The Grace Balance
Let’s imagine Joe Bloggs, ruling elder at a local conservative Presbyterian church. One day Joe
decides he likes his secretary more than his wife, leaves the latter and moves in with the former. What message does Joe need to hear? Some would say he needs more gospel. He needs to be told how much Christ has done for him. He needs more grace, more of God’s love, more of Christ’s beauty set before him.
Maybe that’s what he needs to hear. The Apostle Paul does tell the wayward Corinthians, “You were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6:20). The cross also is planted on the center of the Apostle Paul’s moral instruction in Phil. 2:5ff (“have this attitude in you which is also in Christ Jesus”), in 1 John (in this is love…so ought we also to love one another”), and in 1 Peter 2:21ff (“follow in His steps”). Jesus is our model and inspiration. The beauty of Christ and His cross motivates us to live lives of love, sacrifice, obedience, and submission to God.
We’re not denying that “more gospel” is part of our approach to Mr. Bloggs. Of course, it is. However, it is not the only response or even the typical response of the Apostles, particularly when direct dealing is required. We have plenty of examples of bad behavior in the epistles. How do the Apostles respond? The Apostle Paul turns the wayward “so-called brother” of 1 Cor. 5 over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh that his spirit might be saved (i.e., he appears to be a real, if wayward believer) and then warns others that may be tempted to indulge the flesh that those who do so “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9). He warns that those who think they stand to take heed lest they fall, as did Israel before them. (1 Cor. 10:1-12). Those who desecrate the Lord’s Supper are threatened with judgment and warned that some were sick already and some had died because of indiscretions (1 Cor. 11:23-32). The Apostle Paul does not hesitate to warn Christians of temporal judgments if they persist, unrepentant, in their sin. The Thessalonians are urged to abstain from sexual immorality and warned “The Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you.” (1 Th. 4:3-7).
Let me pause; I’m not sure what the “grace only” preachers do with this passage. This is very strong language to use with the redeemed. Neither do I see another way to read it. The Apostle Paul is warning the Thessalonian Christians that God is an avenger of Christian misdeeds, is he not? We continue. He warns the Galatians not to turn grace into an opportunity for the flesh. He invokes the law of sowing and reaping - apparently Christians are not exempt from this law - warning that God will not be mocked. (Gal. 5:13-6:26). James famously warns those who claim faith, but have no works that “faith without works is dead,” that is, no faith at all (Jas. 2:14-26). Peter warns that “judgment begin(s) with the household of God” and “ it is with difficulty that the righteous is saved.” (1 Pt. 4:17, 18). Making our way to another Apostle, John warns that those who say they know God yet don’t keep the commandments are liars, and devoid of the truth. (1 Jn. 2:3-5). Further, if they don’t love they don’t know God. (1 Jn. 4:8ff; 2:9-11; 3:11-24). The writer of the Hebrews scorches his readers, that is, members of the church to which he is writing who may be tempted to apostasize. He writes, “if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” (Heb. 10:26, 27). He warns of God’s vengeance and judgment saying, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 10:31). We could multiply these examples again and again. (e.g. Phil 3; Titus 1:10-16; 3:9, 10, 2 Pt. 2, 3; 2 Jn. and 3 Jn.; Jude 4ff; Rev. 1-3).
It is not that the passages are unknown to the “grace only” preachers, rather the problem is a nearly complete failure to incorporate the Apostles’ concerns, found in text after text, into everyday preaching and pastoral practice. The Apostles’ warnings about faith without works, knowledge without obedience or love, grace excusing license, habitual carnality, antinomianism and apostasy are trumped by the desire to “preach grace.” Ironically the Apostles, the original authors of grace are being improved upon by well-meaning but misguided preachers of truncated grace. The Apostles’ exhortations, warnings, cautions, and threats are being silenced by those who claim to be their heirs. They will allow only words of comfort and assurance for professing believers who are worldly, carnal, the immoral, and loveless. This they insist upon in defiance of all apostolic precedent. Can we not agree that what the Apostles teach is completely compatible with the doctrines of grace and indeed that their warnings, etc., are the necessary companions of those doctrines, properly understood? Indeed, those warnings are themselves a matter of grace, of God not immediately consuming us because of our sin but rather patiently continuing to call us back from the path of destruction.
If the Apostles can warn professing believers, members of the visible church, of judgment, divine vengeance, fiery terror, and punishment, can Christian preachers today do any less? Should not the full force of these exhortations, warnings, threats be felt by believers today, without dying the death of a thousand qualifications, without it being explained how these passages, after all, in the end, really don’t apply to us? Do the Apostles not use this language, despite the doctrine of justification by faith alone, despite our eternal security, because there is something salutary in our hearing it and pondering the condition of our souls, that is, in examining ourselves, in making our calling and election sure (2 Cor. 12:5; 2 Pt. 1:10)?
These gracious warnings must be taught and preached in biblical proportions and with biblical balance.
Should true believers be worried? Not at all. Not in the least. Who should be? Professing believers who habitually practice, characteristically practice, practice as a matter of lifestyle, the things against which the Apostles’ warn.
Back to Joe Bloggs. He may have a defective understanding of grace, Christ, and the gospel. He may just need “more gospel.” On the other hand, he may know the gospel well and have decided to indulge his flesh anyway, just because he wants to, just because he thinks he can get away with it. He may be a genuine, but wayward Christian at ease in Zion. Or he may be a “false professor” as yet unconverted. Either way, God uses both the threats of fire as well as the promises of bliss to arrest his attention and bring him more perfectly to Christ.