By Russ Levenson, Jr.
We all know it – one of the key verses that unlocked the Protestant Reformation: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast…” (Eph 2:8–9).
But is it possible, as Paul suggested to the Corinthians, to receive God’s grace in vain (2 Cor. 6:1)? Could we, as Paul warned the Romans not to do, fall into the error of believing that just because we are made righteous by God’s gracious favor, we can “go on sinning” (Rom. 6:1)?
It seems that some of the preaching and teaching common among evangelical Christians today slip into precisely this error. Consider these examples:
- On the Sermon on the Mount: “Read it. Can you live by any of that?… Of course you can’t, no one can.”
- From the front-page article of a leading self-described orthodox Episcopal Church: “In the end, to be a righteous person passionate for doing righteous things is all very Christless…”
- A clergyperson relates on her podcast that she tires of preachers encouraging regular church attendance, because she understands getting to church is really hard these days.
- A major evangelical church’s mission statement: “we are a judgment-free zone where people can come as they are, not as they should be…”
- A sermon which concluded with the dropping of the “F-bomb.” It is not a stretch to imagine a youngster leaning over to mom and dad and whispering, “Wow, our preacher’s cool… he sounds just like late night cable!”
Now, I get the point: we are all sinners – sinners indeed (Rom. 3:23). No one is perfect. No one can fully embody the beautiful words of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1–12); or Paul’s description of love, (1 Cor. 13); or even the commandments given to Moses, (Ex. 20:1–17).
But in the examples above we see a common pattern: grace is welcoming and non-judgmental, but no hope beyond that grace is offered or even imagined.
I recall being stymied as one young preacher ended his sermon with the rousing words, “We are a mess, but God loves us anyway.” Well, yes, but is that all we are offering the world – God without a path toward a godly life; love without any expectations; grace that inspires little more than self-indulgence?
Though he wrote the words only a short 52 years ago, one of our evangelical forbears, A.W. Tozer, offers an important corrective:
The doctrine of justification by faith – a biblical truth, and a blessed relief from sterile legalism and unavailing self-effort – has in our time fallen into evil company and been interpreted by many in such manner as actually to bar men [sic] from the knowledge of God. The whole transaction of religious conversion has been made mechanical and spiritless. Faith may now be exercised without a jar to the moral life and without embarrassment to the Adamic ego. Christ may be “received” without creating any special love for Him in the spirit of the receiver. The man is [sic] is “saved,” but he is not hungry or thirsty after God. In fact, he is specifically taught to be satisfied and encouraged to be content with little…. We have been snared in the coils of a false logic which insists that if we have found Him, we need no more seek Him.
Tozer was right to issue such a warning — and his words should sting us as well, for any teaching that says the Christian’s only duty is to receive the grace of God, full stop, is ignoring the many passages of Christian Scripture that call for so much more. Indeed we were saved by grace, but this was for a purpose: “to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10). We were saved by grace, but we are all called to “grow in grace” (2 Pet. 3:18). Indeed, “What good is it … if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds” (James 2:14). And “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
It is so tempting to preach the love of God, without the call to love the holiness to which God calls us. We can be lulled into a sense of self-satisfaction when people pat us on the back for not being “that kind of preacher” that does not speak of a God who is interested in what goes on in our business practices, or bedrooms, or relationships, or personal habits. When we offer nothing but the love of God for the messes we are in, without the promise our resurrection offers for deliverance and rescue from that mess, then, frankly, we are merely proclaiming an anemic, impotent, dysfunctional religious view that is immature and self-serving.
This is precisely the point that the great evangelical John Stott made:
To be a child of God is a wonderful privilege, but it also involves obligations. Peter implied this when he wrote, ‘Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,’ (I Peter 2:2)
Our great privilege as children of God is relationship; our great responsibility is growth. Everybody loves children, but nobody in their right mind wants them to stay in the nursery. The tragedy, however, is that many Christians, genuinely born again in Christ, never grow up. Others even suffer from spiritual infantile regression. Our heavenly Father’s purpose, on the other hand, is that ‘babies in Christ’ should become mature in Christ. Our birth must be followed by growth. The once-for-all crisis of justification (our acceptance before God) must lead to the continuing process of sanctification (our growth in holiness, what Peter means by ‘growing up in our salvation’).
So there we have it: a call to conversion must be accompanied by a call to sanctification. As the old saying goes, “God loves us as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.” If we do not offer that to those hungry for the peace and grace of Christ, then we are only doing half of our job. Those who come within our doors, and those to whom we go in the public square, need to know that God has more to offer us than a pat on the back; that beyond the warm embrace of acceptance, there is the offer of transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Church, and her preachers and teachers, have the obligation to guide others to the ancient disciplines that foster growth in Christ — daily prayer, reading of Scripture, meditation, confession, fasting, sacrifice, service and more — and just to be clear, to call the sinner into the presence of God’s love, without also calling them to repentance, is a rejection of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there is no other way around it.
Back to Stott, who noticed this same creep into evangelical circles some three decades ago:
There are many pastors today who, for fear of being branded ‘legalists,’ give their congregation no ethical teaching. How far we have strayed from the apostles! ‘Legalism’ is the misguided attempt to earn our salvation by obedience to the law. ‘Pharisaism’ is a preoccupation with the externals and the minutiae of religious duty. To teach the standards of moral conduct which adorn the gospel is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity.
Surely we evangelicals have more to offer the world than a weak-as-water approach to personal morality. Charles Simeon, that great evangelical father, said that the three-fold goal of every sermon should be to “Humble the sinner, exalt the Savior and promote holiness.” It would seem that anything less would be right in line with Bonhoeffer’s assessment of the preaching of “cheap grace,” which,
is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Cheap grace is opposed to “costly grace” which is that “…treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all he has.”
In the end, I’m not okay and you’re not okay — and that’s not okay. It’s still okay to preach that from the pulpit, and the lectern and in the pastor’s study; because it offers hope to a world steeped in sin, and in desperate need of the transforming grace of Jesus and his cross. We call that the great evangelical hope. We call that sanctification. For God’s sake and for the sake of the world; let’s keep preaching it.
May our prayer, this Pentecost season, and all the days that follow, be that of Tozer;
O God, I have tasted thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need of further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the triune God, I want to want thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still. Show me thy glory, I pray thee, that so I may know thee indeed. Begin in mercy a new work of love within me. Say to my soul ‘Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.’ Then give me grace to rise and follow thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Rev Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr. and his wife, Laura, live in Houston, Texas where Russ has served as rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church for the last twelve years. He is a father of three, grandfather of two and author of four seasonal devotionals — the recently published Bits of Heaven, (Summer); and A Place of Shelter, (Fall); and the soon to be released Preparing Room, (Advent); and A Path to Wholeness, (Lent) – available at Church Publishing.