The Limits to Grace

Titus 3:

3 For we too were once foolish, disobedient, misled, enslaved to various passions and desires, spending our lives in evil and envy, hateful and hating one another.

4 But "when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared,

5 he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit,

6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior.

7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life."

(NET Bible®)

Getting into the Kingdom is difficult. Sin has dire consequences. So say the passages I cited in the previous chapter. Yet many Christians would beg to differ, and cite many passages from Paul’s epistles to support their case. Paul repeatedly wrote of grace and faith, vs. works of the Law.

Romans 3:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed —

22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.

26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus' faithfulness.

27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith!

28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.

(NET Bible®)

Galatians 2:

20 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

21 I do not set aside God's grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing!

(NET Bible®)

Passages like those above are very reassuring to many Christians. Entire theologies have been built upon them. Reading some of Paul’s epistles, especially Galatians, one can come to the conclusion that the Law was done away with, and that the primary commitment of Christians is to believe; more exactly, to have faith – whatever that means.

I find such passages perplexing, even troubling, for they seem to contradict so much of what is in the Bible. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus stated repeatedly that the Law is still in effect, that righteousness is important, that it is better to lose various body parts than to sin, and that people will be judged by their works. In fact, my thesis that Christianity is a narrow path, one with very high costs and benefits, is null and void if all Christians have to do is proclaim their faith at an altar call in order to be saved. (Quick political sidenote: if the Law was done away with at the Crucifixion, why have many Christians felt compelled to compel others to live to Christian standards?)

Were all these admonitions done away with on the Cross? If so, why did Jesus take the time to make these admonitions? It seems like a cruel joke on the Pharisees, if Jesus’ sermons were about the failures of the Pharisees to live up to the Old Covenant, and that future generations would live under a new covenant which doesn’t have such strictures.

I have listened to many a sermon where they speaker simply lived with both sides of the argument, saying that works were needed but that we can earn nothing on our own. Such sermons overheat my logic circuits; I feel like one of those computers in an old Star Trek episode, fried by a paradox.

Actually, my problem is not a new one. St. Peter alluded to it:

2 Peter 3:

15 And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him,

16 speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures.

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard that you do not get led astray by the error of these unprincipled men and fall from your firm grasp on the truth.

18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the honor both now and on that eternal day.

(NET Bible®)

I think I have found a way to resolve the paradox, a way that gives hope for unbelievers, and fear to those who believe, but are slack in their Christian practice. The key can be found in Leviticus 4. I will quote part, but I suggest you read the entire chapter:

Leviticus 4:

1 Then the LORD spoke to Moses:

2 "Tell the Israelites, 'When a person sins by straying unintentionally from any of the LORD's commandments which must not be violated, and violates any one of them

22 " 'Whenever a leader, by straying unintentionally, sins and violates one of the commandments of the LORD his God which must not be violated, and he pleads guilty,

23 or his sin that he committed is made known to him, he must bring a flawless male goat as his offering.

24 He must lay his hand on the head of the male goat and slaughter it in the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered before the LORD — it is a sin offering.

25 Then the priest must take some of the blood of the sin offering with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and he must pour out the rest of its blood at the base of the altar of burnt offering.

26 Then the priest must offer all of its fat up in smoke on the altar like the fat of the peace offering sacrifice. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin and he will be forgiven.

27 " 'If an ordinary individual sins by straying unintentionally when he violates one of the LORD's commandments which must not be violated, and he pleads guilty

28 or his sin that he committed is made known to him, he must bring a flawless female goat as his offering for the sin that he committed.

29 He must lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter the sin offering in the place where the burnt offering is slaughtered.

30 Then the priest must take some of its blood with his finger and put it on the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and he must pour out all the rest of its blood at the base of the altar.

31 Then he must remove all of its fat (just as fat was removed from the peace offering sacrifice) and the priest must offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the LORD. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf and he will be forgiven.

(NET Bible®)

The key point in Leviticus 4: an animal sacrifice was sufficient for inadvertent sins. Since Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial laws on the Cross animal sacrifices are no longer needed (see Hebrews), and God has allowed the Temple to be destroyed in order to make this point clear.

A pagan prior to conversion is ignorant of much of the Law, and is thus less responsible. Or as St. Paul wrote:

Romans 2:

12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous.

14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves.

(NET Bible®)

On multiple occasions St. Paul alludes to the idea that unbelief makes one less responsible for one’s sins.

Romans 11:

29 For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.

30 Just as you were formerly disobedient to God, but have now received mercy due to their disobedience,

31 so they too have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.

32 For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways!

(NET Bible®)

1 Timothy 1:

12 I am grateful to the one who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me faithful in putting me into ministry,

13 even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and an arrogant man. But I was treated with mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief,

14 and our Lord's grace was abundant, bringing faith and love in Christ Jesus.

(NET Bible®, underlining mine)

Acts 17:

22 So Paul stood before the Areopagus and said, "Men of Athens, I see that you are very religious in all respects.

23 For as I went around and observed closely your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: 'To an unknown god.' Therefore what you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you.

24 The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands,

25 nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone.

26 From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live,

27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.

28 For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we too are his offspring.'

29 So since we are God's offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination.

30 Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent,

31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead."

(NET Bible®, underlining mine)

Paul describes God as overlookin certain sins – at least during a time of ignorance. This fits quite well with Leviticus 4. It also fits with common sense notions of justice. Perhaps more importantly, it makes salvation possible and fair. How can a child from a tribe of head hunters be judged to the same standards as one who grows up on an Amish farm? And if one is to be saved from past sins by works, we have a huge unfair burden on those who had the wrong upbringing. Many would consider themselves to be damned despite any possible human efforts. With damnation a sunk cost*, might as well enjoy sinning…

The opportunity to have a fresh start despite one’s past makes conversion worth the effort, regardless of where one is in life. This idea fits with the idea of baptism as rebirth, and of being “dead to the Law.”

But is “dead to the Law” a permanent state? Or is it a description of one’s past prior to conversion to Christianity? I lean towards the latter interpretation. It is consistent with the idea of “counting the cost” and with the many passages on the importance of good works and not sinning. It is also consistent with the sacrificial law in Leviticus 4. In fact, I am not alone in making this connection:

Hebrews 10:

26 For if we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no further sacrifice for sins is left for us,

27 but only a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a fury of fire that will consume God's enemies.

28 Someone who rejected the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.

29 How much greater punishment do you think that person deserves who has contempt for the Son of God, and profanes the blood of the covenant that made him holy, and insults the Spirit of grace?

30 For we know the one who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people."

(NET Bible®)

Hmmm, it looks like we do in fact get a free pass for past sins before baptism, and perhaps knowledge in general, but after that, we are responsible! This is a scary concept. Indeed, the passage in Hebrews ends with:

Hebrews 10:

31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

(NET Bible®)

Scared yet? Here is some more:

2 Peter 2:

20 For if after they have escaped the filthy things of the world through the rich knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they again get entangled in them and succumb to them, their last state has become worse for them than their first.

21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, having known it, to turn back from the holy commandment that had been delivered to them.

22 They are illustrations of this true proverb: "A dog returns to its own vomit," and "A sow, after washing herself, wallows in the mire."

(NET Bible®)

Now, we see some real reasons to count the cost: there are dangers in having spiritual knowledge!

*This brings up the issue of whether already baptized Christians can end up on a sunk cost situation. After all, no Christian leads a sinless life upon conversion. I think several answers are possible. First, I think that there are some opportunities for further repentance; no one is fully knowledgeable – and thus accountable – upon becoming a Christian. Second, there are procedures listed for earning forgiveness, including forgiving others and giving to the needy. See “The Power of Mercy” and “The New Levites” for relevant citations.