The subject of grace is, by its very nature, controversial. This is so, not because God has not made himself plain, and it is not so because man can’t understand what God has revealed. It is controversial because of man’s presumptions and prejudices have led to erroneous conclusions and far-fetched applications.
Perhaps it is time we make a few “grace is not” comments. First, grace does not give one permission to ignore sin in his life thinking that God’s grace will cover it. We need to continually examine our lives that we might identify weaknesses, errors, mistakes and sin so that we may repent of that and make correction. Here is where the grace of God enters the picture for “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
But what about the things we do unknowingly? What if we do something wrong, yet thinking we are doing right – will God condemn us for that? We haven’t identified it or repented of it – will He consign us to hell for that kind of mistake? We had better hope His grace covers us. If not, there is no hope – none whatsoever – for anyone otherwise. Why? Because none of us are sinless. There has only been One who was perfect – the one whose blood cleanses us from ALL unrighteousness – even our unidentified mistakes and errors.
That fact does not give us permission to be lax or indifferent regarding sin in our lives. It does not give us permission to do anything we want and think that we are covered by grace so we don’t have to be concerned about sin in our lives. I do not have permission to deliberately do something I know to be wrong and think God will not hold me accountable for it. If I do something of that nature I had better repent and confess my sin before God, else I have cheapened His grace, making it a thing of my convenience.
But, for example, if I do something to cause a brother to stumble without being aware that what I did caused him to stumble and that is never brought to my attention, I will never know that I sinned against my brother. I can never repent of that if I never know I did anything wrong. I can never confess that specific sin if I don’t know I did it. What am I to do then? Am I to be forever lost? What if that were the only thing I ever did wrong and I never knew I did wrong?
This is a common problem with all human beings. We would have to know ourselves perfectly and know the law of God perfectly to avoid all sin in our life. We, like David of old, are subject to hidden faults. His plea to God was, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12).
David’s approach was exactly what God expects of us today. We must recognize and confess the fact that we are weak and that we often err from the right way. We must ask for God’s forgiveness even though we may not know specifically all the things we have done wrong. This brings us, not to complacency regarding sin, but to greater dependence upon God for forgiveness. When we maintain this attitude, we are assured of His forgiveness for He is a God of mercy and grace. As John says, “…if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7).
Second, grace is not a cover-all for the sins and errors of others. By this I mean that we can’t ignore sin in our brother and go on and treat him as though there were nothing wrong in his life. Grace does not give us permission to ignore our responsibility toward others, presuming that God will take care of their faults while I act as though they did not exist.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” (Matthew 18:15).
A side issue to this that has been discussed, often heatedly, is regarding whether we should fellowship brethren who are “in error” doctrinally under the assumption that God’s grace covers them despite their “error.” Invariably the discussion turns to Romans 14 where Paul confronts a problem of differences among the first century Christians. In verse 2 Paul says “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.” Verse 5 says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.” Both these things were done to “honor the Lord.”
“The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (v. 6).
That those on both sides of these “issues” regarded the things they observed as “essentials” is seen in the fact that each was judging the other. They believed those who did not see “eye to eye” with them were “in error.” They were “withdrawing fellowship” from those who differed with them on these things.
In dealing with this problem Paul does not attempt to sort out the arguments each side might have put forth in support of their positions. He does not engage in any sort of discussion as to why one side was right and the other wrong. In fact, he urges those on each “side” to keep on doing what they were doing, but to not judge or despise the one who does not agree with him. In verse 3 he says, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats.” Why? How could one overlook what the other was or was not doing? The last part of that verse answers, “…for God has welcomed him.” He further rebukes them, saying,
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (v. 4).
“Oh!” some will say. “The things they were having problems with were ‘matters of opinion.’ The things we differ over are matters of faith.” How do we know but that the people to whom Paul would have said the same thing? In fact, Paul urged them to hold the things they believed and practiced with firm conviction or “faith.” He said in v. 5; “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (regarding his “position” on the “issues”). What they were forbidden from doing was to reject their brethren over their differences.
Romans 14:13 “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”
Furthermore, Paul tells them that despite whatever differences they had between themselves they had an obligation to their brethren.
(Romans 15:1-2) “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
How could they do this? They had serious differences between themselves! Surely one side was right and the other was wrong. Paul does not tell them to thrash out their differences before they accepted one another. But he does give them the standard by which they were to do so.
(Romans 15:7) “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
How did Christ welcome us?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” (Ephesians 2:8).
Dare we be less gracious than our Lord?