The Grace of God: 4. What Grace Is Not

Before we notice what grace IS in the New Testament, we need to see two things that grace is NOT. Both these errors are popularly taught and believed today. Sometimes one of them leads to the other. Sometimes people who have been taught one, and learned better, go so far from that error that they fall into the other extreme which is also erroneous. Let us see, then, two erroneous ideas about God’s grace — and see by the word of God that neither is true or worthy of our confidence, but that both deserve only to be rejected and warned against. These two erroneous ideas about grace relate to the two eternal principles we have already noticed. One of them fails to take into account what we have seen about God. The other does not deal with the truth we have observed about ourselves. These are the twin errors of LICENSE and LEGALISM.

Grace Is Not License

In the first place, grace is not license! The doctrine of “license” says, in effect: “Ignore God’s law and count on his grace.” This doctrine implies that our attitude and actions toward God do not matter at all — that we can flagrantly live in knowing and willful rebellion against God if we wish –and that somehow God’s grace will take care of anyway when we face God in judgment. There are those today, and were in New Testament times, who taught LICENSE in the name of grace. But Scripture plainly teaches that grace is not license.

License is a perversion of God’s grace. It denies what we have seen already about God: that he hates sin and always punishes it. This error ignores God’s just demand for a sinless life. It perverts the true grace of God. It is wrong, and always has been. License is not grace, because license does not take into account the eternal principle which grows out of God’s very nature: God demands a sinless life and always punishes sin with death.

Let us notice the New Testament evidence of three writers which proves beyond the shadow of any reasonable doubt that LICENSE is not the true grace of God. Other Scriptures could be found along this same line. But these will be enough to clearly demonstrate to any honest person that the grace of God is not LICENSE. Grace does not mean “do as you please and somehow God will forgive everything.”

The first witness is the Apostle Paul. When Paul preached on grace, sometimes his critics accused him of preaching license. He answers this charge very clearly in his epistle to the Romans. Paul speaks there of God’s grace to man in these words:

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. And the law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 5:19-21) .

In these verses Paul magnifies the grace of God. As much as Adam did for harm to the human race — and Paul affirms more about that than we sometimes have wished to acknowledge — Christ did so much more for mankind by His own life of obedience to God. Where sin increased, Paul says, grace increased even more! Satan could not have the last word! His most horrible evil is overshadowed entirely by God’s kindness to sinners through Jesus Christ.

Some of those who heard Paul preach these things responded by accusing him of teaching license. They said that his teaching would encourage people to go ahead and sin, counting on God’s grace to save them. Paul responded to this charge in the very next verses.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? . . . Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. . . . Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts (Rom. 6:1, 2, 6, 12).

Grace does not mean LICENSE! Grace is NOT permission to go on sinning. Anyone who says that it is, is wrong — according to the Apostle Paul in these verses. But this is not all. The advocates of LICENSE — whether they be indulgent “church members” who want to do as they please, advocates of a so-called “new morality” who say that all the gates are now open for unbridled satisfaction of every desire of body and mind, or libertines who preach as gospel a doctrine of “do as you please and God will overlook it all somehow” — are all WRONG! Grace is not license.

If grace were license, we should expect the Bible to say something like this: “The grace of God has appeared, teaching us to give in to every desire, to live a riotous, indulgent and self-satisfying life while we have opportunity.” Those who are familiar with Scripture know that it says almost exactly the opposite. Paul wrote to younger preacher Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good deeds. These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you (Tit. 2:11-15).

Grace is not license.

To Paul’s testimony we can now add the words of the Apostle Peter. His second general epistle was written for the express purpose of warning in advance of false teachers who would scoff at Christ’s promised coming and would advocate lustful living now (2 Pet. 3:1-4). In response to these evil men, Peter admonishes saints to live holy lives — to be ready for the Lord’s return. Listen to his words:

Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness (2 Pet. 3:11).

Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by him in peace, spotless and blameless (v. 14).

You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness (v. 17).

Peter warns against the doctrine of license. In direct contrast to it, he admonishes in verse 18:

But grow in the GRACE and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

Grace is not “do as you please.” It is not license. It is not divine tolerance of sin. License denies the fundamental truth of God’s holy nature. It ignores the fact that He punishes sin and that the wages of sin is always death. No doctrine of the true grace of God can conclude that grace is simply license. But we have another witness.

Jude, the half-brother of the Lord, began to write a joyful epistle celebrating salvation in Jesus. Because of some who were teaching license, however, he felt compelled to change his plan, writing instead to warn believers against those perverters of grace.

Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you content earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, . . . ungodly men who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4).

His epistle closes with a warning and an exhortation.

But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, “In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts” (Jude 17-18).

But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith; praying in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life (Jude 20-21).

Grace is not license. License is a perversion of grace It fails to take into account the fundamental and eternal nature of God. It ignores the fact that He hates sin, that sin must be punished, and that the wages of sin is death. Paul warns against license in the name of grace. Peter warns against the same error. Jude does the same. Grace is not “do as you please.” License is a perversion of the true grace of God.

But there is another error which is sometimes preached in the name of grace, an error which is the opposite extreme to license. That other false extreme is legalism.

Grace Is Not Legalism

Grace is not legalism. A word should be said about this term, because it is frequently misused and abused. Legalism does not mean trying to please God. It is not legalistic to seek to do God’s will as accurately and exactly as possible. Trying to strictly obey God’s commands does not make one a legalist. An obedient and scrupulous person might be a legalist or might not be. But the desire or attempt to please God precisely is not the determining factor.

Legalism is not law-keeping, but law-depending. It is not the idea of doing God’s will and obeying his commands but of trusting in one’s performance for salvation. One falls prey to legalism who supposes that he or she will be saved because of a personal record of obedience that is pleasing to God. Just as license ignores and fails to reckon with the fact that God, by nature, hates and punishes sin, so legalism ignores and fails to reckon with the fact that fallen human beings, which includes us all, are sinners. If the Gentiles were especially prone to the error of license, the Jews seem to have been especially prone to the other error of legalism.

According to those who have studied Jewish thought of the first century, the ordinary rabbi of Jesus’ day would have said that he strongly believed in the grace of God. But he would have described it something like this. God’s grace, the rabbi might have said, means that God gave us his Law. Of all nations on earth, we Jews alone were given this Law. If we keep it, God will bless us. If we do not, he will punish us. But we have God’s grace because we have his Law.

What this rabbi would have failed to consider — and what many today fail to see as well — is that neither the Jew then nor anyone today ever does keep God’s law perfectly. Legalism says in effect, “keep the rules perfectly and be saved; good luck!” But legalism fails to deal with the eternal principle that fallen humans do NOT keep the rules perfectly! We are sinners, you and I, and everyone else we know. Since Adam, we have been. We are now. Left to ourselves, we always will be. Grace is not simply God giving us his laws and saying, “Keep the rules and be saved — good luck!”

Just as LICENSE ignores the nature of GOD, so LEGALISM ignores our own nature. No one could EVER be saved by that kind of “grace.” No man or woman has ever kept the rules perfectly — either before becoming a Christian or after –except Jesus Christ. Legalism FRUSTRATES the true grace of God and ignores fallen human nature.

The rabbi might respond to what I have just said by saying, “Oh, I realize that we do not keep all the rules, and that we do not keep the rules perfectly. But God’s grace will surely overlook our shortcomings. For we do keep the IMPORTANT rules — and just look at the other nations of the world!” Some today would say about the same thing. In reality, however, this statement begs the question. It misses the whole point.

We are agreed that we have not kept the rules right. But if grace is no more than legalism (“Here are the rules; keep them and be saved — good luck!”), no one can be saved. For not one of our race, except Jesus Christ, has kept the rules perfectly — which is but another way of saying that we have not “kept” them at all. And if salvation is by LAW, there is no room for grace. One either DESERVES to be saved or does NOT DESERVE salvation. Salvation is either EARNED or it is an undeserved GIFT — but it is not both those things.

Legalism says that we will be saved because we have kept the rules — because we have earned God’s approval. Oh, it will not come right out and say that we earn it — that would be too obviously wrong. It makes excuses for our shortcomings, it rationalizes our mistakes and errors, it talks all around the matter. It picks out certain rules and says that they are, after all, the IMPORTANT ones — it makes all kind of maneuvers. But in the end legalism says: “Here are the rules. Keep them and be saved. Good luck!” Grace is not legalism. Legalism ignores our true fallen nature. No one can be saved by keeping the rules because not one of us ever does that. The grace of God is something else.

Scripture warns against LEGALISM as strongly and clearly as it warns against LICENSE. When certain Judean Christians went to the young church in Antioch and began to teach salvation on the basis of law-keeping (in that instance, the Law of Moses), the apostles and elders met together in Jerusalem to settle the matter. It was almost inevitable that a showdown would come in the early church on this matter.

Peter was one spokesman in the Jerusalem assembly. His answer to the legalists highlighted the same truth we have been talking about: the nature of man — the fact that we are sinners, that we have never kept the rules perfectly and that any hope of salvation on the basis of our own performance is doomed from the very start.

Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the GRACE OF THE LORD JESUS, in the same way as they also are(Acts 15:10-11).

The legalists had said that salvation depended on people properly keeping God’s law (Acts 15:1). Peter, speaking for the Holy Spirit, said that salvation — for Jew or Gentile — depends instead on the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. God had cleansed the hearts of both Jewish and Gentile Christians by faith. Salvation began on this basis, said Peter, and it will continue on the same basis. To bind on Gentile Christians the burden of law-keeping as a BASIS for acceptance by God is to tempt God and to demand the IMPOSSIBLE from the saints. Our fathers could not do it, Peter said. We could not do it. And Gentile Christians cannot do it either. We all must look to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation — we cannot expect to find it through our own perfect performance or our own record of law-keeping.

Though Peter had stood firm on this occasion, even he was to play the hypocrite under different circumstances because of the pressures of party-men from Jerusalem. At Antioch, Peter was eating with the Gentile saints –accepting them fully as brethren in the Lord, worthy of sharing in the common life. But when certain men came down from Jerusalem, Peter was intimidated by their presence and did not continue to eat with the non-Jewish Christians. This was not merely racial discrimination in a social sense (though it was also that, and was wrong), but was based on the thinking of some Jews that the Gentiles were not really accepted by God because they did not keep the Law of Moses.

Paul rebuked Peter to his face for this, and said that he was not walking according to the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:11-14). In writing to the Galatians, Paul relates some of his remarks to Peter on that occasion.

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of law (Paul literally says), but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of law; since by the works of law shall no flesh be justified (Gal. 2:16).

Salvation cannot come by our own law-keeping. Paul says, “by the works of law shall no flesh be justified.” It is not that law is bad — the Law of Moses was GOD’S law. It was holy and just and good. It was perfect for its purpose. But the Law of Moses could not SAVE for the same reason that no list of rules can save. Rules can only tell WHAT GOD WANTS from his human creatures. For one to be saved on the basis of rules (or law-keeping), one must keep them all and keep them perfectly. And that is just what we have always failed to do.

What Paul says in the verse we noticed had special reference to the Law of Moses. Peter’s remarks in Acts 15 had special reference to the Law of Moses, too. But the principle is the same with any law: we cannot be saved on the basis of law-keeping because we never do keep law perfectly. It is a cold, hard fact that we always come short of God’s perfect standard. This is undeniable reality — stated in God’s word and verified by all human experience. We are sinners, and even when we sincerely try to do right we do not consistently do what God wants us to do. Paul talks about this very problem in Romans, chapter seven. Legalism is not grace. God does NOT simply give a list of rules in the New Testament and say: “Here are the rules. Keep them and be saved. Good luck!”

Scripture is very plain along this line. The law — any law — is weak through the flesh (see Rom. 8:3). That is, no one ever keeps law perfectly, and therefore no one can ever be saved by law. The weakness of the Old Testament was not in the Law of Moses. It was ordained by angels and given by God Himself (Gal. 3:19). Indeed:

If a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Gal. 3:21-22).

No, these words do not apply just to the Law of Moses. If ANY law could have given life, Paul says, surely the Law of Moses could. But even it could not. The law was not bad — the people were. It is impossible — because of the way we sinful humans are and always have been — for law to save. God’s grace is not just giving a law which we can keep and be saved. If that is all the New Testament brings it is no better than the Old. We still sins. Sinners must die. Law cannot save. If a law could have been given, Paul says, which could give life, surely it would have been the Law of Moses. But — he continues — Scripture has shut up all mankind under the guilt of sin instead. Law can not save.

Grace is not LICENSE. License says “do as you please and God will overlook it.” That perverts the grace of God. It ignores the fundamental fact of God’s nature, that He is holy and always punishes sin with death.

Grace is not LEGALISM. Legalism says “here are the rules; keep them and be saved — good luck!” Legalism frustrates the true grace of God. It ignores the fundamental fact of our nature, that we are weak in the flesh and always sin. We never keep the rules perfectly.

How, then, is anyone to be saved? How can we harmonize God’s holy nature on the one hand, with our weakness on the other — and still have anyone enjoy the favor of God? If grace is not LICENSE, if it is not LEGALISM, what is it? Scripture answers this question very clearly, and we will turn to that answer now.