(Note- this is a post explicitly directed toward Christians. If you are not one, or come from a different tradition, I hope you might still find some insight into the beliefs of at least one follower of Christ.)
"In short, I do not believe that we are witnessing a new grace reformation. I believe we are witnessing the rise of a hyper-grace movement, filled with its own brand of legalistic judgmentalism, mixing some life-giving truth from the Word with some destructive error." (Is a New Grace Reformation Taking Place Today? by Michael Brown)
This came across my Facebook news feed today, and while I realized quickly that the term “hyper-grace” was meant to be pejorative, I actually thought it sounded pretty great. Can we emphasize God’s grace too much?
This seems to be a recurring theme in my corner of evangelicalism. We have to be careful to mention grace but not “over-emphasize” it, for fear that people will become unrestrained and use it as an opportunity for licentiousness (per the warning in Jude). Most of these people genuinely value God’s grace and believe it is a key to godly living, but there is still some hesitancy to explore its deeper implications. The balance to this is often continued warnings about the harmful effects of sin, with the caveat that God’s grace is still available to those who do sin.
Paul address these concepts as well as anyone, in the book of Romans:
The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
(Romans 5:20-6:2, 6:14)
Sin no longer reigns in the life of the believer. Grace reigns, through righteousness. This is not an enticement to sin. Grace rules instead of sin. If people are continuing in sin and using grace as an excuse, it is possible they are referring to some other phenomenon besides the grace of God, as seen in the person of Christ.
It’s a mistake to use the grace of God as an excuse to sin, but this most likely indicates an incomplete understanding of that grace. While it certainly frees us from the reign of sin, its effects are much greater than that! It is an invitation to a relationship with the Creator. It calls forth the image of God in us, and it does so without requiring us to meet any previous conditions. When we treat it like a mere “get out of jail” free card, we are showing that our emphasis is still on the effect of sin, rather than the blessing of grace. Apparent abuses of the grace of God prove its necessity.
This is why the reaction by some in the evangelical community to react to what they see as a “new kind of grace” (similar to the mythical “new tolerance”) is potentially so dangerous. Grace is pushed to the side when it is needed most. If the issue is with specific modern teachings of grace, then it should be made clear what those issues are, and where the error is. I have heard quite a few people refer derisively to a theology of grace that allows everyone to do whatever they want with no consequences, but I am not sure that I have actually ever heard that type of teaching anywhere. That’s why I believe to some extent this rift is due to a difference in emphasis rather than a difference in practical teachings of grace. There are probably Bible teachers that preach on the topic of grace but don’t consistently encourage their congregations to live righteously. God has accounted for this kind of oversight.
“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age”
When see your brothers and sisters in sin, remember – the solution is divine grace. This is not to be confused with human parodies of the genuine article. This is not a call to just ignore sin, or let it slide - but to point people directly to Christ. This is much easier when we truly believe that God’s grace instructs us and allows us to live righteously.
Grace can surface some tremendous insecurity in church leadership, or in anyone with true compassion for the well-being of others. The reality that believers should not be bound by a fear of punishment can be disconcerting to those who want to help the church walk in obedience. Once the believer sees his freedom, what will compel him to act righteously? We can instruct, but how can we be sure that they will obey when fear is diminished? This is why legalism (in many forms) is so tempting – it allows humans the opportunity to try and adjudicate God’s holy order in the church. But part of the beauty of grace is that it removes so much responsibility from church leadership. Leaders should be accountable to teach and guide, but beyond that, every disciple of Jesus is directly responsible to Christ for his or her own actions.
To those who are married: as your relationship grows, and you begin to experience security in the unconditional love of your partner, do you more often think of grieving them? Does knowing that they will always forgive and accept you cause you to consider testing those limits? Is fear of punishment your primary restraint?
If the idea of hyper-grace makes you nervous, know that you are not alone. It might be due to the experience of people ascribing their continual sin to God’s grace, or simply the result of a subconscious fear of exploring the depths and apparent uncertainty of the freedom found in grace. Whatever the case, please, make a point of really getting to know your God. He is still full of grace and truth.