Understanding Grace

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UNDERSTANDING GRACE—What is it all about?

What is grace?  We read, discuss, and even sing about it; but do we truly comprehend and apply it in our lives?  Hebrews 12:15 states that one can come “short of the grace of God,” and the result of “coming short” leads to a “root of bitterness” in the heart.  Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we truly understand the depth of God’s grace and learn how to implement it in our lives.

Strong’s Concordance describes the Greek word for “grace” (charis) as: “the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life.” 1. When writing about his “thorn in the flesh”, the apostle Paul illustrated God’s grace by relating the following experience:

“Concerning this [thorn in the flesh] I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me.  And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am well content with weakness, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” —2 Corinthians 12:8-10 2.

The fact that God’s grace is appropriated upon total surrender to God’s will reveals the fundamental, unconditional nature of God’s grace.  It is not something that one can earn, nor is it something that one can superficially put-on; for true grace resides within a heart of an individual whose life has been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  As a result, it is only through God’s grace (“divine influence upon the heart”) that one can truly experience the peace, joy, and strength of God.

The antithesis of grace is legalism.  While grace transforms the heart of an individual in such a way that love begins to motivate every action and attitude, legalism attempts to control individuals through a code of laws imposing outward conformity through fear of a penalty.  While grace is internal as it focuses on the heart of an individual, legalism is external as it targets surface actions.  While an encounter with grace yields eternal results as it transforms the heart of an individual, 3. legalism only brings about temporal conformity as man is truly powerless in his own strength to be able to change his heart.

“because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so;” — Romans 8:7

Nothing illustrates the difference between grace and legalism better than a comparison of the Old Covenant of legalism with the New Covenant of grace as described in the third chapter of Second Corinthians:

“Being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts.…but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.  But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory.…how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory?  For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.… But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”—2 Corinthians 3:3, 5-9, 18

OLD COVENANT: Law of Moses
(Rooted in LEGALISM)
NEW COVENANT: Law of Christ
(Rooted in GRACE)
Written on stones (Exodus 20), this covenant is conditional as it is rooted in LEGALISM—an attempt to control outward actions by means of rules, enforced by penalty.
Written in the heart (Jeremiah 31:33), this covenant is unconditional as it is rooted in GRACE—the control of inward attitudes and outward actions by means of love, without penalty.


“The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses.…And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.”—Matthew 23:2, 4

Legalism in religion fosters a lack of trust between spiritual leaders and their followers.  In a legalistic environment, leaders do not trust their people to uphold the level of standards they require.  As a result, leaders are compelled to lay more and more rules and regulations on the people in an attempt to bring them under greater control.  Detailed person regulations such as: “Don’t wear that haircut; you might cause another brother to stumble!” or “Don’t look at the Internet; you might be poisoned by apostates!” while appropriate in certain contexts, when expressed corporately by the leadership, creates a sense of distrust among the people.

In response to sensing the leadership’s distrust of their personal judgment, followers begin to react to the control either through outward rebellion which leads to immediate rejection by the leadership and fellow members (i.e. shunning) or through increased conformity which leads to inward depression due to the tension of not having the freedom to express their emotions outwardly.  The result of such suppressed conformity leads to increased friction between the leadership and the followers which eventually becomes so great that the followers begin to break under the yoke of the leadership.  This in turn, increases the distrust between the two; thus, repeating the cycle that destroys so many lives in the process.

The antithesis of legalism is seen in the New Covenant of grace.  Once a person has come under the shed blood of Jesus and experienced complete forgiveness through His all-redeeming sacrifice, the Holy Spirit immediately undertakes a life-transformation process that begins with the heart of that individual.  Through the Holy Spirit, this “Law of Christ” is written in the heart and manifested through grace—the control of inward attitudes and outward actions by means of love, without penalty.  This doesn’t mean that there are no rules in conjunction with grace; but rather that the motivation to fulfill the law of God is out of grateful love instead of fear of a penalty.

“Behold, days are coming says the LORD, when I will effect a new covenantnot like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in My covenant, and I did not care for them, says the LORD, For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel.  After those days, says the LORD; I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them upon their hearts.…and they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen, and everyone his brother saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” —Hebrews 8:7-11

Once a person realizes the extent of Christ’s love for him, his motivation for obedience changes from operating out of a spirit of compulsion (fearing rejection) to operating out of grateful love for what Jesus accomplished for him when He bought him with His precious blood (Acts 20:28).  With the freedom of knowing that his redemption is secure in Christ, he finds himself fulfilling God standards out of the overflow of God’s grace and love within his heart.  This is the beauty of the New Covenant of grace as it releases an individual to experience true eternal security in Christ while allowing him the freedom to grow in grace.

OLD COVENANT = External
(Focus = outward actions)
NEW COVENANT= Internal
(Focus = Inward heart)
Concentrating on outward conformity, Legalism fosters inward rebellion as it confines through boundaries.
Intrinsically concerned with inward motives of the heart, grace creates a “want to” within energized by the Spirit of God.

“because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so;” — Romans 8:7

“But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”—Romans 2:29

“who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” —2 Corinthians 3:6

What is our natural human reaction when we encounter a speed limit sign that is 10 miles slower than the previous one?  Though outwardly conforming to the speed limit, we inwardly rebel and seek to “push the limit” by going no slower than the maximum speed allowed.  The law doesn’t care how close you get to breaking it as long as you don’t overstep the boundary.  In the same way, legalism creates inward rebellion as its primary focus is the boundary line of the law, rather than the inward attitudes of the heart.

Furthermore, Legalism appeals to our innate desire for security and the ability to control our environment; for when boundaries are explicitly set, individuals can feel secure in endeavoring to rigidly stay within the perimeters of each aspect of the law.  Self-motivated, autonomous individuals often thrive under a legalistic environment as not only does the law appeal to their pride of being able to control their environment, but it provides a visible standard by which to judge oneself and others.

In contrast, a life controlled by grace does not come naturally as it requires greater sensitivity to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and conscience.  While legalism creates a sense of security as it explicitly “draws-the-line” on every aspect of life, grace produces a sense of insecurity that forces individuals to draw closer to God in order to exercise personal discernment in tune with the Spirit of God for every situation encountered.  While legalism fosters group conformity and group judgment of individuals that do not “measure-up”, grace sponsors intimate personal fellowship with God as it opens the heart of an individual to God’s judgment standards, rather than man’s.

“But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God does not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.’” —1 Samuel 16:7

“Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”—1 Corinthians 4:5

OLD COVENANT = Outward Precept
(Strength = God’s Holiness)
NEW COVENANT= Inward Power
(Strength = Holy Spirit)
Portraying God’s flawless nature of holiness through the precepts of the law, Legalism derives its strength in upholding an unattainable standard of personal worthiness.
Finding its strength in the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit who indwells each believer who has been washed in the blood of the Lamb, grace imparts the inward power of a changed life.

 “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” —1 Corinthians 15:56

The Law of the Old Covenant derives its strength in portraying God’s holiness.  Because there is absolutely no imperfection whatsoever in God’s nature, the Law becomes a means through which God reveals his nature of holiness.  When one begins to view the Law of God as an expression of God’s very nature, rather than an abstract list of rules and regulations, one can clearly see why God is the only one who can fulfill the Law.  For this reason, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” 4. , for no human can ever attain to the level of holiness that God possesses; therefore, all stand condemned by God’s Law.

“Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable [guilty] to God; for by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.  But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested…even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe, for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified [declared righteous] as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.…that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.…For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”—Romans 3:19-24, 26, 28

“For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw near to God.”—Hebrews 7:19

In contrast to the Old Covenant of legalism which derives its strength in the inability of man to fulfill its standards, the New Covenant of grace finds its strength in the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within a regenerate heart, He gives the inward strength to overcome sin both internally and externally.  Because Jesus fulfilled the law, when His blood is applied to one’s heart, not only does one immediately become positionally righteous in Christ, but the Holy Spirit begins to transform that individual into the image of Christ as he beholds Him.  At this point, one longer finds himself struggling in the flesh to change his life, but he discovers that God is the one who is working internally in him to conform him to Christ’s image.

“…but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.…Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” —2 Corinthians 3:5-6, 17-18

“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” —Ezekiel 36:26-27

“Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”—2 Corinthians 5:17

Recognizing that apart from the Spirit of God, no person can truly be transformed, a person who possesses the Spirit of grace will begin to look at others through the eyes of Jesus.  Just as in the case of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus demonstrated grace in the way that He affirmed her in His love while not condoning her sin.  In the process, He showed her how accepting unconditional forgiveness can bring about true repentance in the life of an individual.

“And the scribes and the Pharisees bought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst, they said to Him.…Now the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what they do You say?’…He straightening up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’…And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst. And straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they?  Did no one condemn you?’ And she said, ‘No one, Lord,’ and Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go your way.  From now on sin no more.’ ”—John 8:3-5, 7, 9-11

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.…For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.…Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies [declares righteous]; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died…who also intercedes for us.” —Romans 8:1, 3, 33-34

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” —2 Corinthians 5:21

Because Jesus became “sin on our behalf”, there is “no condemnation” for those who are under the shed blood of the Lamb.  True grace, therefore, recognizes the unconditional nature of God’s forgiving love, and seeks to affirm and exhort weaker ones in the faith “in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted.” 5.

Because grace is not tided to a regimented list of rules and regulations, but rather to the principles behind the law, grace provides an atmosphere of freedom in which unity of faith is affirmed while accommodating differences of individual opinion on issues relating to personal walk with the Lord.

“Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.  Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him.  Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.”—Romans 14:1-5

“Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival [holiday] or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” —Colossians 2:16-17

OLD COVENANT = Ministry of Death
(Grips by Guilt/Fear of Rejection)
NEW COVENANT= Ministry of Life
(Grips by Freedom/Security in Christ)
Imposing the condemnation of death upon every individual who cannot fulfill its regulations, Legalism grips through the guilt of a burdened sin-conscience.
Permanently sealing redemption through Christ’s eternal blood-sacrifice, grace grips through the freedom of a clear conscience.

“And not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, in order that since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.…For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.… For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”—Hebrews 9:12-15; 10:4, 14

As the “ministry of death,” the Old Covenant regulations and sacrifices could never eradicate sin.  They provided a temporary covering that looked forward to Jesus final “once for all” sacrifice; but merely granting a means of temporary relief from the guilt of a sin-conscience, the Law was powerless to provide eternal forgiveness.  In the same way, legalism, controlling through guilt and fear of rejection, grants temporary relief as one endeavors to conform to the standards of the law, but it can never impart the true peace of a clear conscience that comes from total forgiveness in Christ.

“When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.  But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.”—Hebrews 8:13

“But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones, came with glory.…how shall the ministry of the Spirit fail to be even more with glory?  For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.” —2 Corinthians 3:7-9

A PARABLE OF ORPHAN ANDY

One day, a young orphan named Andy had an opportunity to be adopted by loving parents.  Operating under the Old Covenant of legalistic standards of adoption, Andy was taken home by these new parents for a trial period of four weeks.  If he showed his worthiness for adoption by living up to all the standards they required, he would then be adopted into the family.  At first, Andy was elated.  The possibility of adoption was all he could think about.  To have a father who would really love him and would care for his every need was more than Andy could hope for.  Certainly, he would be on his very best behavior, for this is all Andy ever wanted!

The first week seemed to go o.k. as Andy strove to conform to their every rule and regulation.  Even though he didn’t always remember to brush his teeth after every meal or say “please” and “Yes, Sir!” when making his requests, at least he was remembering most of the main regulations.  “I’ll do better next week” Andy thought, “Certainly, I should have a good chance of adoption if I can just get used to this!”

The second week didn’t go as easy as the first week, for under these strict regulations, Andy found it impossible to be himself.  He was always trying to be better and to live up to their expectations; but invariably, he found himself failing and his bright, sparkly personality was beginning to be replace by nervous conformity.

As the weeks passed, no matter how hard he tried, he knew he wasn’t fulfilling their expectations and this threw him into deep depression and an apprehensive self-consciousness that he just couldn’t shake.  If he didn’t straiten his act up right away, Andy knew that they would reject him.  Finally, Andy broke down and wept as he realized that he was powerless to do any better.  “Stop that crying!  We can’t have a wimp around the house.  If you don’t straighten up, we’ll have to take you back.” protested the once seemingly loving father.  The pressure increased from day-to-day, until Andy just couldn’t take it any more.  “I’ll never have a real father!” Andy cried as the prospective parents sternly placed him in the vehicle and drove him back to the orphanage.  Andy felt like he would never live this down.  If he couldn’t perform under just four weeks, why would anyone else ever give him a chance.…

This is what happens to a person when he is placed into a legalistic environment of trying to earn approval.  Experiencing the impossibility of living up to every regulation of legalism, one can see why the Old Covenant was indeed “the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones.…” for as a “ministry of condemnation,” it reveals the powerless of the flesh to fulfill the law of God:

“Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified [declared righteous] by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor [Law of condemnation].” —Galatians 3:24-25

Going back to the story of Andy, in a different scenario, operating under the New Covenant of grace, Andy was immediately adopted by the parents with no trial period or conditions attached.  Finding the freedom to be himself, he rested in the security of knowing that no matter what he did, his new parents would never reject him.  He was forever theirs!  As a result, his love for his new parents became the motivating factor of his obedience.  He no longer feared rejection from his parents, because he knew that they loved him with an unconditional love that disciplines when needed, but never rejects.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.  We love, because he first loved us.” —1 John 4:18-19

How can unconditional love exist in a conditional environment?  Under the first scenario of legalism, Andy never experienced true unconditional love because unconditional love cannot exist in a legalistic environment as legalistic love is always based on conditions.  Andy knew that he would be rejected if he didn’t measure up, and as a result, he found himself motivated to perform based on “fear” of that rejection.  In contrast, in the second scenario of grace, knowing that his adoption was secure, Andy was able to respond to their unconditional love with grateful love.

Just as in the second scenario, Andy’s adoption was based on the unconditional love of grace, God uses this same picture to describe how each person who has come under the shed blood of the New Covenant can spiritually be “adopted” into God’s family.

“…God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” —Galatians 4:4-5

“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.”—John 1:12

Just as in the second scenario, Andy found unconditional acceptance in the love of his new parents, so it is with God.  Under the New Covenant, God’s acceptance of us is based completely upon Jesus’ righteousness being imputed to our account; thus, God is able to unconditionally love those of us who have personally accepted Christ, and we freely respond with grateful love that never fears eternal rejection from God.  By coming to Jesus, and personally asking Him to give you His righteousness in exchange for your sin (personally accepting His all-sufficient payment for your adoption), you can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life.

“And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.  These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.” —1 John 5:11-13

SUMMARY
INSPIRATION
  • Legalism deals with the surface; Grace deals with the center.
  • Legalism appeals to fear; Grace appeals to grateful love.
  • Legalism prescribes what one ought to do; Grace creates a “want to” within.
  • Legalism grips by guilt of failure; Grace grips by freedom in Christ.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.…For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.…Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies [declares righteous]; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died…who also intercedes for us.” —Romans 8:1, 3, 33-34

“…God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.…He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”—2 Corinthians 5:19, 21

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1. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, p. 77
2. All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible
3. Hebrews 13:8
4. 2 Corinthians 5:19
5. Galatians 6:1

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