Jesus. Real Life.

Don’t call it “grace”

Well, I didn’t make it to the end of the month.  Below is part of a conversation I had with i-Monk about “grace” and “law” or commands of Jesus; but at least on this occasion we’re not agreeing!  I think the concepts are truly fascinating.  You can read the full thread here.  The last paragraph from i-Monk is the most intriguing:

i-Monk: So here’s today’s question: “What are some examples you’ve heard or read of Good News Gospel texts in scripture being turned into lessons, examples, moralism, advice, demands, guilt trips, shouldas and ought tos, in other words, LAW?”

[after several somewhat anti-nomian (commands are bad) comments]

Me: The question is inherently problematic because it creates the impression that anything involving a command or inviting our response–even from Jesus!–is something unworthy of being called “grace;” it’s LAW (to be read with a heavy, disdainful tone). That belittles Jesus, as the one who spoke many of these commands, or makes parts of him “good news” and other parts something darker. Everything Jesus did and said is part of what God is doing for us–it’s all grace towards us. It’s all good news, even if parts of it upset us, even the commands. Jesus’ commands to us don’t merely condemn us. That is not their only function and certainly not Jesus’ intent–he’s a king leading his people. Giving commands are part of what God has done for us–motivated entirely by goodwill–telling us what to do, how to approach life the way he does–because we honestly don’t know apart from him telling us. We are like sheep without a shepherd. The fact that God is still willing to give us leadership and guidance, that he is willing to be our shepherd–this is good news; it is grace, even if it’s grace we don’t want or like sometimes. Even if we need more grace to do what he says. Even though we need grace for messing it up and falling short of the commands. If we’re commissioned to make disciples, teaching them to do everything Jesus commanded, are we being mean or helpful when we do that? Part of what God has done for us is give us his great insight about what’s really good, what’s worth pursuing, what’s best to leave behind.

i-Monk:  The Law doesn’t LIE.  It just can’t make us LIVE.  It can tell us the right direction.  But it can’t make us want to go or to go SUFFICIENTLY for life or eternity or relationship with God.  It’s like grammar school. It’s not lying to you. But it’s not how we live. Teachers smacking our hands with rulers is not what God wants.

Me: I hope you can see my point; I think now I see more of yours (from your sermon titles below). I agree that giving the command alone isn’t sufficient, but that’s not the only form of grace we’re given (thank God), not even close. But that doesn’t mean that it’s something other than grace when Jesus tells the adulterous to go and sin no more, or tells the rich young ruler to sell & give, or tells us to love each other, etc. etc. I don’t think Jesus was a teacher smacking our hands with a ruler when he gave us the commands he gave. I’d hate to give anyone the impression that his commands are anything but grace to us, even if they are by no means the only grace to us.

i-Monk: Calling “commands” grace is going to be an issue. You can call them true, helpful, etc. but grace by definiton is a God action to us unilaterally. You can find another way to say the Law is good without saying the law is grace. You wind up saying works = faith or obedience = faith and then you just joined the RCC.

I think that’s truly fascinating.  Please understand, too, that Michael (i-Monk) isn’t equating RCC (Catholicism) to heresy–his wife is now Catholic as are many others he would call friends, so that wasn’t an insult, just a distinction of doctrine and camp, in his view.  I always thought of “grace by definition” as something God (or someone else) gives to us that we have no right to demand, but that is given out of sheer kindness.  Therefore, when Jesus tells us, in essense: “Eye for an eye is no way to live.  Don’t give tit-for-tat to people who are mistreating you.  Be kind to them, just like your Father in heaven is kind to ungrateful and evil people.”  Him telling us that, giving us that insight about God and how to live–grace, no?  Even by Michael’s definition (a God action to us unilaterally), it still seems like grace for God to let us in on how to deal with difficult people, on how God routinely deals with them, which is with sincere love and goodwill.  Do we have the right to have Jesus come to earth and give us all these insights?  Not that I’m aware.  It’s a gift.  It’s part of God’s kindness.  Or, from God’s standpoint, was he not being gracious in telling us?  What is exactly is God’s leadership, his parenting, if not grace?

I gotta tell ya, I’m kinda stumped!  Even if the RCC agrees with me on this point, they certainly disagree with me on many others, even as they are today (let alone when they were selling indulgences), though I gladly call them brothers and sisters.  So I doubt I actually would fit in that camp very neatly at all.  But it’s odd.  Nowhere am I suggesting that we can earn anything from God, in fact, quite the opposite, I’m saying that even when Jesus tells us to love one another, he is doing so as an act of grace (undeserved kindness), like when I tell my daughter to stay away from the road.  Who knew?  Apparently taking a broader view of grace makes me a Catholic.  C’est la vie!  Maybe the Reformation is finally over.  My dad will be glad to hear it.


12 responses

  1. Jen

    Jesus didn’t come to earth to give us additional laws. Everything he said was already taught in the OT laws. Take the sermon on the mount for example. He used this format “It is written… but now I say to you…”. He unpacked the laws in such a way to show the pharisees that even though they externally kept the law, internally they were still totally missing it. The purpose of this sermon was to convict/condemn. The law shows us our sin so that we will be driven to the savior.

    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t attempt to live a pious life. But that desire should be in response to what Jesus did for us (suffer and die in our place).

    July 29, 2009 at 9:02 am

  2. Jen

    Just an observation – Your tag cloud doesn’t include the word “Gospel”.

    July 29, 2009 at 9:09 am

  3. T Freeman


    Thanks for coming by. I don’t think my point was that Jesus came to give us additional laws or to somehow burden us. In fact, this is my point: “His commands aren’t burdensome.” They are part of his grace. His yoke (how rabbis referred to their teachings and way of life) is light. Case in point, I disagree with you if you think the only purpose of the Sermon on the Mount was to convict and condemn us. Look at the discourse on money. He’s grounding the reason to think differently about money in the Father’s loving care. He ends it with a plea to reprioritize what we seek based on that loving care from the Father. That may be convicting in a helpful way; it’s certainly not condemning. It’s just plain loving leadership from the man that is worthy of trusting and following. And I’ve never said we can do any of the things he teaches without additional grace, which he also supplies. I’m just saying that him teaching us is part of his grace to us.

    You may want to look again at my tag cloud, “gospel” is kind of big.

    I’m working on a post that I hope deals with some of the issues from that discussion with Michael. Hopefully I’ll finish it today.

    July 29, 2009 at 9:28 am

  4. Jen

    His yoke is “faith”.

    If what you are saying is that God sent Jesus to amplify the law to drive us to a savior… and this is an act of God’s grace… then I would agree.

    If you are saying that our works are grace, I would disagree.

    If you are saying that commandments are grace, I would disagree.

    If you are saying that our ability to do anything good is a result of God’s grace, I would agree.

    I’m troubled by your “12 steps for apprenticeship”.. and I haven’t even read them. We aren’t Christ’s apprentices. We can’t live a perfect life and be crucified for the sins of the world. That’s what “Apprentice” implies – that we will learn the job from an expert and then do the job ourselves. We can’t make “moral progress”.

    I apologize for the source. I received this article via email as a PDF. This is the only place I could find the text of the PDF on the internet.

    I see your tag now. It seems like the cloud has re-arranged with a page refresh. Weird. Sorry about that.

    You and I are on VERY different pages, doctrinally speaking. What is your denomination (if you have one)? If you tire of my links and comments, just let me know.

    July 29, 2009 at 9:45 am

  5. T Freeman


    I tire not! 🙂 Though I’m really curious!

    We’re not apprentices? Just so you know, I’m using that term as a synonym for “disciple.” That’s the term most often used in the NT to describe folks responding favorably to Jesus. It’s what “the disciples” were, and were commissioned to make. I think it would shock any of the apostles to think that they weren’t disciples or weren’t making disciples of Jesus. Disciples aren’t perfect, they are, by definition, in a process of change, of learning, of becoming different. Again, we can’t do this on our own, but we’re clearly called to be disciples–people who hang with Jesus, learn from Jesus, and become like him. (Paul is in the pains of childbirth until Jesus is “fully formed” within the church.) This isn’t some crazy concept from the NT perspective; it’s everywhere. If we’re not disciples than the great commission is really, really odd.

    We can’t make moral progress, even by God’s power and help? Peter is pretty explicit: “For His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. By these He has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    I’m thinking Peter thinks we can make moral progress, even if we always have room for “increasing” these qualities. The typical view of sanctification includes some moral progress, no?

    Again, I believe in (and thank God for) the forgiveness that came through Christ’s blood. Need it every day. In fact, being an apprentice would be awful if there was no room for mistakes and ready grace from the Teacher. But the NT doesn’t represent disciples as people who are perfect, not even close. They are people in process of learning, by trial and error, and rebuke and teaching, etc. I want to think and act more like Jesus just to be more helpful to the people I’m around every day, if nothing else. I’m glad Jesus invites me to be his apprentice, to learn how walk as he walked, to do the things he did. Thank God! Is being a disciple of Jesus taboo in your tradition?

    July 29, 2009 at 12:40 pm

  6. Jen

    What we have here is a semantics problem. You’re misunderstanding me because I’m trying to be very precise. Don’t get hung up on my words. Are you reading the articles? They elaborate to relieve confusion.

    An apprentice is trained to do the job of his trainer.. like a journeyman. Christ didn’t come to teach us a trade or a skill. He came because we couldn’t obey the law. We can’t do what Jesus did for us.

    A disciple is a student of the Good News.

    The law teaches Christians which works we must do to lead a God-pleasing life. Christians, insasmuch as they are regenerated and have the “new man”, are not the laves of the Law in the sense that they keep it because they are forced to do so by those stern commands “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not”, but ask they love God they are willing to do what pleases Him. God’s children need not be taught to obey law by threats of punishment, but they earnestly desire to please their Father in heaven and they delight in doing his will. Christians only need to be shown what God would have them to do, and this they learn from the Law. The law is a rule and guide which directs are way through life, and shows us what pitfalls to avoid.

    When it comes to preaching, the law should be taught first to convict, and then after the Gospel should be preached to refresh. If then the pastor finishes by saying “Go and serve with joy”, or “because Jesus has done x, you should do x”, then he has returned to “commandment” and has once again convicted the hearer. This would be an improper application of the law.

    Absolutely, we can increase in godliness, but we don’t “make progress”. We don’t get better. It’s black or white. It’s sin or it’s pure. You can’t measure the increase. We walk by faith and not by sight. Your growth in good works is certain, but you cannot see it.

    An ordinary measuring stick is divided into units such as inches or feet. But God’s measuring stick of perfection has no such divisions. There is only one unit of measurement – perfection. There may be 1/2 and 1/4 inches, but there are no 1/2 or 1/4 perfections. Measuring my works by God’s standard of perfection is like measuring my height using an infinitely long ruler with no marking for inches or feet. Any result would be nonsense.

    Our growth in good works isn’t measured by comparing ourselves with our past, with others, or with our own personal moral goals. Our growth in good works is measured by comparing ourselves with God’s perfect standard. And only God can do that. Only God can see your growth in good works.

    I am hardly an impartial observer. Even if I could measure my own works by God’s standard, I couldn’t be trusted to render an accurate measurement. I am always inclined to pad the numbers, give myself the benefit of the doubt and let myself off the hook. I am willfully blind to my own sinful motives. And, if Scripture is right, I am especially prone to self deception. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

    Someone may say, “I may never be sinless, but at least I can sin less.” That’s a laudable goal, but like measuring your moral progress, how would you ever know if you were sinning less?

    Yes, a Christian progresses in good works. But does he thereby sin less? Remember, the standard is perfection. Anything short of perfection is sin. Thus, we don’t make moral progress.

    Read the links. At least the first two, and the 4th. Tell me what you think… or don’t. It’s up to you.

    July 29, 2009 at 1:10 pm

  7. Jen

    This JUST came in my email (a comment on someone elses facebook note). Perfect timing!

    2Co 10:12 For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding.

    July 29, 2009 at 1:15 pm

  8. Jen

    Oh, and to answer your question, I’m Lutheran. Not a liberal. A confessional. This is a recent change for me. I used to be a pentecostal, then I was just mutt-protestant semi-pelagian, then I wrestled with Calvinism, then I became Lutheran. It’s been a wild 20-year journey.

    July 29, 2009 at 1:23 pm

  9. T Freeman

    A fellow Christian mutt! They tend to be the best well-mannered! Well, I think your definition of “disciple” is a little narrow and hard to defend. The NT always talks about disciples as disciples of a person, namely Jesus–the whole guy. Being disciples of doctrines instead of a person is part of the problem with the western church IMO. God gave the whole Man, so that we could become whole people after his likeness. That’s the normal use of the term, and the NT use of the term “disciple.” We take in the whole man. We’re learning how to be the kind of person that he already is.

    From the links, it appears that we’re debating over what someone called Calvin’s “third” use of the law, though I wouldn’t phrase things that way. The author of the link disagreed with Calvin on that point, but only by saying that the Mosaic law isn’t used for such purposes in the NT. Of course, I’ve not been arguing for using the Mosaic law that way. I believe, it appears along with Calvin, that one of the uses of at least Jesus’ own commands is to “direct our way through life, and show us what pitfalls to avoid.” That is a grace indeed. So it looks like I’m at least part Calvinist as well as Wesleyan. 🙂

    Regardless of whether we measure our progress or don’t measure or how, it is fortunately true (good news, especially for folks that have done real damage to people our whole lives) that we can get better or worse in terms of character or godliness, even if we have to let Jesus do it through us. If Peter says “If these qualites are yours and increasing” then these qualities can be ours and increasing. Paul tells Timothy to train in godliness. I think such training results in more godliness. It’s still true that apart from Christ we can do nothing, but some folks are far more quick and trained for patience and cooperation with Christ than others, even though they’re still not perfect. I’m not trying to get less dependent on Jesus. I’m trying to work with him more and more and against him less–he’s doing good things; he could do more. Every day I’m going to be an instrument of Jesus or of lesser, darker powers. Every day. For everyone’s sake, I’d like to be more skilled and more often an instrument of Christ’s. Peter says it’s possible, so does Jesus, so does Paul. That’s good news for many who have hurt others, including myself.

    Every day behavior in traffic, at work, in families, demonstrates this. How we treat our kids and spouses matters for what they are quick and ready to do. Love builds trust, reduces fear, makes them less hostile. Meanness makes people more defensive, more willing to be mean in return or as a first strike, etc. Both the NT and life bear this out.

    July 29, 2009 at 2:32 pm

  10. Jen

    Wesleyan – This explains a lot. You can’t be Calvinist and Arminian; they are opposed to each other. I am not Calvinist, nor am I Arminian.
    The Law is holy, and the commandments are holy, just and good… but no man is justified by the law in the sight of God. The Law is not for the righteous, but for sinners. The law brings the knowledge of sin.

    If you disagree, we have no common ground on which to discuss this.

    July 29, 2009 at 2:58 pm

  11. T Freeman


    I wasn’t claiming to be Wesleyan or Calvinist–hence the smiley. I was referring to i-Monk’s characterization of my thoughts as Wesleyan, then my apparent agreement with Calvin on what he called “the third use of the law.”

    And I agree with your summation. I just wouldn’t say that describes the only thing that the commands, particularly of Jesus, do. They also do as you nicely described here:

    “Christians . . . need to be shown what God would have them to do, and this they learn from the Law. The law is a rule and guide which directs [our] way through life, and shows us what pitfalls to avoid.” That’s a pretty nice thing for God to do for us, I think, which is all I’m saying. It’s odd to me that we can call the commands from God “good”, “holy” and even helpful (i-Monk) but not something God gives in love or grace.

    Thanks for the links, though, explaining the Lutheran view.

    July 29, 2009 at 4:42 pm

  12. Jen

    The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

    Peace out. 😉

    July 29, 2009 at 10:10 pm

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