The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Grace and sin

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A number of pastoral issues have arisen recently which have brought home to me some particular truths and some particular emphases arising from them. Many of these situations are on the fringes of church life or outside it (though I sincerely hope that some of them might, under God’s gracious influences, come within it in due course). How much we need to grasp spiritual realities with scriptural definition! It is a great distress to see how often false religion dismisses the former and degrades the latter, but even more grievous is to see professing Christians mishandle matters of central importance. (Please understand that these are not veiled critiques of events in the Christian stratosphere, but observations about concrete situations in local churches, or at least those places which call themselves churches. But you are wise, and may apply it.)

One area where this has cropped up recently is in the matter of grace, what Matthew Henry somewhere describes as “the free favour of God and all the blessed fruits of it.” In common Christian parlance, grace seems to have become a catch-all noun to describe a certain kind of softness and carelessness with regard to sin. When acts and patterns of sin are exposed, we are encouraged to be gracious, but that grace is often not defined or ill-defined. When criticisms are made of certain acts and their actors, the rebuke is readily offered, “That is not gracious!” Grace, apparently, can ignore the sin that calls forth the critique, but not the sin of critiquing it!

So, for example, when there is gross sin in the church, we must show grace. When someone is acting wickedly, it is gracious not to condemn it. When a lie is told, grace will ignore the matter. When leaders fudge matters of righteousness, ignore God’s truth, and expose God’s flock to harms because they will not deal with transgressors, they are showing grace, and we must show grace by not charging them with any failings.

But this nebulous notion of grace is very far removed from the spiritual reality with scriptural definition that we find revealed and displayed in our Bibles. Gospel grace does not excuse or ignore or neglect sin. Gospel grace is never casual or careless with regard to transgression. Gospel grace, whether patterned in God or echoed in man, never pretends sin is not sin. Gospel grace does not expose the flock to harm because it will not identify error and heresy and defend against errorists and heretics, even in the name of love. Gospel grace suffers long, but it is not a disregard for iniquity that is dishonouring to God and dangerous to men. Gospel grace does not call evil good, and good evil; it does not put darkness for light, and light for darkness, or bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Is 5.20).

Gospel grace always faces and addresses sin, though it does so in a gracious way. If you want a seasonal example, think of that just man, who did not want to make the woman he loved a public example, despite what he was legitimately persuaded was the growing evidence of heinous sin, and “was minded to put her away secretly” (Mt 1.19). Grace took no delight in parading sin, but it did not pretend that it was not (as far as could reasonably be determined) sin. When Joseph was enlightened concerning the reality of the situation, would he not have been relieved that he did not have an immediately ungracious response, and make of Mary the most public example he could? Grace prevents us making errors born of harshness, and allows for the easy correction of mistakes.

Remember that fervent love is commanded among the saints, a love which will cover a multitude of sins (1Pt 4.8 cf. Prv 10.12), but consider that such love recognises sin as sin and chooses that, for good and proper reasons, it will be discreet in dealing with it or covering it. Again, to quote Matthew Henry, this love “inclines people to forgive and forget offences against themselves, to cover and conceal the sins of others, rather than aggravate them and spread them abroad.” We read that “the discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression” (Prv 19.11) – he decides, as appropriate, that this transgression is not something that needs to be dealt with immediately and publicly, though he still recognises it as transgression, and there may come a time when a pattern of transgression requires him to stop overlooking and start acting. We do not pull one another up on every slip of deed and word, but take account of our frailties and failings as sinful creatures, creatures with remaining sin even as redeemed men and women. This is the grace of God as Father, who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103.8–14).

Notice here the hints at the greatest expression of grace: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in coming into the world to die on the cross for his wretched and sin-wrecked people was at once the clearest recognition of sin and the highest expression of mercy. God did not pretend that there was no sin; he saw it more clearly than we ever shall, but put it away by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The cross is at once the revealing of the sinfulness of sin and the demonstration of the graciousness of grace.

Gospel grace does not revel in the public exposure of sin and aggressive shaming of sinners, like a church boasting of how many cases of corrective discipline it has handled recently. But neither does it sweep sin away as if it were of no moment. True gospel grace, patterned in a gracious God and echoed in gracious men, always faces sin head on. It is patient and kind, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, but it is also fiercely committed to the glory of a God who is holy and to the good of those who are called to be holy just as he is holy. It calls sin sin, and it considers the nature, occasion and consequences of any particular sin and responds appropriately.

Grace is not, then, an excuse to downplay or dismiss sin as if it were of no consequence, to go on neglecting to deal with it. Grace does not make sin of no account. Grace is the most honest in dealing with sin. Grace always takes account of sin, it looks sin in the ugly eye and – one way or another – it puts it away, sometimes at great cost to itself, dealing fairly and even tenderly with those in whom that sin is discerned, as occasion demands.

Grace, ultimately, is Godlike. It is not a commodity, a mere thing, but an expression of the heart of God in Christ Jesus his Son. If we would have a pattern for gospel grace, we must find it in Christ crucified. Bring all sin into the light of the gospel, put all sin under the shadow of the cross, and there you shall find wisdom in how to deal with it. Deal with it graciously, but deal with it you must. There is nothing gracious about pretending otherwise.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 23 December 2014 at 10:01

Posted in General

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