HAVE WE LEARNED TO THINK IN GRACE?
AN AID FOR SELF-EXAMINATION
Jack Cottrell – June 2016
In Romans 6:14-15, Paul says we Christians are “not under law, but under grace.” I.e., we are not under the law system as a way of salvation; we are under the grace system. We know that we are still obligated to obey God’s law commands, but we realize that we are not saved by achieving a certain level of obedience to those commands. Rather, we are saved by the grace of God, through our sincere trust in the redemptive works of Christ. As believers we exist in grace; we live in grace; we act in grace.
But do we THINK in grace, i.e., in terms of grace? Are our thought patterns consistent with being saved by grace? In a real sense, law and grace are attitudes, states of mind, mind-sets, mentalities. One’s whole spiritual and mental approach to life and salvation will be measured either in terms of law, or in terms of grace. We can live either with a law mentality, or with a grace mentality.
Many Christians are still living AS IF they were under law. But this is not good. Even if we are saved, we cannot experience the joy of our salvation if we are still trapped in the law mentality.
How can we tell whether we are still laboring under a law mentality, or whether we have learned instead to “think in grace”? One way is to examine how we think about certain things. I.e., what do we think about ourselves? About our works? About God’s law? About the way of salvation? About God himself? Here we need to take some time for self-examination.
I. What is your estimate of YOURSELF, i.e., of your personal worthiness and ability before God?
A. In general, the LAW-mind has a high opinion of itself, and considers itself to be quite worthy of salvation and not far from what God requires. One who thinks in terms of law has a superficial view of his personal sin and of his weakness before God. He is the “good moral man” who thinks he deserves heaven if he doesn’t drink or cuss or fool around. He is rather proud of himself.
B. One who thinks in terms of grace, on the other hand, knows he is a sinner, and that he is unworthy of salvation. He has a keen sense of his sinfulness and of his need for mercy. He knows his weaknesses and pleads for help. He acknowledges that the good he does is by God’s grace working in him – that he does good because he is saved, not that he is saved because he is good. He thinks like the tax-collector, not the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14); like the prodigal son, not the elder brother (Luke 15:11-32); like the Apostle Paul after his conversion, not before (1 Tim. 1:12-16).
C. How are you thinking? Are you resting your confidence in your own ability to keep God’s law, or are you resting your confidence in God’s ability to keep his promises?
II. What is your attitude toward GOD’S LAW?
A. Quite often, the LAW-mind actually hates the law, but obeys it outwardly through fear of going to hell, or simply through a desire to go to heaven. One who thinks in terms of law would rather disobey if he could get away with it. He keeps the law, but for selfish reasons. There is outward conformity, but inward rebellion. The LAW-mind is an unwilling slave to the law.
Martin Luther summed it up well: “What, then, is the difference before God between one who does evil, and another who wants to do evil but does not do so only because he is restrained by fear or enticed by the love of some temporal good?” Luther says that people in the latter category “do the works of the law according to the letter without the spirit, i.e., for fear of punishment and not out of love for righteousness. According to their real intention, they would like to act differently if they could do so without being punished, although their will would become guilty. What do works that are done outwardly profit a man if his will is sinful before God, though humanly speaking his actions may appear righteous?”
B. The GRACE-mind, on the other hand, loves the law and obeys it because it is the will of the God he loves. He delights in God’s law (see Psalms 1:2; 112:1; 119:97). He really wants to obey it, even though he is weak and sometimes fails. Despite outward disobedience, he has an inward desire to obey (like Paul in Romans 7:22).
C. By way of contrast, the one hates punishment, and the other hates sin. The one loves the gift, and the other loves the giver. The one says “got to” obey; the other says “get to” obey. What about you? Do you try to obey only because you feel you HAVE to? Only because it is the law, and the law just HAS to be obeyed, even though you would rather not? Or do you obey freely because you want to please God? (Here is a hypothetical test question: If you suddenly discovered there were no heaven and no hell, would you still obey God’s law? Or would you rejoice because now there is no more reason for you to obey it?)
III. What is your estimate of your own DEEDS or WORKS? What is their value or function?
A. The LAW-mind considers his deeds as a way of either earning or forfeiting his salvation. The GRACE-mind sees his good deeds as loving expressions of thanksgiving for the gift of salvation, and his sins as wounds in the heart of God.
B. The LAW-mind sees his good works as SIN-offerings. He thinks that if he works hard enough, he can make up for his sins, like a balance scale where the good works equal or outweigh the bad. The GRACE-mind, though, sees his good works as THANK-offerings. He knows that salvation is a gift and that he cannot pay for it. He knows that if it really is a gift, all he can do is say “Thank you, God”—with his life.
C. The LAW-mind asks, “Have I done enough good works to be saved?’ The GRACE-mind asks, “Am I trusting only in Jesus’ works for my salvation? Have I done enough good works to please my Savior?”
D. The LAW-mind feels his salvation depends on how well he keeps the law. Every time he sins against God’s law, he feels his salvation has been placed in jeopardy or forfeited. The GRACE-mind acknowledges his sin but knows that Christ has paid the debt of punishment owed for that sin.
E. The LAW-mind says, “I work in order to be saved.” The GRACE-mind says, “I work because I have been saved.” See Ephesians 2:8-10.
F. The LAW-mind feels that by keeping the ten commandments, or the sermon on the mount, or the golden rule, he is OK. He actually thinks that DOING these things makes him good enough to go to heaven. Or more commonly, he thinks that by NOT doing these things, he makes himself too bad to go to heaven. (These are two sides of the same coin of works-salvation.) But the GRACE-mind realizes that obedience and disobedience to law commands are not the deciding factors for determining his eternal destiny.
IV. What is your whole approach to SALVATION?
A. The LAW-mind seeks God by works; the GRACE-mind seeks God by faith.
B. The LAW-mind trusts his own personal ability to keep commandments; the GRACE-mind trusts God’s ability to keep his promises.
C. One says DO; the other says DONE.
D. One says ACHIEVE; the other says BELIEVE.
E. One pleads MERIT; the other pleads MERCY.
F. One says ATTAINMENT; the other says ATONEMENT.
G. One pleads what WE have done; the other pleads what CHRIST has done.
H. One rests on his OWN righteousness; the other rests on GOD’S righteousness.
I. One rests assurance on personal obedience; the other rests assurance on God’s love.
V. What is your estimate of GOD HIMSELF?
A. Is God gracious or not? Will he keep his promises or not? God wants to justify freely by his grace, and our response is to believe that he really means this! Dare we “let God be God”? Dare we believe his promises?
B. God is not an accountant who enjoys keeping record-books on us. He does not stand with eraser poised, eager for the chance to erase our names from the Book of Life. Let us not force him into this mold. He wants to be a gracious God! He wants to mark your book “paid in full” and throw away the pencil and eraser!
C. God wants to be a GIVER, not a PAYMASTER. How would you feel if you gave someone you love a nice gift, and that person insisted on paying you for it? This is exactly what we are doing when we think that our works are somehow earning our salvation, when we think that our salvation depends on what we do day by day, as if our good works are earning our salvation and our sins are forfeiting it.
D. This exhortation is directed to earnest, sincere Christians who DO believe in God but who still are anxious about whether or not their salvation is in danger because they cannot do enough. My question to you is this: WILL YOU LET GOD BE GOD? Will you let him GIVE you your salvation? Will you let him write “paid in full” on your book? Where is your faith? Do you trust whole-heartedly in the blood of Jesus Christ? Do you really believe he has paid the penalty for your sins? Why do you still worry about going to hell?
Go ahead and DO YOUR VERY BEST—not to pay him back, not to keep the credits ahead of the debits in a record book, not to see if your works can balance the gift—but in loving gratitude, and just because GOD IS GOD! Let God be gracious! Let him keep his promises!
CONCLUSION. The sum of the matter is this: is your life SELF-centered or GOD-centered?
A. Do you seek to obey the law for your own sake, for your own advantage; or do you do it for the glory of God? Do you love the gift more than the giver? Are you a greedy hireling who does what he is told so he can collect his pay, or a sullen slave who obeys to escape the whip? Or is your trust so fully resting in God that you put these thoughts aside and concentrate on obeying God because he is God, fully confident that he is and will be gracious?
B. The LAW-mind turns the spotlight on the self; the GRACE-mind turns it on God.
C. Remember that no one in this life will attain the ideal; no one will express the grace mentality perfectly. We will always have a tendency to think in terms of law, but we must fight against it and struggle to attain the GRACE-mind. We as Christians are somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum, but we are moving further from the one and closer to the other. In this lifetime it will never be a simple either/or, but rather a matter of less-and-more. With God’s help, may we have less and less of the LAW-mind, and more and more of the GRACE-mind.