Grace without Limit
As a young Christian zealot I relished opportunities to defend the Lord’s truth, these days I need to be faced with a controversy to make comment. So there I was at a Boxing Day party when a heart broken brother started to speak with me at length about the wreckage the “hyper-grace movement” was doing to his local church. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would be sitting in Joseph Prince’s congregation in Singapore, an alleged global hub of a “grace revolution” that many label as a Christianity “lite” on sin, judgement, confession, repentance and holiness. The issue at hand here is not so much about grace and law but about Jesus.
Grace without Limit
In God’s plan grace has an absolute priority that precedes both creation and sin. “He (God) has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” (2 Tim:1:9). This is “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” in whom we were chosen from eternity (Eph 1:4; 2 Cor 8:9 etc.). Strictly speaking, all grace is “hyper-grace”. Paul says quite literally; “where sin abounded, grace hyper-abounded” (Rom 5:20). The implications of the limitless nature of grace flow into Paul’s rhetorical question; “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1cf. Rom 3:8). Famous Evangelical preacher Martin Lloyd Jones remarked that if such a thought about continuing in sin has never crossed your mind then you have never heard the gospel! Biblical grace points the sensuous mind towards libertarianism just as much as it scandalises the legal mind.
Since the Lamb of God has “taken away the sin of the world” and “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (John 1:29; 2 Cor 5:19) the “worst sort” of men can get off scot-free. Therefore through Christ a friend of mine brought an African rebel leader who used to cut little children into small pieces and feed them to his troops into total forgiveness of all his sin, past, present and future. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard, where those who did 1hours labour received the same reward as those who slogged a 12 hour day, reveals the utterly radical character of God’s grace (Matt 20:1-13). Rare is that believer who lives in the truly spectacular goodness of such grace. “There is nothing which is …such a permanent surprise, and such a growing surprise to reason as grace…” (P.T. Forsyth). Does grace then weaken or intensify our awareness of sin?
Much of the controversy about the “hyper-grace” movement has to do with its common denial that believers need to confess and ask forgiveness for their sin. In my judgement this is the result of a tragic confusion about the role of confession in relation to judgement (1 Cor 2:15). We ask forgiveness of our heavenly Father (Matt 6:12) not to avert his wrath, for in scripture there is no “angry Father”, but to renew a fellowship with him that has been broken through transgression (1 John 1:3-10). The “godly grief that produces repentance” is not the result of a guilty conscience that fears vengeance, it is actually a deep sharing in the grief of the Holy Spirit for our wounding the heart of God (2 Cor 7:10; Eph 4:30). Despite our fallen experiences neither law as such nor grace as such have ever been forms of mediation between God and his covenant people, the only mediator is the person of Christ (1 Tim 2:5). As Thomas Torrance puts it so excellently; “Grace…is identical with Jesus Christ”. By “Jesus Christ” Torrance means the whole biblical story of the life of Jesus; particularly the cross. All true spiritual discernment passes through the crucifixion for, “The cross tests everything” (Luther). This is where “hyper-grace” teaching is deeply confused.
Tested by the Cross
The martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ… grace is costly…because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ….Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son”. Cheap grace enabled the guards at the Nazi death camps to continue their normal church-going practices, and permitted the Italian mafia to function as practising Catholics until excommunicated by Pope Francis in 2014. Cheap grace means many of our churches are frequented by men and women practising habitual sin without a troubled conscience. “Hyper-grace” is exposed as cheap grace whenever it bears fruit in following “Jesus” without sustaining great personal loss (Matt 7:15-20). Avoidance of the essential grace-suffering connection is a failure to understand grace as fellowship with God in Christ.
Some “hyper-grace” teachers accept that to be a disciple of Jesus will lead to painful consequences, like ridicule and rejection (e,g. Matt 5:10-12). They never however teach that grace is made actual in our humanity by our sharing in the sufferings of Jesus through which the God’s grace came for our salvation. We “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings”; we suffer “with him”, ours is “the fellowship of his sufferings” (2 Cor 1:5; Rom 8:17; Phil 3:10). Jesus own humanity became perfectly saving only through suffering for others; “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb 5:8-9). Since the goal of God’s grace is the formation of holy sons in the image of the Son, suffering is indispensible to our experience and appreciation of what grace is all about (Heb 2:10-11). The humiliating inner pain of the Spirit’s exposure of sin leading us to confession and repentance is a participation in the gracious life of Christ (Acts 2:27- 38). This is an essential part of what it means to take up our cross daily and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23).
The “true grace of God” only comes to us “in Christ Jesus” through the preaching of his gospel (1 Cor 1:4; Tit 1:2-3; 1 Pet 5:12). This message teaches us that we must repeatedly lay down our lives for God’s kingdom in the pattern of crucifixion and resurrection (2 Cor 1:3-11; 4:7-12). This is no easy call. As natural men even the twelve apostles were originally bearers of a “hyper-grace” message that had no place for suffering as a central part of spiritual growth (Mark 8:31-33). Only after witnessing Jesus’ death-and-resurrection were they empowered by the gospel of grace to lay down their lives for others for Christ’s sake. True grace unmistakeably makes you more like Jesus – a suffering servant! Such fruit is completely unambiguous.
What then of our “hyper-grace” friends? Many are in danger of fulfilling Jesus’ prophetic word; “the ones sown on rocky ground…when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” (Mark 4:16-17). If we bear the gracious life of Christ we will serve these ones through anguished prayer and, where necessary, the warnings of the word. No cheap grace here.