To hell with sinners: a fresh look at grace

Let us make no mistake brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ; the gospel is firstly a revelation of God’s wrath towards sin and sinners. In Romans chapter one Paul is emphatic “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (v16). Why would a message of hope and blessing have the potential to cause the apostle Paul embarrassment? Shame is usually associated with the opinion of others. Nakedness is only shameful in public so why would a message that is only hope and blessing be a cause of possible shame in the eyes of the world? Because it doesn’t begin as hope and blessing; it begins as wrath and cursing, a word that brings scorn from those who are perishing. To them it is a word that is foolishness,1 a word that scandalises the hearer, a word of offense.

Paul continues on (v17) by saying a righteousness from God – as opposed to the self-justifying acts of idolatrous people – is being revealed and can only be received by grace through faith.2 But then his gospel begins in earnest (v18ff) the wrath of God is being revealed…

Let us not forget that the gospel begins with this revelation… to hell with sinners. It is salvation from God’s wrath that is the ‘good news of the gospel’. This is where grace begins: it is by grace you have been saved through faith… And it ends with …for we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph 2:8-10)

Romans 5:2 [Jesus Christ] through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. NIV

It is this grace – the grace of God in Christ Jesus – that has, by His blood, brought us near to God and given us a new and living way by which we can live as God’s family on earth. This living way is a holy life found in His body.

What is ‘this grace’?

The grace of God is not simply words to be interpreted but God’s wisdom revealed in Christ through the cross. In 1Cor 2:1-2 Paul reminds the church that all of his preaching could be summarised in one phrase; Christ crucified. Quite simply, whatever he preached whether grace or mercy or righteousness or power, it all finds its meaning in the message of the cross.

To speak about eternal life is to speak about God revealed in Jesus Christ;3 to declare good news is to preach Christ crucified; to preach the benefits or blessings of God is to preach Christ crucified.

The cross is foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews. Any preaching that is not Christ crucified is not a message of blessing, hope, mercy or power etc, it is rather the wisdom of Greeks and the signs of Jews. A well known celebrity preacher was asked why he never preaches about sin. His response was that he was called only to preach the blessings of God. Such a response shows at best novice ignorance of the gospel and at worst a doctrine of demons. Hope is only hope to men of despair; salvation to those in peril; blessing to those in need; rest to the weary etc. Hope is not hope if we have hope now. Salvation has no real meaning to those who believe they are already free and safe and secure.

Grace is not a covering

Heb 10:1-4 The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. 2 If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. 3 But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, 4 because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. NIV

Much that is written about grace from a theological/evangelical perspective – in contrast to populist feel-good teaching and books – leaves me dissatisfied. Not that what is said is not useful but that it often fails to fully appreciate that the cross is God’s grace. The emphasis is more often than not on definitions such as condescending favour, unmerited favour or expressed as forgiveness etc.

When a celebrity preacher is exposed as a habitual sinner the term ‘fall from grace’ is used as a descriptive – even though such a term is self-contradicting. At such times the Christian community is polarised in opinions on how to speak about, act towards, discipline or disciple these people. Some insist that such behaviour disqualifies them from ministry (which should be understood in terms of ‘eldership’ cf 1Tim 3), others argue for a period of ‘restoration’ and then a return to their former position. Many are vehement in their opinion that it is grace not discipline or rebuke that is needed and if they repent then leave them be.

The way we respond to habitual sin exposed in celebrity preachers, and the church in general, represents our understanding of the message of the cross and reveals how/if we actually stand in this grace. A clear understanding of the cross as God’s grace will establish a clear response to habitual sin in the church.

If grace is not seen as the message of the cross but as a pithy definition such as ‘unmerited favour’ then the message of the cross ceases to be ‘the good things that are to come’. If ‘this grace’ is not understood to be the message of the cross, then in what are people standing and trusting? Is it another gospel? I think much of the popular teachings on grace are more suited to an Old Testament view of righteousness or more in keeping with an emotive instrument of self-justification.

In the sacrifices repeated endlessly under the old covenant the shadow of the cross is seen.4 In fact the OT Scriptures are meant to speak exclusively of Christ to those whose eyes are being opened by the Holy Spirit.5 The blood of bulls and goats was a ‘covering over’ of sin, and what Hebrews 10:1-4 says that this shadow could not do is indicative of what the cross can do and therefore what grace actually is.

Such sacrifices could not make the worshipper of God ‘perfect’ for it could not cleanse us from sin nor could it deal with the guilt of sin. The key in verse four is this ‘it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin’. By contrast, the grace of God at the cross is the power of God to ‘make the worshipper perfect’, ‘remove the guilt of sin’ – and especially the sense or feeling of guilt – and ‘take away sins’. Not simply take away the guilt of sin, although that occurs, but to actually take away sin or to put it another way, to give us power to resist sin.

1 John 3:7-10 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. NIV

God’s grace is not only God condescending to affiliate with humanity despite man’s wretchedness, but it is His means by which man can participate with Christ in the family of God. Such a relationship could never be fully realised if we constantly felt unworthy and were reminded of our unworthiness through our inability to resist the power of sin in our lives? This is why Hebrews 10 says, ‘we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the Blood of Jesus’. By His blood we are both forgiven for our sin and cleansed from all unrighteousness.6 This is not simply an OT covering but a New Covenant empowering, delivering and setting free. It is in reality “The Power of God” for salvation to those who live by faith.

The cross IS God’s grace

To understand grace is to understand the message of the cross and to realise that the cross is God’s grace. Romans 1:17-32 is the beginning of the gospel of grace: the wrath of God is being revealed and that wrath is not presently experienced as hell-fire and brimstone but as godforsakenness. Verses 24 and 26 tell us what it means to be godforsaken:

Rom 1:24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts…

Rom 1:26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts.

The wrath of God is quite literally God handing people over to their own sinful desires and shameful lusts. The wrath of God is experienced as powerlessness, an inability to overcome lust and the corruption it produces.7 It is also the inability to distinguish good from evil or to even want to make such distinctions.8 In verse 28 of Romans one we see that God gave them over to a depraved mind. This is why the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing; it stands in contradiction to their own depravity of mind.

The message of the cross, which is the grace of God, begins as a word of revealed condemnation. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; all are objects of God’s wrath; man corrupts all he touches and this corruption is evidence of God’s wrath. That the heart of man desires sexual impurity and has been filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity reveals God’s wrath. Envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice; gossip, slander, insolence, arrogance and boastfulness are all evidences of God’s wrath on humanity. Those under God’s wrath are described as those who disobey parents, are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless and deserving of death.

Once the wrath of God has been revealed the mercy of God can be found. Though deserving death, God’s mercy is revealed in Jesus Christ. Though unrighteousness is what we have under God’s wrath, His righteousness is now revealed, a righteousness that is from God which comes through faith in Jesus Christ.9 We who were once enslaved to our passions and desires – under God’s wrath – have now be set free from sin and have become slaves to God.10

The message of the cross, which is the grace of God, is a word of deliverance from the bondage of sin. Now you are free to resist sin, to resist the works of the flesh that lead to death, and free – indeed, empowered – to live holy lives before God.

Sin excused

What can we conclude from all of this? When grace is used as an excuse to cover over sin it is no longer grace. When revealing sin is called legalism, when provoking one another to righteousness is called being judgemental, and when excusing sin is called grace, then the gospel is not present. When sin revealed produces shame rather than repentance in a person then grace is not evident to them.

The grace of God can be clearly seen in the event of King David’s adultery and murder of Uriah. Though many misinterpret the events to excuse sin11 the truth of grace is clearly evident. That David sinned is not in dispute. What are the events that demonstrate God’s grace? The first point is that God did not leave David in his sin. He sent a prophet, another man to tell David that God knew of his sin. God’s grace did not begin by offering hope but by revealing sin. And that revelation was not kept hidden or private, it was revealed for the entire world to see.

God’s grace is seen in that David had the power to repent. He did not get angry at the prophet for revealing his sin. That was the actions of the ungodly kings of Israel who killed the prophets for calling them sinners. He recognised his shame and guilt and cried out to God to be forgiven, restored and renewed.12

The grace in which we stand

Eph 2:8-9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. NIV

Grace is not an aspect of God’s salvation it is the all-encompassing means of salvation. The message of the cross is the grace of God. For that word to be power to us is God’s grace. For us to receive faith is God’s grace and for the Spirit of revelation to open our eyes is God’s grace.

At the cross the cry of dereliction “My God, why have you forsaken me” is answered by the word of the cross “the wrath of God is being revealed to godless men who have forsaken the knowledge of God”. This is an amazing revelation that comes by grace – I am an unrighteous man, a suppressor of the truth of God and thus I am godforsaken. Without God’s grace I could never know this.

The cry “it is finished” reveals that the wrath of God is appeased in Christ for all who receive Him. God’s grace shows me that through acknowledgement of sin, and repentance, through faith in the salvation found in Jesus I can be redeemed from slavery to my lustful pride and sin and be free to live righteously.

The empowering presence of the Holy Spirit is God’s grace to keep me at the cross – which means to live in a state of grace by which I am being sanctified. Sanctification is God’s grace of revealing every sinful motive that keeps me locked in conformity to the pattern of this world. When I react badly in relationship the Spirit convicts me of sin so that I may grow in grace to live pure and blameless before God.

Conclusion

When the visible church of society is filled with evil desires, sexual immorality, greed, lust, selfish ambition and the like, it is not evidence of sinful people saved by grace but of the wrath of God being revealed from heaven. What does this say? that the visible church of society has forsaken the knowledge of God.

The revelation of this wrath is God’s grace to bring about repentance and a return to the worship of God as He is revealed in Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Freedom from the power of sin is the evidence of the work of the cross and proof of God’s grace. God’s grace is at work to reveal His righteousness that is by faith from first to last. His grace is revealing the state of the church of society as being under wrath so that his people will repent and come out of that which is ‘Babylonian harlotry’ (cf Rev 17 & 18).

The community of faith never feels ashamed of the gospel of Christ, nor does she feel ashamed when her sin is revealed, nor when wolves in sheep’s clothing, profiteers or false teachers are exposed. Rather the community of faith rejoices that God’s grace is at work freeing God’s people from slavery to sin and bringing them into greater power, power to live as slaves to righteousness.

The community of faith knows that God’s grace flows from the cross of Jesus Christ and seeks to know nothing except Christ crucified.

Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain
Free to all, a healing stream
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.

Near the cross, a trembling soul,
Love and mercy found me;
There the bright and morning star
Sheds its beams around me.

Near the cross! O Lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day,
With its shadows o’er me.

Near the cross I’ll watch and wait
Hoping, trusting ever,
Till I reach the golden strand,
Just beyond the river.

By Fanny Crosby

  1. 1 Cor 1:18
  2. Eph 2:8-10
  3. John 17:3 Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.; 1 John 5:11-12 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. NIV
  4. Col 2:16-17 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. NIV
  5. Jn 5:39-40; Eph 1:17-18
  6. 1Jn 1:9
  7. 2Pt 1:4
  8. cf Heb 5:14
  9. Rom 3:21-26
  10. Rom 6:19-23
  11. We cannot take this event any further than we do here because it is a shadow of what was to come. Like trying to extrapolate parables to say more than what they were meant to say we cannot extrapolate David’s remaining king to justify elders who by virtue of NT revelation (1Tim 3:1-7 ; Tit1:6-9) are to be disqualified from leadership in the House of God.
  12. Ps 51

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