After the sermon, a man came up to let me know he wasn’t happy with what he had heard. He didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but it was all over his furled brow and panicked expression. “So what did you think about the sermon?” I asked with a smile, “There was too much grace!” he said indignantly. It’s one of those complaints that you do your hardest not to laugh at because you actually take it as a compliment. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes in his commentary on Romans 6:
"There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. This is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel."1
Lloyd-Jones’ point is that this kind of criticism is actually a sign that we are preaching the Gospel rightly. That has been the case since the days of Paul the Apostle (see Romans 6). Reactions like this, however, are all too common among Christians. I believe that there are two things at play here. The first is a misunderstanding of the role of the Gospel in a believer’s life after conversion. The second is a misdirected, even if well intentioned, concern about the abuse of grace and permissiveness toward sin in the life of the believer, in other words, an unfounded fear of antinomianism.
The Role of the Gospel in the Believer’s Life
Many Christians seem to believe that the Gospel is really only for unbelievers. The Gospel is seen as the entryway into relationship with God, but then once it has served its purpose, it should be set aside for “more advanced things.” Sure, we might pull the Gospel from the shelf every now and again if we sin and feel the need for forgiveness, but that’s about it. For many Christians, this is the extent of the Gospel’s role after initial conversion. This couldn’t be further from the biblical picture of the role of the Gospel in the Christian’s life. The Gospel is not merely a push start for the Christian life; it is the foundation for the Christian life from beginning to end. The Gospel is just as vital for growth and sanctification as it is for initial justification. In other words, the Gospel is for believers just as much as it is for unbelievers.
Paul writes in Romans 1, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation…” The problem is that we normally read this as if it said, “the gospel… is the power of God for justification.” But the term “salvation” in Scripture refers not only to the initial act of God in justifying us through faith in Christ. It also refers to our sanctification and ultimately our glorification together with Christ. Salvation covers all these aspects. That means the Gospel is also the power for sanctification, not merely for justification. It is the power to transform, not just the power to pardon. Unfortunately, we sometimes bifurcate the work of salvation and act as though justification is God’s work, and sanctification is ours. We act as though the Gospel has importance for the first, but means almost nothing for the second. But the Gospel is the power for the whole of salvation.
In some circles, we tend to look at the Gospel as the means for justification, and the Holy Spirit as the means for sanctification. This is a false division on two levels. First, while Christ is the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for us, it is only the Spirit who applies this work to our hearts in justifying and regenerating us (Titus 3:5). Second, we would do well to remember the statements of Christ about the Spirit’s work. “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). The Spirit does indeed work sanctification in our lives, described (among other ways) as “the fruit of the Spirit.” However, the means He uses to produce that fruit is to continually point us to Christ, to the Gospel. It is not a contest between the Holy Spirit or the Gospel—which one will hold the title of being the source of the “power of God” for sanctification. Rather, the Spirit powerfully transforms us by pointing us ever more clearly to the Gospel.
Too Much Grace?
To return to the original complaint I mentioned, it brings up a valid question: Is there such a thing as too much grace? There are some who would say “yes”—like the man who approached me after the sermon. The argument goes that if we too strongly emphasize that our salvation is completely secure by grace, not dependent on anything we do but solely on what Jesus has done for us, that this will give people license to dive headlong into all kinds of sin.
We must admit that there are certainly those calling themselves Christians for whom grace is just an excuse to continue living for self and sin. But these are likely people who have never seen the costliness of grace, never been amazed by its beauty. Yes, God’s grace is free for us, but it comes to us at the cost of His only Son, flowing from His wounds. For the abuser of grace, it is just a philosophical concept broken off from the suffering of Christ. This person’s concept of grace is superficial at best. In other words, their problem is not too much grace, but too little.
For the abuser of grace, it is just a philosophical concept broken off from the suffering of Christ. This person’s concept of grace is superficial at best. In other words, their problem is not too much grace, but too little.
It would be overly simple to say that all such people in brazen sin are not actually Christians. There are surely some Christians who find their way to this miserable state. Is “too much grace” to blame? Likely the opposite. What happens is that the Christian doesn’t see the beauty and depths of the Gospel, does not delight in the richness of the grace provided through the cross. Instead, they labor under a latent fear and insecurity and so wear themselves out trying to sanctify themselves in the power of their own will. Some simply give up in despair after a time. Again, the problem is not that they need less grace, but more grace!
The moralist would argue that too much grace is dangerous. However, the only motive he offers as a replacement is fear. Yes, one can certainly scare a Christian into a life of busyness via threats of judgment. But while this might make a busy, religious person, it will never make a worshiper. That person’s heart might keep rules and stay busy out of fear, but it will not love and delight in God. It cannot. God is only a dark threat on the horizon of such a heart, rather than a faithful father. Any diminishing of grace creates in us the fear-based mentality of a slave. But Paul writes, “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'” (Romans 8:15).
In stark contrast to the moralist’s argument, seeing the fullness and beauty of grace is the only thing that can cause us to enjoy Christ and happily pour out our lives for Him. Focusing on God’s abundant, unbridled goodness rather than our efforts is exactly what inspires love and fuels sanctification for the sake of the One who loves us so well. Any “change” without this motive is mere fleshly self-improvement. It is only the Gospel of grace, applied by the Spirit, which is the power of God unto sanctification. The puritan writer Thomas Chalmers summed it up well in his sermon The Expulsive Power of a New Affection:
"The freer the Gospel, the more sanctifying is the Gospel; and the more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more will it be felt as a doctrine [leading] to godliness… That very peculiarity which so many dread as the germ of antinomianism, is, in fact, the germ of a new spirit, and a new inclination against it… Never does the sinner find within himself so mighty a moral transformation, as when under the belief that he is saved by grace, he feels constrained thereby to offer his heart a devoted thing, and to deny ungodliness."2
If we are living half-heartedly as Christians, toying with sin, not really growing in sanctification, the answer is not less grace, but more.
1 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6, pp. 8-9.
2 Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection, p. 10, accessed on October 10, 2017.