God saves us by sheer grace; we cannot earn it and none of our good works can procure it. God justifies us because we have trusted in and united to Christ’s work on our behalf, his sin-bearing death and his life-giving resurrection. That’s the gist of the Gospel of Paul according to the Reformation.
As we noted the other day, one of the great objections leveled against the Gospel of the Reformers was that it was an invitation to license: “If God saves us by grace, then why be good? Won’t people just keep sinning if they know they’re going to be forgiven?” This isn’t a crazy question either. Any pastor who has tried to preach the Gospel to his people will have had it come up. Paul apparently did.
In his letter to the Romans, he asks question of a hypothetical interlocutor:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1)
“By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2)
John Calvin takes up Paul’s denunciation and briefly outlines the Reformed response to the charge against the Gospel of grace, both by critics, and by sinners who’d love to take advantage of it. Commenting on the Romans 6:2, and summarizing the argument to follow:
[It is] an argument derived from what is of an opposite character. “He who sins certainly lives to sin; we have died to sin through the grace of Christ; then it is false, that what abolishes sin gives vigor to it.” The state of the case is really this, — that the faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of regeneration; nay, we are for this end justified, — that we may afterwards serve God in holiness of life. Christ indeed does not cleanse us by his blood, nor render God propitious to us by his expiation, in any other way than by making us partakers of his Spirit, who renews us to a holy life. It would then be a most strange inversion of the work of God were sin to gather strength on account of the grace which is offered to us in Christ; for medicine is not a feeder of the disease, which it destroys. We must further bear in mind, what I have already referred to — that Paul does not state here what God finds us to be, when he calls us to an union with his Son, but what it behoves us to be, after he has had mercy on us, and has freely adopted us; for by an adverb, denoting a future time, he shows what kind of change ought to follow righteousness.
Once again we come back to the reality of double-gift we receive in union with Christ. There is no grace of justification and forgiveness that comes separated from the Holy Spirit’s work of cleansing regeneration. The “medicine” of grace doesn’t make sin stronger, but destroys it at the root. This is why, though we are saved not by our works, we are never saved without them. Though we are not accepted because of our obedience, the truly accepted will obey.
Paul’s solution to licentiousness is not to add more imperatives in bolder print. It is not making the indicatives dependent on the imperatives. It is preaching the indicatives with greater clarity and force that the imperatives naturally follow. Actually, it is through our teaching people clearly the truth of their saving union with Christ, the gift of forgiveness and free justification, and the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit actually increases their faith, thereby cutting the root of their sin: unbelief.
So, does preaching grace too strongly merely encourage sin? No, it’s our greatest weapon against it. The reality we have to continually keep in mind is that the medicine is working at the deepest core of our being. It’s the difference between an antibiotic that kills the bacteria and a cough medicine that simply deals with symptoms. Just looking at the symptoms, it might seem like it’s not having any effect. Underneath though, the deep reality is that it is eating away at the bacteria of sin in our lives, eradicating it from the inside out.
Soli Deo Gloria