Our society is filled with “buzzwords”: words, phrases, and language employed solely to impress people who don’t know any better. Merriam-Webster defines a “buzzword” as “an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen.” You can see this everywhere. If you watch any 24-hour national news channel for any length of time, you’ll most assuredly be bombarded with buzzwords and phrases filled to the brim with political jargon, all designed to push specific agendas or platforms. And as “impressive” as these “analysts” and “experts” sound, the majority of the time, no one really knows what they’re talking about — even they probably aren’t totally sure. “But they sure do ‘sound’ smart, eh?”
This shallow attempt to dazzle and stupefy is used everywhere, not just politics: sports, pop culture, technology, etc. In any industry or any field, you can find a plethora of buzzwords designed specifically to make the user sound more impressive, bolstering his reputation, résumé, and platform. (Just watch any technology keynote presentation ever. Essentially the entire thing is one buzzword after another, and each corporation, then, is trying to come up with new buzzwords and new lingo to outdo the other. It’s comical, really. And honestly, Apple, Inc. is probably the worst at this.) Sadly, the adoption of buzzwords and shallowness has infected the Church, to the point where flat, pithy quotes, sayings, and messages compose the vast majority of our preaching today. A lot of what’s said behind the pulpit is a lot of fluff — really nothing more than motivational speeches drizzled with a little “God.” And of all the “Christian buzzwords” currently used, though, none has the power to sever, dismember, and dissolve relationships like that of grace.
Grace vs. control.
The word “grace” gets thrown around a lot, tweeted a lot, and preached about a lot; it’s even become its own hashtag. It has become cliché, almost, to preach sola gratia or “grace alone.” Grace has become a word that divides, rather than unites. It creates sides, rather than points us to Christ. It agitates, rather than relieves. It sparks debate and controversy, rather than praise and harmony. We’ve so misconstrued what grace is and what it does and what it’s supposed to do that we’ve forgotten the true intent of it being given to us in the first place. The cause for this misunderstanding and sweeping distortion of grace is varied, but chiefly, because we like control.
Even if you don’t admit it, or don’t want to own up to it, every human being is affected and driven by an innate desire to control things. The neurotic obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, made famous (charmingly so, thanks to the masterful efforts of Tony Shaloub) by USA Network’s brilliant show Monk, is characterized by an inescapable preoccupation for perfection and an intense pursuit of control. And whether you have this condition or its opposite (see: hoarding), the desire to control our surroundings, our friends, our families, our lives, and our destiny is instinctive. You don’t have to instruct your new born or toddler to want control, they do that automatically. It’s in our DNA to want to rule and run our own lives, without any external influence telling us what to do or where to go or how to live. In our makeup lies the innate desire for independence. This, by the way, is the foundation upon which most of modern science is built, which is simply man’s attempt to explain his existence, beginnings, purpose, and ultimate end without the involvement of a Sovereign Being.
Consequently, grace has been misinterpreted and perverted by our finite attempts to apprehend and digest it in our own terms — terms we control. We’ve forgotten the true meaning of grace primarily because it rips all control from us and leaves it solely with the Giver. We react negatively and harshly to the perfect grace of Jesus because it is, by nature, uncontrollable and uncontainable. Indeed, nothing’s harder for our finite human minds to comprehend than the unconditional grace of God. Everywhere grace is proclaimed, either in pulpits or across the World Wide Web, there are always two responses. Grace usually triggers a separation into two camps, who, while essentially distinct, we’ll see that they’re fundamentally the same. These camps are, as I prefer to call them, legalism and license.
Legalism: just do it!
Legalism, which can also be called moralism, Pharisaism, or performancism, is simply man’s attempt to save himself by strict adherence to the law of God. It’s his attempt to validate and establish himself by his own effort, strength, or performance. It’s the futile pursuit of self-salvation; us trying to make it up to God by being good and lording our goodness over others. Legalism always leads to pride, thereby, killing itself upon attempt. It’s enslaving and directly opposed to the gospel because it shifts the focus from the Savior onto us, thereby warping the entire point of Jesus’s ministry, and the entire gospel itself. In fact, Christ spent the majority of earthly ministry dispelling the fallacies of legalism and its most ardent adherents, the Pharisees. The platform upon which these Pharisees stood, and that which legalism stands, is that to become a Christian and to merit God’s favor and approval, one must observe every regulation and ordinance in the law. They postulated that justification and salvation comes only by rigorous obedience, not by grace through faith. They were self-righteous rule-followers that proclaimed that redemption came foremost through external change and behavioral fidelity.
Legalism says that grace only comes to those who “do good.” That relief and redemption comes when we devote our lives to constant “spiritual ascension.” It’s what “happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game.”1 Legalism is what happens when we think that we can reach God and be good enough and earn his favor by doing more, trying harder, and being better. It’s a works-based gospel, which is candidly and categorically anti-gospel, wrongfully asserting that the more that’s done for God, the more love that’s dispensed.
This thinking, while indeed flawed to the core, is so pervasive and accepted because it promotes the philosophy that you can control your own destiny. You want success and satisfaction and joy and peace and worth and significance and meaning and fulfillment? Then just do more, try harder, and become better, make something of yourself. Legalism, in all it’s forms, is appealing to us because it speaks to our natural man, to our innate spirit of performancism that says, “Strength lies inside you.” That if you work hard and do more, your “dreams will come true.” That “success is yours, so just do it!” Yet all throughout the New Testament, these notions are dismissed and crushed by Jesus, and eventually his disciples. (Mt 23:1-36; Lk 11:37–54; Gal 2:15–4:7) We can never ascend unto God, nor can we ever merit any more favor or grace by “performing” for him. Thus, “spiritual ascension” — that is, legalism, moralism, Pharisaism, and performancism — is simply our futile, feeble aspirations to achieve greater “spiritual filling” (Eph 5:18), and establish for ourselves our own identity and righteousness by our own effort. And there’s no amount of working or reaching or performing that can be done to achieve salvation or win redemption or earn grace. No, the Christ-follower’s life is to be marked, not by “spiritual ascension,” but by “divine condescension,” for it is God himself, in the likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ, that descended to earth, thereby providing to all mankind the Remedy, the Escape, and the Redemption from sin. As Charles Spurgeon writes, “It is in [Jesus’s] condescension that his Divine Lordship comes out more than anywhere else.”
Divine condescension is precisely the effect of grace on the believer. (Phil 2:6–11) And it’s only by the condescending grace of Jesus and his gospel — Christ coming down to us, taking on our sin and imputing to us his righteousness, thereby freeing us — that we live and breathe, have purpose and meaning, and are able to see fulfillment and joy and peace. In Christ, we have everything (2 Pt 1:3–4); without him, we are certainly nothing. (Jn 15:5) Therefore, to rely on yourself, to believe that you can “just do it,” to trust in your own strength to get salvation, is to fundamentally miss the entire point of the gospel. Doing so avoids Jesus altogether. Legalism is a false gospel and, indeed, nullifies grace. The apostle Paul makes this evident when he states, “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Rom. 11:6) God hates legalism because it inherently ignores the cross and defiantly discounts the perfect sacrifice of Christ.
Grace is antithetical to legalism; and because God loves to extend his grace, he’s a hater of legalism . . . God hates legalism because it’s our attempt to stand on our own righteousness in outright disrespect and disregard and misunderstanding of God’s righteousness.2
License: take it easy.
In addition, license, also called antinomianism, licentiousness, or lawlessness, is the belief that because God’s grace has come, we’re free to do and live and act as we please. The term “antinomianism” literally means “against law.” License, in effect, diminishes God’s expectations of us and declares that God’s demand for holiness is no longer in play. It says that because of Jesus’s work on the cross for us, we’re now in the dispensation of grace, thereby making the law useless, of no obligation to the believer. If legalism is the opposite of grace, likewise antinomianism is the direct opposite of legalism. But, as we’ll see, in this instance, the enemy of your enemy is not your friend.
The conflict surrounding this lawlessness extends back to the first century, during Paul’s extensive ministry. And the false explanation of grace and the gospel continues to this day. License says that God doesn’t need perfection anymore, just progress. That, “it’s okay if you sin, we all do; here’s grace.” It’s an easing of God’s law, and it creates in us a perversion of true Christian liberty. Admittedly, if we were to take some of Paul’s passages on their own (namely, Rom 5:20; 6:14; 7:4–6; 10:4; Gal 3:23–25), we’d be free to live according to our own pleasure and desire, for we are “dead to the law” because of Christ. (Rom 7:4 KJV) But to proclaim freedom at the expense of holiness is to ignore what grace is and what the gospel is designed to do.
It’s easy to preach license because, like legalism, it speaks naturally to us. It’s normal for us to want to be autonomous — you don’t have to teach your teenager to rebel! Who wants to be told what to do? Who wants rules? Our natural, sinful man surely doesn’t. The banner under which license stands is “Do whatever you want because grace is here!” But this lightening and loosening of God’s demands and expectations of us doesn’t give us a fuller, brighter view of the gospel, of grace. No, it in fact adulterates, bastardizes, falsifies, and warps the gospel just as much as legalism does. License, or exaggerated liberty, is likewise anti-gospel!
Did you know Jesus, himself, was accused of being licentious and antinomian? It’s true. Many of the “religious” leaders during Christ’s earthly ministry accused him of focusing too much on grace and forgiveness. And it’s during his most famous sermon (the “Sermon on the Mount,” Mt 5:1–7:28), that Jesus crushes this accusation. In Jesus, the law wasn’t abolished, but fulfilled. (Mt 5:17) God’s expectations weren’t relaxed, but raised. (Mt 5:21–47) His demands weren’t loosened, but intensified. (Mt 5:18-20, 48) To be sure, the law of God is good and “holy and righteous” (Rom 7:12); we mustn’t ignore it in order to proclaim and enjoy freedom. (1 Tm 1:8)
Antinomianism, license, wrongfully concludes that if you just show a little effort, God will be kind and gracious; that if you just try — just show a little progress — his grace will fill in the gaps. It takes the words of Christ in Matthew 17:20 far too literally, when the Savior says that we need just a little faith, “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” in order to move mountains and experience the powerful presence of God. This freedom that antinomianism promotes isn’t really freedom at all. Moreover, the gospel of grace that antinomianism preaches isn’t the gospel either.
So, what then? What are we to do? What are we to believe? Are we, therefore, hopeless? Are we now commissioned to balance the scales of grace and law, legalism and license? Not at all! Our obligation is to neither of these things. In God’s economy, there are no scales to be tipped or extremes to be balanced. It’s not “either-or,” but “both-and” — and so much more!
What then is grace?
Grace doesn’t come because of your performance; because of your goodness; because of what you do; because of your insistence on self-righteousness. It isn’t bestowed upon us by any of these means. Neither is grace a relaxation of God’s morals; nor a lowering of his standards; nor a “license” for you to break the rules; nor is it freedom to sin. These notions have missed the gospel of grace completely. God’s Word is not just law or just gospel; the Church of God is not defined by a one-word faith (either law or gospel) — it’s a two-word faith: law and gospel! “Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel,” writes Theodore Beza, “is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.”3 Gerhard Ebeling similarly says, “Virtually the whole of the scriptures and the understanding of the whole of theology — the entire Christian life, even — depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel.”4 Without the full gospel, then, there’s no redemption, no salvation, no restoration, and no hope! Legalism’s “law-only” appeals offer no recourse for our sinful selves.
The Law reveals sin but cannot remove it. It prescribes righteousness but is powerless to produce it. The Law is impotent — it has no creative power, it cannot inspire. It offers us nothing but condemnation and death. The Law apart from the Gospel can only crush; it can’t cure.5
In like manner, without the law, we’re blind to our true self, we fail to see our desperation, and in so doing, we lack the despondent heart that the gospel came to relieve. (Lk 19:10) The law is like a mirror: it shows us for who we really are; it unveils our true nature. it reminds us that even our “good” deeds are laced with sin and selfishness. When we insist to God our own goodness and righteousness, the law is there to remind us that we aren’t good or righteous at all.
Law, then gospel — that’s God’s formula for redemption, justification, salvation, and for life. He wrecks us, then rescues us. From our desperation and devastation, he brings restoration and renewal. It’s “only when we understand that God’s Law is absolutely inflexible will we see that God’s grace is absolutely indispensable.”6 When we see just how desperate and depraved we really are, even those of us who “do good,” it’s then that the gospel of grace can do it’s work; it’s then that the vastness and the completeness of Christ’s finished work for us can take hold of our hearts. For it was Christ who said, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Lk 7:47) In Luke 7, Christ’s feet are washed by the tears of a prostitute. In front of the Pharisees and the religious somebodies of the day, Jesus eradicates their self-righteousness and shows them that he didn’t come for the clean and the competent, those that think they have it all together. He came for the sin-sick souls that know they’re sinful. “It is not those who are well who need a doctor, but those who are sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mk 2:17)
Until we come to grips with who we are — depraved, deplorable, desperate sinners — we will never fully appreciate what Christ did! Charles Spurgeon is quoted as saying: “When I thought that God was hard, I found it easy to sin. But when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good.” And so it is that while legalism and license rest at opposite ends of the spectrum of grace, they’re really just different perspectives of the same endeavor: self-salvation. Both mindsets attempt to control their circumstances and their future — control the means of grace — by either lowering God’s demands or loosening them. And both are gross perversions of the gospel.
In Matthew 5, as we’ve already seen, Jesus intensified the Old Testament Law, declaring that for man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he must “be perfect, even as [God] in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:48 NLT) Therefore, in order to truly satisfy God’s expectations for us, we have to meet his standard, and his standard is perfection — absolute, complete, unwavering, 100% holiness, all the time. Legalism “lowers,” cheapens this standard of perfection by saying, “We can do it”; “just be good”; “do more”; “be better!” How egotistical and arrogant to think that we, sinful, filthy, wicked mankind, can be “good enough” to meet God’s standard of perfection! In the same way, license “loosens” the divine demand for a holy and sinless life by declaring that “progress” is all that’s necessary; that God knows you’re trying, so that’s good enough. How foolish and self-serving to think that an utterly holy and perfect God doesn’t require the same from us! But juxtaposed against the dichotomy of legalism and license, grace is the harmony of both God’s law and God’s gospel. Grace isn’t cheapening the law or loosening the law; it’s the understanding and realization of the flawless symmetry in which the law and the gospel work to bring about God’s perfect work in us.
If the Law is the first word, Grace is the last. Listen closely: The Law exposes . . . while Grace exonerates . . . The Law diagnoses, but Grace delivers. The Law accuses, Grace acquits. The Law condemns the best of us, while Grace saves the worst of us. The Law says “cursed,” Grace says “blessed.” The Law says “slave,” Grace says “son.” The Law says “guilty,” Grace says “forgiven.” The Law can break a hard heart, but only Grace can heal one.7
Both the law and the gospel of grace are necessary in order for us to really experience and understand grace. To thoroughly apprehend what Jesus’s gospel does necessitates a recognition of the radical, outrageous, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and boundless measure of God’s gracious disposition towards us. God’s grace isn’t predicated on what you do, therefore it’s futile to rely on your performance; it’s also not based on how much you fail, so you won’t be condemned when you do. (Rom 8:1) Grace is given fully and freely to “all who believe.” (Rom 3:22) The grace of Jesus is outrageously extravagant, and our first instinct is to avoid it because it grapples from our frail hands both control and glory. Thus, preachers and teachers have, for decades, neglected what made the Reformation so special: it’s rediscovery and insistence on sola gratia, the true gospel of grace.
Too much grace?
Speakers avoid this type of grace because they naturally assume that if too much grace is preached, then lawlessness or something close to anarchy will ensue. In fact, this is the best deception Satan can pull on us: that grace is treacherous, foreboding, and insecure; that it must be “balanced” and kept in check; that grace is “too good to be true,” so pursue salvation by doing everything and anything in your own power. Don’t believe this lie, Christian; it comes only from Satan himself, meant to deceive, distract, and ultimately destroy you. Grace is free, and opposite to what we’d innately believe, the answer to the world’s sin problem isn’t stricter rules but more grace.
It’s grace that keeps our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author, Perfecter, and Finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2); it’s the gospel that announces that we’ve been liberated, that we’ve already been accepted, approved, qualified, and justified because of the finished work of Jesus alone. (Col 1:11–14) It’s the freedom of grace that tells us that we’re free to pursue God and follow him and grow deeper in him because the work of redemption is done, it’s over, “it is finished!” (Jn 19:30) To that end, we now can approach the throne of God “boldly” and confidently. (Heb 4:16 KJV) We can live the life we are called to live — a life of soli Deo gloria — because there’s no fear in failure, or of judgment, or of condemnation. (Jn 5:24; Rom 8:1–3; Heb 4:14–16) Jesus lived the perfect life we never could, bore the guilt we always should, and died the death we always would — all because of love, because of grace. He fully and perfectly fulfilled God’s demands and expectations, meeting the “righteous requirement of the law” (Rom 8:4), so that we might be called the “children of God.” (Rom 8:16–17) This is grace — this is the gospel!
Christ-followers, don’t fear, dread, or shun the power of the gospel of grace and run to legalism. Stand in awe at the cost of grace, of love, and of freedom; marvel at the cross. Furthermore, don’t take advantage of, adulterate, or pervert the freedom of the gospel and run towards license. Rather, run to grace, cling to Christ. Your life isn’t yours to control; you’ve been bought by the precious blood of Jesus and his perfect performance for us. Therefore, whenever grace is proclaimed, be certain of it; be sure you understand and recognize what grace is.
Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable . . . Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover . . . Grace is one-way love.8
Tullian Tchividjian, Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 46.
Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, translated by James Clark (East Essex, England: Focus Christian Ministries Trust, 1992), 40–41.
Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1970), 111.
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013), 194.
Paul Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 36.