The Loophole of Grace? … or the art of sanctification.
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain Bible Reading: Romans 6:1-14
Last week our pastor Phil passionately preached on how we are made right with God through Grace – and how God did all of this for us before we understood. This amazing gift of Grace seems perfect but it comes with a loophole … that people seemingly could live however they wanted and as long as they ask God for forgiveness – everything is ok. In this talk Phil explains the other side of this loophole of Grace which is God’s offer to help us become the people that we were always destined to be. If you thought that Phil was passionate preaching on Romans 5 … just wait to see him unpack the amazing words of Romans 6!
Last week we explored Paul’s theological teaching on Righteousness and Grace from the beginning chapters of Romans. If you missed it, I need to give you a two minute catch up because today is part 2 of that sermon. The church in Rome was having some disagreements about how they understood what it means to be a follower of Jesus, so the Apostle Paul wrote them this letter to help. It all revolved around one question – how are we made right with God?
Paul acknowledges that we have all done things that has caused a separation between us and God. “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). There was this idea that if we follow God’s law perfectly that this would make us right with God – to reconcile that separation but Paul is clear, that does not work. None of us are good enough to be made right through the law.
But Paul goes on … in verse 24. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. We are made right with God not through following the law but through the mercy and grace of God. God offers to forgive our sins (justify) and to make us right … God offers all this freely … all we have to do is accept it.
And then in Romans 5, I should the profound gem that is in the timeline of Grace. That God did not show mercy to us as a response to anything we did … actually it was before we even thought about turning to God that Christ died for us. It is all about God and God’s love and what God has done through Jesus. Our actions are irrelevant. All we have to do it accept it.
But this whole idea of salvation or being made right with God through Grace and grace alone can make people a little nervous. If our actions have nothing to do with salvation … then do our actions matter at all.
At the end of last week’s sermon, I hinted at the loophole in this system. If it is all about God and not really dependant on us, then isn’t this grace and mercy open for people to take advantage of it? If we don’t have to do anything other than just receive it – then a person can live a life of sin and godlessness and as long as they ask for God’s forgiveness then all will be ok? Is that the way it works?
Why be good if God is so ready to forgive? If Christ already died for our sins … then why not keep sinning and fully embrace the forgiveness that God is offering?
Philip Yancey in his great book “What’s so amazing about Grace” has this line … Grace has about it the scent of scandal. If the worst person in the world can do the most horrible atrocities … but then repent to God … Paul’s theology would mean that God would forgive them and see him as perfect and righteous. Surely that can’t be right! Surely that is not biblical.
But if we look at the narrative of the Bible it is full of sinful people whom God forgave and used to his glory. Moses was a murderer. David was a murderer and an adulterer. The Apostle Paul called himself the worst of all sinners on whom the grace of our Lord was poured out abundantly. (1 Tim 1:14)
When it comes to repentance and forgiveness, the bible is clear. In 1 John 1:9 we read “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” It does not matter how bad people are … or how many times they have sinned a particular sin … if they ask for forgiveness then God will forgive. God would forgive the worst person in the world after doing the worst atrocities in the world … if they asked.
I can almost see some of you getting agitated. Whenever we talk about Grace like this … it doesn’t seem quite fair. I remember a youth camp I was on one time when the small group discussion I was in got onto this idea of forgiveness and grace. One of the kids there summed it up beautifully when he said, “But we could abuse this forgiveness – we could lead a life of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll and as long as we keep asking for forgiveness God will forgive us and think that we are perfect”
BINGO. That is the loophole of Grace. I guess that is the inherit problem with the way that God has set things up. This was my point last week. Grace is not dependant on our actions … the bible tells us that while we were still sinners Jesus died for us. As funny as it sounds … God has already forgiven our sins before we have even done them. Grace and forgiveness is a gift … all we have to do is admit that we were wrong and receive forgiveness. There can be no forgiveness if you don’t recognise your need for it … but the bible is clear … if we turn to God and accept his gift of forgiveness then we are forgiven. So yes, someone could live a life of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll and as long as we keep asking forgiveness God will keep forgiving them. That is the loophole of Grace.
But this sounds so unfair. We want to put conditions on it. We think that God will only forgive us if we really, really repent.
As scary as it is to admit … I actually preached a sermon once that said basically that. I argued that there is a difference between remorse and repentance. Remorse, I said, was feeling sorry. Repentance was turning from your old ways and trying hard not to do it again. I implied that God will not forgive if we are only sorry, we need to repent.
I have to confess that statement is wrong. Our actions are irrelevant. How we say sorry is not part of the equation. God has already forgiven us, whether we are grudgingly saying sorry or whole-heartedly repentant for our sins. God has already forgiven us, all we have to do is accept that forgiveness. That is what Grace is … and yes, it can be abused.
And before anyone argues that Scripture does put conditions on forgiveness … the only conditions on forgiveness have to do with forgiving other people … not on how we say sorry to God.
Philip Yancey in his book I mentioned before “What’s so amazing about Grace”, helped me to understand this more when he wrote about a conversation he had with his friend Daniel. Late one night Philip sat in a restaurant and listened as Daniel confided to him that he had decided to leave his wife after fifteen years of marriage. He had found someone younger and prettier, someone who “makes him feel alive, like he haven’t felt in years.” He and his wife had no strong incompatibilities. He simply wanted a change, like a man who gets an itch for a newer model car.
As a Christian, Daniel knew well the personal and moral consequences of what he was about to do. His decision to leave would inflict permanent damage on his wife and three children. Even so, he said, the force pulling him toward the younger woman, like a powerful magnet, was too strong to resist.
Yancey listened to Daniel’s story with sadness and grief, saying little as he tried to absorb the news. Then Daniel dropped the bombshell: “Actually, Philip, I have an agenda. The reason I wanted to see you tonight was to ask you a question that’s been bothering me. You study the Bible. Do you think God can forgive something as awful as I am about to do?”
Yancey was caught. How can he dissuade his friend from committing a terrible mistake if he knows forgiveness lies just around the corner?
Here is Yancey’s answer. “Can God forgive you? Of course. You know the Bible. If we confess our sins – God will forgive us. Forgiveness is our problem, not God’s. However … what we have to go through to commit sin distances us from God – we change in the very act of rebellion – and there is no guarantee we will ever come back. You ask me about forgiveness now, but will you even want it later, especially if it involves admitting that you were wrong.”
Several months after that conversation, Daniel made his choice and left his family and at the time of writing the book, Daniel had not returned to God. Daniel told Yancey that God is not a part of his life right now. “Maybe later,” he says.
Yancey writes that God took a great risk by announcing forgiveness in advance, and the scandal of grace or the loophole of Grace involves a transfer of that risk to us.
But … we’re still not comfortable are we. What is the point of being good … if God will forgive us, and we know that in advance … then why be good?
Well that is the exact question that the Apostle Paul was addressing in our reading from Romans 6. Paul addresses this loophole of Grace. So if the more we sin, the more grace we receive … Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Paul’s answer is short but delivered powerfully … By no means! NO! That logic misses the whole point. As Paul said, we died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? No Christian who has been resurrected to a new life with Christ should be pinning again for the grave. After experiencing new life, why would anyone choose to sin?
That’s Paul’s answer, but is not that simple. If we are realistic, there is temptation to abuse Grace. Just look around the world, the temptations towards lust, greed, pride, malice … some of that can be very appealing. We might have died to sin, but sin has a way of popping back to life. Paul understood this, that is why in Romans 7 he talks about ‘doing what I don’t want to do and not doing what I want to do”.
So if it is human nature to sin … we shouldn’t we just give into it and trust that God through his grace will keep forgiving us. Why shouldn’t we abuse this loophole of Grace?
Paul goes on at the end of the chapter to talk about the things we reap from embracing a life of sin verses the things we reap when we embrace a life of holiness. Paul says that living in Grace we experience life, eternal life. But I also think that this links with other big religious word … sanctification.
Sanctification is the life-long process of the Holy Spirit working in our lives to help us become like Jesus. An image that the Bible uses is one of the potter shaping and moulding clay. That Jesus and the Holy Spirit is slowly working in our lives to shape and mould us to be the people that God calls us to be.
In my last church I had a lady who was a very good potter and one Easter I got her to bring in her potters wheel to Church so that I could talk about how God works in our lives. As I preached, she methodically worked away on this amazing pot. But I couldn’t help myself and got involved and as I prodded it the wrong way it sort of collapsed in on itself. “It’s ok”, she said … I can fix that … it will just take longer.
Paul is making the same point in Romans 6. If we keep sinning and calling on God’s grace … God will keep forgiving … but the process of God shaping and moulding us will take longer. And in the meantime, we are not experiencing the fullness of life and blessings that God is wanting for us.
So the question is not “Why be good” or “Why not take advantage of the loophole of Grace” … but rather the question is more “Why would we not want to embrace all the goodness and blessings and life that come from being and remaining in a right relationship with God.”
Philip Yancey in his book sums this up with the great line …
if we truly grasped the wonder of God’s love for us, the devious question that prompted Romans 6 & 7 – What can I get away with – would never even occur to us. We would spend our days trying to fathom, not exploit, God’s Grace.
May we spend our days trying to fathom God’s grace;
be open to the work of God shaping and moulding our lives; and live our lives as a response of gratitude for all that God has done for us in Jesus.