The Scandal of Grace

The Scandal of GraceI often hear the phrase: “Grace doesn’t mean you get to do what you want.” At first glance, who would disagree with this? I mean, we cannot just have people running around engaged in extramarital affairs, living it up at wild parties and quitting their jobs, can we? If grace means people can do what they want, what kind of world would this be and what would become of our churches? Christians would sleep in, not tithe, and skip small group! Total chaos would ensue!

Grace defined
But this line of reasoning exposes a negligent understanding of grace, and that’s the point of this article: to give a proper definition of grace that exposes just how scandalous and how radical it is.

Merriam Webster defines grace as “unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” While this definition begins well, it does not describe the reality of what is happening. Grace is unmerited and it is divine. But it is not about assistance. In other words, it’s not simply a little bit of help to makes us better people. Sinners don’t need assistance, they need a Savior. They need God to do for them what they could never do for themselves.

Paul Zahl gives us a proper definition of grace by stating, “Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable” (Grace In Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life). In other words, a proper understanding of grace is: one-way love. From God to us, it is a love that has nothing to do with our work, and everything to do with God. It is his initiative completely – from beginning to end. We do nothing; God does everything. It is not only freely given, but also freely maintained. It cannot be taken from you; it is yours regardless of your past, present or future sin. That is exactly why it is called grace – divine, unconditional, free, sufficient, secure and never-ending. If grace is one way love based solely on God’s love for us, wrought completely by his initiative, then there is nothing we can do to make it happen faster, to slow it down, or even prevent it from occurring. Moreover, there is nothing we can do to lose it.

“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

The truth is that in Christ, God’s grace comes to us with no requirements because the righteous requirement of the Law was fulfilled by Christ on our behalf. Grace comes to us requiring no prerequisites, no midterms and no final exams. You are completely accepted as a son or daughter of God fully, forever, and without exception and expectation!

Keeping one law means keeping all the laws
In writing to the Galatians, Paul is urging them to leave off the law since they have experienced the grace of God. He put it this way:
“So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace” (Galatians 5:1-4).

The apostle Paul confronted the Galatians and you can almost hear him shouting; “You were running the race so well. Who has held you back from following the truth” (Galatians 5:7)? He did not say, “Who hindered you from obeying the law?” He was not worried about them running around breaking the law and doing whatever they wanted. He was frustrated because they were running around trying to keep the law! They were restless in their pursuit of “grace, but…”

It is the same with you and me. We say we live by grace alone, but we are busy about trying to keep additional “laws.” Worse yet, we actually believe we are keeping them because we have reduced them to our level. We bring the law down to meet our human capability, all the while missing the mark! The truth is we cannot even keep one law perfectly for a single moment. Paul explained to the Galatians, and thus to us, the truth that if they are set on obeying one of the laws, they have to obey all the laws. They were trying to justify themselves through obedience. Paul in short said; “Stop that! You don’t have to do that because the gospel has freed you!” “But now we have been released from the law, for we died to it and are no longer captive to its power. Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit” (Romans 7:6).

Free to do what we want
We miss the real meaning of grace if we are constantly worrying about people running about in wild and raucous lifestyles. A right understanding of grace gives us a right understanding of our neighbor. In her recent post at Resurgence, Kimm Crandall wrote: “The more we look to the cross and relish the amazing act of love that was bestowed upon us as undeserving sinners, the more we will move toward our neighbor in service and love. This is what grace does.” A right understanding of grace means resting in God’s love for us, knowing that it is precisely that love alone that fuels service for our neighbor (our actions and our “to do’s).

Grace means what it says. Grace means you are free from law keeping. “If therefore you look unto Christ, and that which he hath done, there is no law.” (Martin Luther – Commentary on Galatians). By its very definition, grace means you do get to do what you want. A right understanding of grace does not reduce grace to a set of moralistic requirements for Christian behavior; that is not grace. The moment you start putting boundaries around grace it ceases to be grace.

Now we, who have experienced grace, are free to do, free to love, and free to be. Rather than using our freedom selfishly, we are now compelled by Love to love unselfishly. We are compelled by Love to love our neighbor not ourselves. Paul urges the Galatians; “For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).

The freedom Christ died to bring does not compel raucous and wild living. It compels love, sacrifice, and selflessness. Gods’ never changing and never giving up love means exactly what some are afraid of – we get to do what we want! There is no law where the gospel and grace reside – only freedom.

How do you define grace, and how has that definition changed since you first became a Christian? Email [email protected] with your answer.

Lori is Director of Women at the Ridge at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. She blogs regularly at

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