When I was a new Christian, I knew two sisters. One attended the same church that I did. That church emphasized obedience and holiness. Do what God says and you will be rewarded for your effort.
Her sister went to a church that swung way the other direction. Her church’s philosophy was, “Hey, the Bible says that where sin increases God’s grace abounds, so let’s revel in our sin!” Her house was a mess because, “Hey, God’s grace shines through!”
Her church’s basic teaching was this: We are saved by grace alone; therefore, there’s nothing we can do to earn more of God’s love than we already have and at the same time, there’s nothing God’s people can do to make God love them any less.
My church believed that too, in theory, but we still were instructed that we better obey. We were never sure where we stood with God. Our lives looked good on the outside, but most of us were terribly insecure on the inside. At the other church, the people lived like hell, but they were joyful and exuberant. They knew the truth of eternal security in Christ.
That raises questions. On the one hand, we’re called to live holy lives. On the other, we’re free in Christ. Can we live wild, raucous and rowdy lives? What about lives that are mildly on the edge? How short can I wear my skirt? How coarse can my language be?
Why shouldn’t I bet on the horses, drink tequila shots at Chili’s? If grace covers my sin and my debt is paid in full by Christ’s death, then what’s to keep me from doing whatever I want “that grace may abound?”
A group of my friends met recently and our discussion turned to the topic of duty and grace and whether they are mutually exclusive of one another. We had met to talk about studying the Bible and how we, as women in leadership positions, can encourage other women to study. First, however, we had to get honest with ourselves and with each other about our own struggles.
We began with some probing questions: If you examine the amount and depth of your Bible study during the past year, what do you conclude? What, if anything, hinders you from regular serious Bible study? What will you do about it?
Outside of job-related study or a panicky need for help, my Bible study tends to be shallow and spotty. What hinders me? (Interest in other things.) What do I conclude? (I should be flogged publicly.) What will I do about it? (Thank God that his grace covers my sin — and watch another rerun of Gilmore Girls.)
But guilt is a poor motivator. It works for a while, but only produces resentment and insecurity.
Is the church that teaches “God said it — grit your teeth and go do it” correct? Or is the one where “grace abounds” correct? Is there such a thing as “too much grace?” King David, who sinned greatly, often wrote about how he loved God’s law. Yet, he didn’t keep it. At my core I, too, love God’s law and delight to do it, yet if I’m honest, I have to admit that those times are rare. What does that say about me? About you?
Is there an answer? Is there a balance, a middle road? My friends and I agreed that there must be, but we weren’t sure what it is, only that when our hearts need changing, God’s the only one who can do it.
Perhaps change begins with asking questions, voicing doubts, confessing need. Maybe our questions are evidence that God is at work in us, making us willing and able to obey Him — with willing being first (Philippians 2:13).
I like that — that means there’s hope.