Grace - the Most Overused yet Abused Word in the Christian Dictionary?
Enter the word "Grace" into Google and it will discover around 289, 000, 000 sites for you. The first site is Channel 4's popular show, 'Will and Grace' closely followed around 9th in the list by John MacArthur's 'Grace to You' Ministries. Oh sure. Grace is a popular word. You can't move in Christian circles without bumping into it. "By His grace .. Grace church ... grace and peace to you ... may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God ... Grace Ministries" and so on and so on.
I have been reading Galatians with the help of Prof Gordon Fee and I've been amazed at how utterly angry Paul was with the legalists that he met. Paul really hated legalism! Small wonder that Terry Virgo can marvel in the lavish grace of God and say, "How powerful grace is that it can take an embittered legalist, a murderer and set him free to say, 'By the grace of God I am what I am!" (p91). Clearly it takes something as powerful as grace to deliver one from something as evil as legalism! So this morning on this glorious Sunday, I want to join Paul in a bit of hating legalism and enjoying grace.
1. Galatians is an EXPERIENTIAL not POSITIONAL book.
So says Fee. "Thus the argument is not basically along positional lines that one has right standing with God ("is justified") by faith alone, rather it is especially along experiential lines, that by faith one has received the Spirit and that the Spirit and Torah observance (= 'works of law') are absolutely incompatible" (GEP, p369). So in other words, Spirit = Freedom. Torah or Law = Slavery. Fee says again, "For Paul, the gift of the Spirit along with the death and resurrection of Christ meant the end of the time of Torah" (p369 - emphases mine).
For Paul then, Spirit-life is absolutely essential to Christian living, and I think Fee would not be mad at me for deriving that Spirit-life is just as essential for banishing legalism and enjoying and basking in the grace of God. Why else would Terry Virgo write, "Paul wants you to appreciate that not only Christ's great work of crushing condemnation through His Cross, but also His life-imparting power that comes to you by the indwelling Spirit who, by His power, fulfills in you what the outward law could not fufill" (GLL, p133 - emphases mine).
Surely therefore, those who call themselves charismatics should be especially in interested in this book! What a poor testimony to the power of the Spirit to meet a legalistic charismatic! Gordon Fee wrote that Paul's whole argument in Galatians, "runs aground if this appeal is not also to a reception of the Spirit that was dynamically experienced" (GEP, p383).
2. Grace is an ONGOING not AUTOMATIC experience.
Fee said, "For Paul all is not automatic. One must sow to the Spirit (6:8) and be led by the Spirit (5:18) ... thus the Spirit not only stands at the beginning of Christian existence, but is the key ingredient to Paul's understanding of the whole of that existence" (GEP, p370). I do appreciate that there is much talk abroad of unity around the gospel and therefore much talk indeed of the gospel. This is a good thing. We are indeed 'all one' in Christ. However my concern is that we do not get caught up in the latest fad and spend our time with Bunyan standing gazing at the wicket gate ... or the Cross. Or wherever.
Christian life doesn't know much of standing and "gazing" to me. Bunyan was so right to make it clear that we are on a journey and these truths must run with us. Therefore the dynamic of the Spirit to Paul, and to Fee is not just for the beginnings of Christian life. But for "the WHOLE" of that existance and our existance. Small wonder then that Gordon Fee calls "being filled with the Spirit" - the ULTIMATE imperative.
To quote Terry Virgo again, "Grace should never lead to passivity but to outrageous adventure, a lifestyle that baffles those who play safe. It threatens the status quo not only of tentative religion but also of cynical unbelief" (GLL, p185). Terry said earlier that grace sets us FREE from the fear of condemnation! Grace assures us that God has FULLY accepted us! But again unsurprisingly for Terry Virgo - he too sees our mobility as essential. "He calls you to go with good news for the nations".
3. Legalism therefore is a MALIGNANT CANCER not a BENIGN FAULT!
Terry Virgo said of the legalists in Philippi, "Paul's dismissive attitude is amazing, regarding them as he does as "dogs" and "evil workers" (Phil 3:2). Why else would Paul be so disturbed with the Galatians? He found something good to say about, even the Corinthians! Michael Eaton wrote, "Law produces a judgemental atmosphere. It tends to condemn you and you condemn everyone else. Law tends to produce a guilt-laden atmosphere. Paul has one word for all of this; DEATH! The law kills!". Terry Virgo said in a sermon, "Condemnation is a WORK OF DARKNESS! It doesn't work! It has no power to change!".
It is interesting that Paul has some very practical instruction for the Galatians near the end of the letter, that I am not now suprised is included. (Galatians 6:1-3). "Restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness". Fee wrote, "You should restore a fallen brother or sister remembering your own susceptibility to temptation". John Calvin is a little more forward about it.
"Ambition is a serious and alarming evil. But hardly less injury is frequently done by unseasonable and excessive severity which, under the plausible name of zeal, springs in many instances from pride and from dislike and contempt of the brethren. Most men seize on the faults of brethren as an occasion of insulting them, and using reproachful and cruel language. Were the pleasure they take in upbraiding equalled by their desire to produce amendment they would act in a different manner. We must not shrink from a testimony against sin, neither must we omit to mix oil with the vinegar" (Commentaries, p171).
Fee says again, "It is exactly our common vulnerability that causes people of the Spirit to restore the fallen rather than kick them while they are down, as many of us are so prone to do" (GEP, p462).
I wonder if any preacher would say about legalism, "Be ever killing it or it will be killing you" - just as John Owen said about sin. Because legalism IS sin. And it is all the more hateful to God because it is fuelled by pride. Or it is as a preacher I heard once said not so long ago, "The height of self-arrogance".
Conclusion: So what?
1. Fee said, "The coming of the Spirit was a dynamic, experienced reality ... For the ongoing life that Christ has afforded through His death and resurrection, the Spirit is the key to everything; conversion, ethics, community life, miracles, revelations, eschatology. Without the Spirit there simply is no genuinely Christian life" therefore our pursuit of Him and His indwelling and filling of us must be far far more than simply "acknowledging" His empowering work.
2. I think we must be very careful what names we adopt for ourselves. Terry Virgo once prayed at the Brighton Leaders Conference, "Let our doctrines adorn our name". Do we attach the word "Grace" to ourselves? Well then let us be extremely careful how we live. Because the world is watching - and doesn't particularly care initially about our name. They are watching our actions. It is incredible however how quickly they notice if a hint of legalism, or judgementalism appears among people who wear the name "Grace" as their banner.
I think there was more understanding among non-Christians for the shutting down of Stoneleigh Bible Week than there was among Christians! I told a number of my non-Christian friends about it when it happened and I was amazed by how many said, "Well - you call yourself 'New Frontiers' don't you?!".
3. Grace is an ongoing adventure but a daily quest. "Keep yourself in the love of God". I have come to realise that being as prone to this hated legalism as I am, I must avail myself of every means of grace that God has made possible! It's not enough to sing a beautiful "grace" chorus such as "The Grace of God upon my life" and then hope for the best! Terry Virgo said, "This liberty has not only to be celebrated but fought for, as the letter to the Galatians demonstrates" (GLL, p106).