But first, we must ask, “What is grace?” Grace is what God does to save His people all by Himself, apart from any merit or contribution on their part (Rom. 11:6). God’s grace finds reason in Himself alone for showing favor, and finds nothing in those to whom He is gracious. He provides all for them in Christ to the glory of God alone (1 Cor. 1:30-31). The Lord Jesus Christ, by His life and in His death, has fulfilled a perfect righteousness for His people and removed their sins from them. He loved them and has cleansed them from their sins by His own blood (2 Cor. 5:21; Rev. 1:5; Gal. 2:20; Heb. 1:3; 10:11-17). He has fulfilled God's everlasting covenant, His eternal will, and thereby provided a perfect righteousness for His people and clothed them with it (Isaiah 61:10; Rom. 10:4; Heb. 10:7-14). All that God requires of His people, He has provided for them in Christ. That is grace. Grace is not God doing 90% or even most of the work, and leaving something for me to do. Grace is Christ doing all, fulfilling all for His people, in their place, as their Surety. Grace is not an attempt to save. Grace saves. Grace does not look for worthiness from me. It finds all worthiness in Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). Grace does not wait for cooperation on my part. Grace makes me willing. Grace does not wait for faith from me. Grace gives faith. Grace is God doing everything for us in Christ, and then performing a miracle in us, giving faith to see what He has done for us. Grace raises to life. It gives the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of life, to sinners to find that all that Christ is and all that He has accomplished is their all before God (John 11:25-26; Eph. 2:1-10; Col. 2:9-10). Grace is unchanging. God cannot change, and His grace towards sinners cannot change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). God’s grace towards His people was in His heart when we were ungodly, sinners, dead in sins, and without strength to come to God, or to put away our sin, or to obey even one of God's commandments. It was then that God’s grace accomplished all for us in Christ (Rom. 5:6-10). That is grace! God, in grace, gave His Son to die to reconcile to Himself, we who were His enemies (Col. 1:20-22). That is grace! And when we were opposed to this salvation, it was God’s grace that gave us life with faith in Christ to see what He had done for us, causing us to own Him as our all, just as God worked that faith in us to do so (Col. 2:12-13). God's grace never requires anything from those to whom He is gracious to show them grace, but finds all that He requires in Christ and shows them His great salvation. And grace always triumphs over sin. “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20-21; 1 Cor. 15:57)! Now that is grace! What is your response to this grace? What is mine?
I find three sinful responses in myself, which are natural and integral to my sinful self. The first sinful response is to think that God’s grace alone is not sufficient to save me, but that I need to “do my part.” This response also makes me think that God’s grace will not prevent me from sinning. This attitude causes me to focus on myself and the law of God. It puts me thinking about my experience and what God thinks of me for what I do, rather than Christ's experience and what God thinks of Christ and His people by Him. When it is all about me, then I need to avoid doing what God forbids. I need to do what God commands. I need to overcome sin. I need to obey in all things. And I need to do these things to have and retain God's favor. But this attitude is the response of a legalist. A legalist is concerned with external obedience. A legalist cannot believe that God’s grace alone is sufficient to save or to give dominion over sin. Therefore, the legalistic response is very sinful, for it requires me to add to or complete what God alone, by His grace, has already done in Christ (Gal 2:21; 3:2-3). That’s the first response of the natural man to grace. A legalist cannot believe that Christ is enough. The legalist denies his own sinfulness and denies that only Christ’s obedience and death can justify him before God. He denies these by trying to come up with something, to add a little bit of himself: his sorrow, his tears, his pain under God's chastening, his resolutions to do better, his religious experience, his decisions, his exercises of will, all of his own contribution and cooperation by which he means to do what he thinks needs to be done to "be saved", to fulfill the law, or to sanctify himself so that God will accept him. A legalist will even sub-consciously think that his doubt of God's grace is a sign of his humility. A legalist thinks it would be too much to receive all from God with no help or contribution or payback from him. A legalist is too proud to receive salvation full and free and to the uttermost out of pure, free grace. A legalist has not seen his own sinfulness nor has he seen God’s holiness that required the death of Christ. He does not understand that God can only accept what Christ has done for both sin payment and for righteousness. He does not understand God’s grace in giving His own Son to fulfill the New Covenant in His blood to bring open rebels to God (Matt. 26:28; Heb. 13:20-21; 2 Cor. 5:19-21; 1 Peter 3:18). The legalist is a faithless man. Oh! May the Lord save me and you from legalism!
The second sinful response to grace is to think of grace as a license to sin. The word “licentiousness” means just that. Have you ever thought, “Well, if salvation is all of grace, I can do whatever I want; I can sin with impunity -- without any negative consequence from God -- because God will do everything and I don’t need to do anything?" Making grace a license to sin reveals something very evil about us. It reveals that we have no respect for the law that we claim raised our need for grace. It reveals that we have only one nature: a sinful nature. When we find grace to be a license to sin, we show that there is no warfare within us, no struggle between the body of death -- the flesh -- and the Spirit of Christ in us -- the mind of Christ (Rom. 7:14-25).
The third sinful response to grace is indifference. Indifference is really licentiousness and legalism combined. To be indifferent is to have low thoughts of God, low thoughts of Christ, and high thoughts of myself and my own way. Remember the repeated assessment of the people in the book of Judges? “Every man did that which was right in his own eyes?” (Judges 21:25). In my indifference, I am so enwrapped in myself that I can’t see beyond my own nose to what Christ’s coming and living and dying and rising and reigning means to God and my soul! I can’t think of the holiness of God that required Him to die. I don’t fear the goodness of God (Psalm 130:4; Hosea 3:5), because I have no need for grace, and therefore see no beauty in Christ or blessing in grace. Not fearing God’s goodness, I am not amazed that God would save me when I was His enemy (Rom. 8:6-8), when I opposed Him and my own salvation (2 Tim. 2:25). I do not stand in fear and reverence that He would save me in spite of myself when I was in such a case! Indifference is the scariest of all responses to grace! It reveals the blindness of self-conceit and an obdurate callousness to the very goodness and glory of God; a nature that is graveyard dead to Christ in its sin and in its sins. May the Lord deliver me from indifference (Rev. 3:15-16)!
But there is a proper response to grace. And this every believer finds in his heart. This response is the response of one released from the worst bondage and prison. This response does two things: first, it glorifies God for His mercy, that He would save a wretch like me for reasons found in Himself alone, according by the righteousness found in Christ alone! Second, this response recognizes and owns its sinfulness, even while looking to Christ. The new man lives by looking to Christ. Christ’s history and life is his history and life. The new man cries out against himself, “O wretched man that I am” (Rom. 7:24)! He owns his sin: “The good that I would, I do not, but the evil that I would not, that I do” (Rom. 7:19). The new man owns that in the body of his flesh, this body of death, he is sold under sin (Rom. 7:14), and cannot not sin in his old man (Rom. 7:18). But the new man also owns Christ as all, and so owning Him, looks to Him alone, and cries to Him (Rom. 7:24; Psalm 65:3; 34:17; 50:15). And the new man finds that God’s grace in Christ is his only hope for salvation. The new man finds Christ is all, and thus, is prostrated in the dust, confessing his sin, and looking to Christ for complete and perfect and finished justification from the law and from sin and for deliverance from sin on this foundation (Col. 2:6; Gal. 2:20). The new man has no confidence in his sinful flesh (Philippians 3:3), but rejoices in Christ, because he finds in Christ that he is set free from sin.
Lord! Deliver us from legalism, licentiousness and indifference. Grant us this grace to obey the gospel from our hearts by looking to Christ alone!