The Limits to Grace

Titus 3:

3. For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another.

4. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared,

5. Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

6. Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour;

7. That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

“Come up and be sa-aa-ved by the blood of Jee-EEEEE-sus!” So preachers thunder across the Bible Belt. Preachers of older, more sedate, denominations say similar things, in softer, more solemn words. They base their calls upon scripture. Paul repeatedly wrote that we cannot be saved by works of the Law. We are saved by faith, grace and the blood of Jesus.

Romans 3:

19. Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

20. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

21. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;

22. Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:

23. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

24. Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:

25. Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;

26. To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

27. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.

28. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Galatians 2:

20. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

21. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

We have contradiction! Elsewhere I have cited many passages stating that Christians have work to do. How does this jibe with freely given grace? Moreover, in the chapter just prior, I showed how Christians will be judged to a higher standard than nonbelievers. How does this reconcile with salvation through faith in Jesus?

How do we reconcile the Old and New Testaments? Dispensationalists argue that we are under a completely different set of rules than the ancient Hebrews. While the ancient Hebrews had to follow the Law of Moses, we are under the law of grace, we are forgiven. Those Pharisee vipers were damned because they didn’t completely fallow the Law, and Jesus berated them mightily. Moreover, Jesus warned his contemporary followers that their righteousness needed to exceed that of the Pharisees if they wanted to enter the Kingdom. We, on the other hand, live after the Crucifixion. We live under a different Dispensation. If we but have faith, if we but simply believe that Jesus died for our sins, we are Saved. Na-na-na-na-naa-naa, you legalistic Pharisee vipers!

This view strikes me as rather unfair. It also renders the Old Testament irrelevant. Why bother wading through all those laws, genealogies, prophecies, etc. when only the New Testament applies to use. Actually, we could omit much of the New Testament as well, including the first three Gospels. Jesus preached to those under the old Dispensation. Most of what he said was simply rubbing it in before going up on the cross to save future generations. Jesus: what a practical joker!

And a kidder too: Jesus said the Law would continue as long as this heaven and earth continue [Matthew 5:18, Revelations 21:1]. April fool!

Or maybe – just maybe – Jesus was telling the truth. Maybe the Law is still in effect. Maybe we will be judged according to our works. Maybe we still need to be more righteous than the Pharisees of old in order to enter the Kingdom. Maybe Jesus’ sermons were meant for us as well. But if so, what about grace? Was Paul lying? Or do we misinterpret Paul when we see contradiction between Paul’s letters and Jesus’ sermons?

Many Christians simply swallow the contradictions. They ignore them or declare them to be ineffable mysteries. Such Christians believe they are saved and have no need of works, while at the same time they accept the obligations to avoid sin and do good works. Perhaps this is to their credit; perhaps this is “entering the Kingdom as a child.” What of those of us with un-childlike training in logic. Are intellectuals to be excluded from the Kingdom?

St. Paul was an intellectual, yet he appears to be included. True, Paul’s intellect did cause problems. Compare St. Paul’s letters with Jesus’ sermons. Jesus used simple stories with concrete imagery, easy to translate into even primitive languages. Paul, on the other hand, used complex sentences and abstraction, presenting a greater challenge for future translators.

Even with perfect translation, Paul presents problems. Many devout Christians proclaim every word of the Bible to be true, and then go on to build doctrines based on short snippets of scripture. This procedure works for much of the Bible, but not for St. Paul’s letters. Paul was prone to lengthy, complex arguments spanning multiple chapters. He explored logical dead ends and even employed sarcasm. Build doctrines on short quotes from St. Paul’s letters dangerous errors follow!

2 Peter 3:

15. And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you;

16. As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.

17. Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own stedfastness.

18. But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.

Even in his day, Paul’s intellect presented problems. St. Peter complained of people misunderstanding Paul. These were people who had met Paul and spoke the same language. Today, we not only speak a different language, we also lack context. We have letters from Paul but not the letters to Paul. Paul has challenged theologians for centuries, and his puzzles helped split Christianity into denominations.

The issue of grace and faith vs. works divided Martin Luther and the Catholic Church. It continues to divide Christians to this day. It even divides individual Christians. I have heard sermons on how we are saved purely by grace and sermons on the need for good works — from the same preacher. Most confusing!

Dr. Gene Scott used to interpret Paul’s writings (and Martin Luther’s arguments) to surreal lengths on his late night program. In between readings on UFOs, questionable archeology, grail myths* and lost tribe speculations, he would lambaste other preachers for imposing moral obligations. Dr. Gene taught that you could get in trouble for obeying laws of Moses, because to obey any was to entail an obligation to obey them all, down to ancient Hebrew dress codes. In Dr. Gene’s theology, salvation comes through faith alone. (And faith meant sending Dr. Gene your tithes (plural!), even when you don’t think you can afford it…)

So who is right? Any by what authority do I step into a debate that has baffled priests and theologians for centuries? I haven’t been to divinity school and I don’t speak New Testament Greek.

What I can do is provide some extra context. For the past few years I have been a member of a denomination that considers the Law of Moses to still be in force, remembers the Sabbath and keeps the Biblical holy days [Leviticus 23]. As such, my perspective is much closer to that bridge between Judaism and Christianity that Paul walked. This perspective reveals connections between Old and New Testament that tend to be hidden from those taught that the old commandments are moot. For example, there is a strong connection between Paul’s words on grace, and sacrificial laws in Leviticus, as I’ll reveal later in this chapter.

I also have a bit of extra context from my political activism, and yes, even my penchant for science fiction and fantasy. Luther, Calvin and ancient Catholic theologians also had this bit of context, but many modern Christians, especially those of the “Jesus is my buddy” variety, do not. To this we turn next.

Jesus is Lord

Romans 5:

1. Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:

2. By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

3. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;

“Accept Jesus as your Lord and redeemer and you will be saved!” What do these words mean? Does we simply need to recognize that Jesus died for our sins and everything is hunky dory? If so, why bother going to church? Why bother reading the Bible? For fun? What if going to Hooters to watch the game is more fun?

Language confuses. We often preserve archaic words in a religious context: “thou”, “redeemer”, “covenant”, “lord”, “heaven” … The problem with such words is they cease to have real meaning when we don’t use them in everyday life. Religious language can degenerate into mantras, meaningless babble.

Once upon a time, the word “lord” had everyday secular meaning – terrible meaning! A lord of old could exploit peasants and deflower their daughters – when he wasn’t wiping out entire villages over a dispute with his second cousin. The lower orders bowed and groveled before their lord because of fear. In this democratic age, the term lord is relegated to fairy tales and costume dramas. Yes, we still have lords and kings walking the earth, but these are kept creatures, pale shadows of their terrifying ancestors. Today’s lords are still addressed with bows and special courtesy by some, but it’s all for fun, not fear. Watch the early scenes of the movie “Braveheart” to taste to full impact of what the word “lord” once meant.

Today, we might do better to replace the word “lord” with “boss” and “servant” with “employee.” Doing so restores the operative meaning of many New Testament passages. Modernized parables would involve the owner or CEO of a business leaving a branch office in the hands of an employee.

Like “lord”, “boss” implies a degree of respect, but it also implies required action – as “lord” once did. To get paid, you don’t just suck up to the boss, you carry out the boss’ orders. Better yet, you look out for the interest of the business and treat your underlings well. Remember, Jesus did leave us with quite a few orders, including: love, charity, doing good works, and obeying the Commandments. These sometimes require real effort.

The term “boss” mostly works, but is a bit tepid, especially in these days of OSHA, unions and enlightened management. Being fired is the worst a modern boss can do. A true lord could beat or even kill his underlings. Let’s try again; let’s find a word that still has the punch the word “lord” once had.

“Accept Jesus as your massa and you will be saved!”

There, that should have the proper punch, especially for the African Americans in the audience. The plantations of the Old South were the last relics of the lord/servant relationship in the U.S. The relationship was one of bowing and scraping, hard work, beatings for disobedience, and general humiliation.

This is the price of being saved.

John 15:

14. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

15. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

Jesus is not my friend. He is my king, my master. I willingly accept this position of servitude because I get something very valuable in return. I also recognize that Jesus paid a terrible price for the privilege. One day, I might be able to call Jesus friend, just as trusted servants and employees can sometimes become friends with their superiors. But I would not presume to make the claim on my own. Jesus referred to his disciples as servants during most of his ministry. Only at the end did he call them friends.

The plantation metaphor is still imperfect. We Christians have more opportunity for advancement than the negro slaves of the Old South. Also, our servitude is not that of a purchased foreigner, but that of a countryman indentured for debts or criminal acts. The indentured servants of pre-revolutionary America might be a more apt metaphor, but it holds a bit less sting to the modern mind.

Accepting Jesus as “lord” implies works. Let’s have a look at this work and then we’ll get back to grace.

By Works of the Law

Galatians 2:

16. Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

17. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.

18. For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.

Question: What does a slave earn by doing what he is told?

Answer: Nothing. But even nothing is better than getting a beating.

We earn nothing by obeying Biblical Law. So why bother? Some preachers say that we shouldn’t bother, that the Law has been done away with. But then they quote many passages in the New Testament which call for righteousness and obeying commandments. Quite confusing! We can resolve this logical dilemma by taking our position as servants/slaves seriously. A servant does not receive pay or praise for obeying orders. But such a servant does avoid getting beaten or worse. This principle might be what Paul is referring to in some of his passages where he appears to deprecate obeying the Law. But I cannot be certain. I don’t speak New Testament Greek and I don’t have access to the conversations and letters Paul is responding to in his letters.

Luke 17:

7. But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat?

8. And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?

9. Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not.

10. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.

What I can say is: Jesus did refer to this principle, in language that easily crosses translation barriers. See the sidebar scripture from Luke 17. I leave it to the reader to determine whether Paul was referring to the same principle as Jesus in Luke 17.

Moreover, Jesus spoke on ways we can actually earn “treasure in heaven.” Give to the poor. (This may require giving beyond a tenth to actually merit an actual credit.) See The New Levites for citations. Jesus also said that a repenting sinner brings more joy in heaven than 99 righteous persons [Luke 15]. Perhaps the missionary or evangelist who inspires others to repentance earns some heavenly commission. See also Mark 4, regarding those who “bear fruit.”

Finally, Jesus told his audience how to earn forgiveness : you will be forgiven as you forgive others. See The Power of Mercy for more details and citations. This is real work. Turning the other cheek is painful, both physically and emotionally. Forgiving debts is expensive. It’s generally cheaper to avoid sin in the first place than to have to make up for it.

And here we have a big problem. What of the sinner who has worked up a huge deficit? What if the price of mercy is too high? When so, the price of sin becomes a sunk cost. Might as well go all the way and forget about religion entirely. This was the position of Paul’s formerly pagan audience. How were they to make up for years of idol-worship, prayers to false gods, visits to temple prostitutes and other sins?

The answer is grace.

Grace in the Sacrificial Law

Leviticus 4:

1. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,

2. Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a soul shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the Lord concerning things which ought not to be done, and shall do against any of them:

[for priests, omitted]

22. When a ruler hath sinned, and done somewhat through ignorance against any of the commandments of the Lord his God concerning things which should not be done, and is guilty;

23. Or if his sin, wherein he hath sinned, come to his knowledge; he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a male without blemish:

24. And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the goat, and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offering before the Lord: it is a sin offering.

25. And the priest shall take of the blood of the sin offering with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out his blood at the bottom of the altar of burnt offering.

26. And he shall burn all his fat upon the altar, as the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings: and the priest shall make an atonement for him as concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him.

27. And if any one of the common people sin through ignorance, while he doeth somewhat against any of the commandments of the Lord concerning things which ought not to be done, and be guilty;

28. Or if his sin, which he hath sinned, come to his knowledge: then he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a female without blemish, for his sin which he hath sinned.

29. And he shall lay his hand upon the head of the sin offering, and slay the sin offering in the place of the burnt offering.

30. And the priest shall take of the blood thereof with his finger, and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering, and shall pour out all the blood thereof at the bottom of the altar.

31. And he shall take away all the fat thereof, as the fat is taken away from off the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall burn it upon the altar for a sweet savour unto the Lord; and the priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him.

Grace is not a new concept. It did not first appear with Jesus’ ministry. It can be found in the Old Testament for those who look hard enough. Finding it is not easy for many Christians. Reading the old books is quite a chore. They contain laws with harsh penalties, tedious genealogies, tedious census figures, and tedious descriptions of temple construction and sacrificial schedules. It’s easy to overlook important bits of still-applicable knowledge.

The old books are a bit easier to read for those who believe them to be still relevant, those who attempt to follow more of old laws, such as remembering the Sabbath, obeying the dietary restrictions, and celebrating the Biblical holy days. The books were easier yet for Paul and his contemporaries. They didn’t need to puzzle over descriptions of the temple/tabernacle; they had an actual temple to look at. And they could see the schedule of sacrifices in action. Passages puzzling to modern Christians were thus straightforward to the earliest Christians.

Read Chapter 4 of Leviticus with fresh eyes. For those who zoned out by the many “meaningless” passages on animal sacrifices, it’s easy to miss the important point in this chapter: for inadvertent sins a sacrifice was required for atonement. For inadvertent sins a sacrifice was also sufficient for atonement. No further punishments were necessary.

Jesus fulfilled this requirement for the whole world. Temple sacrifices are no longer required, because the underlying principle has been fulfilled by other (superior) means. The underlying law has not been done away with [see the book of Hebrews for more details]. 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; many of his sins are thus inadvertent. St. Paul wrote:

Romans 2:

12. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;

13. (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

14. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:

On multiple occasions St. Paul alluded to the idea that unbelief makes a sinner less responsible.

Romans 11:

29. For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.

30. For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief:

31. Even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy.

32. For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.

33. O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!

1 Timothy 1:

12. And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry;

13. Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.

Acts 17:

22. Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.

23. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

24. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

25. Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

26. And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

27. That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:

28. For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

29. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device.

30. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent:

31. Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

Paul went so far as to describe God winking at 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.” It also fits with the parable of the vineyard [Matthew 20].

But is “dead to the Law” an ongoing 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. I am not alone in making this connection:

Hebrews 10:

26. For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,

27. But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.

28. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:

29. Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?

30. For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.

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 fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Scared yet? Here is some more:

2 Peter 2:

20. For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning.

21. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.

22. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, the dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.

The Nature of Grace

I believe I have made a solid case that mere belief in Jesus is not an eternal Get Out of Jail Free card. Divine grace has limits. Christians have work to do, efforts to make. A rough model of divine grace would be: upon baptism/conversion, all is erased because your old self is declared dead. But then the accounting restarts. Effort is required.

But that’s a rough model. A living God is not a computer algorithm. God can grant grace when he wills. The Bible records at least two other scenarios where divine grace is commonly given:

  1. Sincere repentance. Read the story of David. Read his psalms. David broke quite a few laws. But he could be quite sorry afterward. He did not treat laws he broke as done away with or irrelevant. Instead, he punished himself. He also sometimes received divine punishment before being fully forgiven.
  2. Extenuating circumstances. God does at times grant a pass for extenuating circumstances. David was allowed to eat consecrated bread when he and his men were starving [Matthew 12]. Healing on the Sabbath is permitted, as is freeing an animal from a ditch. Several Old Testament heroes used lies and subterfuge in self/national defense.

There may be more. This article is not meant to the final word on grace. Common sense might be a good guide. How would you expect the police/legal system to treat you for breaking laws? Under what conditions would you get off for repentance/good behavior? When would paying a fine or community service suffice?

Don’t apply this metaphor too literally. God is not the same as our imperfect earthly justice system. Do take God as seriously as you take your local justice system, however.

Scratch that. Take God more seriously. The stakes are higher. Next, we shall more closely at those stakes. What exactly does the Bible say about the Afterlife? We will start with the scary bits: just what does the Bible mean by Hell?

*Many years before “The DaVinci Code” Dr. Gene Scott was covering the same material on his late night show. He would sit in his chair wearing a novelty hat, puffing on a cigar and reading from “Holy Blood, Holy Grail.”