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Abusing Grace

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by Jeremiah Johnson and Wayne de Villiers



You’ve likely heard the phrase too much of a good thing applied to junk food feasts, chocolate binges, and all-night movie marathons. But what about theology? Is it possible to put too much emphasis on an aspect of biblical truth? What is the cost of theological tunnel vision?


The Hypergrace movement offers us a compelling case that it’s possible (and detrimental) to overemphasize an aspect of God’s truth. They are sound enough on the doctrines of man’s sinfulness, God’s sufficient grace, and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. But they tend to ignore (and sometimes overtly deny) other vital aspects of gospel truth—and thereby their teaching undermines the work of sanctification in the Christian life.


As we saw last time, they overstress the principle of remaining sin in believers, and they caricature God’s grace. They ignore or downplay God’s transforming work of regeneration and the believer’s new nature in Christ. In fact, it’s hard to spot any difference in their descriptions of sinners before and after salvation. Shying away from any exhortations to obedience, they prefer to speak only of the application of God’s grace. Such a view of grace effectively becomes little more than an unlimited “Get Out of Jail Free” card.


Distorted Good Works


But it’s not just their understanding of regeneration that is skewed—their overemphasis on grace also distorts practical matters like holiness and obedience.


Here’s Tullian Tchividjian, one of the leading voices in the movement, describing what prompts him to stop sinning:


If I’m being unkind to [my wife], and she reciprocates my unkindness with kindness, that doesn’t make me want to be more unkind! It convicts me for being unkind and makes me want to be kind. . . . What happens to your heart when you are on the receiving end of forgiveness and you don’t deserve it? . . . It does something inside of you that makes you love God and others more. It unleashes an other-worldly love that comes one way from God and spills out from our lives into the lives of other people. [1]


True enough, but in the Hypergrace model, no motive other than unmerited grace is ever seen as a legitimate reason to call people to repentance or obedience. Tchividjian makes that same point in the foreword to Elyse Fitzpatrick’s book, Give Them Grace.


It’s the gospel (what Jesus has done) that alone can give God-honoring animation to our obedience. The power to obey, in other words, comes from being moved and motivated by the completed work of Jesus for us. [2]


Fitzpatrick has also emerged as a vocal proponent of the Hypergrace movement, and she echoes some of the same sentiments in her own teaching. “How can you think about all that Christ has done for you, about your Father’s steadfast, immeasurable, extravagantly generous love and still live [in sin]?” [3]


While it would be foolish to argue against the value of sincere responses to God’s grace, or that the Spirit is unable to work through such responses, it’s biblically invalid to say gratitude is the only possible response to the gospel, or that it is the only proper motive for obedience in the believer’s life. Obedience to Christ might be provoked by any number of legitimate motives—including fear of God’s displeasure or the sheer abhorrence of evil (Jude 23). Above all, we must not shy away from encouraging one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24). Christians are supposed “to do good, to be rich in good works” (1 Timothy 6:18). Indeed, we should be zealous for good works (Titus 2:14).


As we saw last time, good works are what we were regenerated for. The new birth equips and enables us for righteousness:


Even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved). . . . For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:5, 10)


Our obedience is the fruit of the work God accomplished in us. He has transformed us for the sake of godliness.


And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances and do them. Then they will be My people, and I shall be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)


The good works believers do are not merely an optional response that has to be worked up within us. They are the inevitable proof of God’s ongoing work in us, sanctifying and refining us in the image of His Son for the testimony of His Word.


Skewed Sanctification


Of course, overemphasizing the role of grace also distorts your understanding of sanctification. Here’s one example from Tchividjian.


One of the insinuations whenever the doctrine of sanctification is discussed is that my effort, my works, my pursuit of holiness, my faith, my response, my obedience, and my practice of godliness keep me in God’s good graces. This, however, undermines the clear Biblical teaching that things between Christians and God are forever settled because of what Jesus has accomplished on the cross. . . . When we imply that our works are for God and not our neighbor, we perpetuate the idea that God’s love for us is dependent on what we do instead of on what Christ has done. [4]


That’s a false dichotomy. Jesus said good works that serve our neighbor also serve and honor Him (Matthew 25:40). Many critics have pointed out that Tchividjian’s teaching seems to lean decisively toward antinomianism—the belief that God’s law doesn’t apply to Christians. Tchividjian denies those claims, but as you can see above, his teaching on sanctification raises more questions than it answers. Is pursuing holiness always a legalistic attempt to win God’s favor? And is there any effort the believer puts into his spiritual growth that isn’t immediately dismissed as works righteousness?


The apostle Paul says there is: “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul makes it clear that he has not arrived spiritually, but he’s always disciplining himself for greater godliness.


Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)


Was he guilty of pursuing righteousness by works? It’s hard to imagine that such a statement would escape the Hypergrace teachers’ scorn if anyone other than an inspired apostle said it. And while they may not wish to argue with the apostle, no Hypergrace teacher is likely to give much emphasis to that text or others like it.


Underestimating Sin


The difference between Paul’s teaching on sanctification and Hypergrace doctrine is that while Paul recognized and confessed his sinfulness, he didn’t embrace it or use it as an excuse for his failures. He was in anguish over it (Romans 7:21-24). There is great value in that kind of grief. In fact, it is yet another valid motive for repentance (2 Corinthians 7:9).


The Hypergrace movement has a somewhat lower view of sin and repentance. Here’s an illustration of repentance from Elyse Fitzpatrick, “Lord forgive me for my sin today. Thank you that you love me in spite of all my failures.” [5]


That is not repentance. There’s not a hint of godly sorrow or true remorse—just another invocation of casual pardon.


Contrast that to the pleading of David in Psalm 51.


Be gracious to me, O God,

according to Your lovingkindness;

According to the greatness of Your compassion

blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity

And cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,

And my sin is ever before me.

Against You, You only, I have sinned

And done what is evil in Your sight,

So that You are justified when You speak

And blameless when You judge. (Psalm 51:1-4)


That ought to be the response of every believer to his or her sin. We need to be broken and contrite over our sin. After all, sin is contrary to our new nature, indicative of our old corruption, and a blight on the testimony of God’s Word and His church. We need to repent of it earnestly—not sweep it thoughtlessly under a rug, and call that “grace.”


In his commentary on Romans 7, John MacArthur writes this about the believer’s reaction to his sin:


Every well-taught and honest Christian is aware that his life falls far short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness and that he falls back into sin with disturbing frequency. He is no longer of his former father, the devil (John 8:44); he no longer loves the world (1 John 2:15); and he is no longer sin’s slave—but he is still subject to its deceit and is still attracted by many of its allurements. Yet the Christian cannot be happy with his sin, because it is contrary to his new nature and because he knows that it grieves his Lord as well as his own conscience. [6]


Yes, we need to have a proper understanding and appreciation for God’s grace, and the comfort and security it provides. But we also must have a biblical, balanced view of our sin—and particularly how to deal with it for the sake of greater spiritual growth and godliness. Failing to understand how the two correspond in God’s sanctifying work distorts your entire view of the Christian life.


For more information on the Hypergrace movement, and in-depth discussion on their teaching, we recommend the following resources. [Gabe, I’ll give you the titles and links and let you sort out how to best display them]

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