all that is unlike you – ungodliness – as you polish me to reflect increasingly your beauty and attractiveness and graciousness and grow my trust in you, believing you are really this way.
But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus; for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. (Ephesians 2:4-9)