To some of you, it will be considered heresy to propose that there are potential dangers in the doctrines of grace. You will be appalled by the insinuation that reformed theology is anything less than perfect. And you will be offended by the suggestion that perhaps you have misunderstood and thus misapplied what it means that you are saved by grace alone. And yet, I feel compelled to continue.
Growing up, I spent time attending a variety of different churches within a variety of different theological camps. I was part of a Lutheran Church when I was saved in high school, attended a Wesleyan Church in college, went to a non-denominational church for a few years after graduating, before befriending a Nazarene Pastor and switching to his church. Around this time I began to think deeper about my theological convictions on what I would deem to be secondary and tertiary issues. While all of the churches I attended prior were faithfully preaching Jesus as the only way, I discovered I aligned most closely with Reformed theology on these other issues. Since then, I have attended church and seminary within the Reformed camp.
During my time in this camp, I have been able to experience the good, the bad, and the ugly—the strengths as well as the weaknesses. I am deeply grateful for the rich tradition of robust theology and doctrinal precision that I have been so fortunate to learn from and grow under. I am grateful for the men (and women) that have labored, sacrificed, and prayerfully wrestled through the difficult issues that arise as one seeks to faithfully understand and adhere to biblical teaching. Yet still, my heart is deeply grieved by a few tendencies that are all too common within our “tribe”. I could summarize them as “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” By in large, I have found that “Reformed” Christians often excel at an intellectual level, but struggle to let that theology get to and radically transform their heart.
Today, I want to focus more specifically on how this relates to our understanding of Sola Gratia (grace alone). Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe there to be anything inherently wrong with the doctrine itself. I believe with all my heart that we are saved entirely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Our righteousness comes from Him and what He did, not what we do. God’s love, favor, acceptance, etc is not something we earn, but something we receive. And yet, I believe that there is an issue in the way many of us understand this and how it relates to our pursuit of holiness. In our humanity, we have taken biblically faithful doctrines (perhaps the most important doctrine) and put an emphasis in a place the Bible doesn’t, and thus have been led to live in a relationship to sin that the Bible doesn’t condone.
This relationship is largely not one of total licentiousness (treating grace as a license to sin). While some people use God’s grace as an excuse to live however they please, indulging in sin and justifying that it is okay because of grace, this is probably not the case for most of you reading this article. Instead, it is a more subtle licensure. It is one that begins the day expecting to sin, and in doing so, gives oneself permission to do so.
There is a quote that is rather popular on social media. It says, “Strive for progress, not perfection.” While this is a wonderful mantra when it comes to eating healthy or losing weight, it can be quite dangerous when it becomes our Christian motto. 1 Peter 1:14-16 reads: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
The Bible calls us to holiness—to strive for perfection—and yet we have developed an allergic reaction to the idea. We are quick to cry “legalism” before alleviating our conscience of such an obligation by exclaiming “Grace! Grace!” But when we strive for progress instead of perfection, we are starting out expecting to fail. It’s like a child who doesn’t try in school, sports, or music because then it won’t hurt as bad if he fails. But that’s exactly the point! In our Christian walk it should hurt when we fail, because it’s in these moments that we’re most aware of our complete inadequacy apart from Jesus. It is in these moments that God touches the depths of our hearts and soul as he pours out his grace on our wounds. It’s in these moments that we are transformed by grace. And it is in these moments that God is tilling the hard ground of our rigid hearts, making them more tender, more humble, more loving, and more worshipful.
Consider the Psalmist and King, David. After he sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11, David is confronted with his sin by the prophet Nathan. He is deeply convicted as he realizes what he has done. He is broken over the fact that he has sinned against his God. Out of this brokenness, David pens Psalm 51 where he cries out to the Lord in repentance. In verse 17, he professes “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
David was an adulterer and a murderer and yet God calls him “a man after my own heart.” How can this be? It wasn’t because he was perfect or because he never messed up, but because when he did mess up it brought him to his knees. He had the desire in his heart to seek God with all he had, but he was often unable to carry out all his good intentions…and it broke him. The same is true of Peter, whom Jesus chose to start His Church. He told Jesus he would follow him to prison or death, but when the moment came, he was unable to carry it out and denied Jesus 3 times. It broke him and he wept bitterly. And it’s the same struggle Paul is talking about in Romans 7 when he says he is unable to carry out the desire he has to do what is good before proclaiming, “What a wretched man I am!”
When was the last time you were truly broken by your sin? When was the last time it caused you to weep bitterly or beat your breast (metaphorically) as every fiber in you repented of your failure to live a life worthy of the calling you have received? Has it been a while?
Deep brokenness over sin characterized all 3 of the Godly men talked about above. But that brokenness didn’t just happen. It was a result of a heart that was so set on living a life fully surrendered to God—a life of an unceasing pursuit of holiness—that it was emotionally overwhelming to fall short. The love they had for their savior (in response to God’s love for them) was so great that it logically followed that they would set their hearts on a life that reflected this love. This is why Paul would “beat his body to make it his slave”, and why he urges us as believers to “run the race as if running for the prize” and to “throw off all that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” These men didn’t strive for progress. They strove for perfection. And it is because of this that when they fell short it broke them. In their eyes, Grace didn’t excuse them from this pursuit. Rather it ran along with them to cover the gaps of what was lacking in their effort, to pick them back up when they fell, and to wrap them in the love of the savior’s arms when they began to question if they had sinned one too many times.
I have come to find that the most peaceful, beautiful, restful state that my soul is ever in is when I am broken over my sin. It is in these moments when I truly see my own ugliness, my own sinfulness, my own unworthiness. But it is in these moments when God unleashes the floodgates of his mercy and grace and rains it down on me. It is in these moments where the words of Jesus on the cross, bloodied and battered as he proclaims with his last breath “It is finished”, wash over me and begin to soften my calloused heart. It is in these moments that I truly understand that it is by his wounds that we are healed—that is, he bore my sin (and it’s punishment) so that I could be credited with a righteousness not my own and be called a child of God. It is in these moments that grace transforms me, and I emerge slightly more in His image—humble, worshipful, and with a heart full of love, mercy, and grace. Yes, I have come to find the conviction of the Spirit and genuine brokenness over my sin to be one of the sweetest places in all of life to be. It is in these brief moments that my strivings cease and my soul finds rest. Total peace.
But the only way we experience this type of gospel-saturated brokenness is if we pursue holiness as His Word calls us to. To start with an expectation of sin—to make no effort towards sinlessness—is to presume upon the grace of God, and, ironically, it prevents us from fully experiencing grace in the way God intended. In 1 Peter 1:13, just before he tells us that we are to be Holy because God is Holy, Peter tells us to set our hope fully on grace. You see, for Peter (and Paul and David), Grace was never meant to be separated from a pursuit of holiness. They are intrinsically linked.
Grace doesn’t free us from striving towards holiness, but rather it changes our motivation for doing so. We do not strive in an attempt to ascend to God. We do not do it to earn His love—or our salvation. No. No amount of striving will ever accomplish these ends. Rather, we strive because he loves us, and this allows us to love in return. We understand that obedience is a tangible way to love God back. We strive because we understand the destructive nature of sin. We understand that each and every sin is a rejection of and rebellion against the one who died to save us. And we understand that we have been adopted by a Father that has our best interest in mind as he gives us guidance on what it looks like to live as a child of God. Finally, we understand that as we strive, fail (as we will inevitably do), and are broken by our sin, we will experience an outpouring of grace in a way that is foreign to us otherwise. And it is here that our striving truly ceases. Dear Christian, I urge you: Strive until your strivings cease. Love Jesus with your whole heart, mind, and soul; strive for Holiness, and let it bring you to your knees when you fall short—sweetly broken and wholly surrendered to His amazing grace.
“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…”