Being consistent can be difficult. I’d like to think I’m a brick wall in the face of any theological or spiritual storm, but I’m more like one of those punching bag clowns that flops all over the place and eventually rights itself. So when it comes to grace I get very excited.
It’s free, unearned, shows the love of God and is possibly the most significant part of Christianity. Thinking about it makes me more devoted to Jesus and magnifies the weight of his sacrifice. But sometimes I take grace too far and treat sin lightly. I don’t want to be a hippy about it and make grace cheap. And that’s when the swing of the pendulum happens.
To keep from trampling grace, we’re going to need some rules! What’s the best way to enforce rules without a gun? Shame, guilt, obligation, etc. Rules are in our best interest, right? We can’t have people bringing shame upon the name of Jesus by participating in unsanctioned activities can we? And to make sure that people understand the value of grace, we’ll remind them of the beating Jesus took for every sin we committed!
Sounds oppressive, doesn’t it? I react to lots of rules and restrictions by being rebellious. What’s the best way to be rebellious? By throwing grace in the face of rules! Yay, grace! I don’t have to follow rules because salvation doesn’t come from following the rules! What can separate us from the love of God, right? But if grace becomes license it becomes cheap again.
See the pattern? I hope so, because I know I’m not the only one who has a hard time striking the balance between grace and legalism.
Free in Our salvation, but also Obedient to the One Who Saved Us
A couple of times, in different posts, I’ve stolen lines from Steve Brown. He’s very good at pointing out grace means that God isn’t mad at you. Even if you sin. Even if you sin a lot. And a lot of people huff and puff and call him an antinomian—a $5 word meaning you can sin as much as you like and it doesn’t matter.
I understand where those folks are coming from because nobody wants to say sin shouldn’t be taken seriously. But what comes from being unwilling to admit the depths of grace usually looks like the Bible police S.W.A.T. team showing up in force for the spiritual equivalent of jaywalking.
Yes, sin is serious stuff. It’s what separates us from God. It’s why Jesus sacrificed himself for us. In case you’ve got the wrong idea about me, I don’t want to come across as minimizing the impact of sin.
But how often do we hear that we need to relax and embrace the fact that we won’t be perfect in this life?
I’ve heard far too little of it, and that’s why I tend to gravitate toward an overemphasis of grace. I wander toward legalism because I like to know how I’m doing.
If I have a checklist then I can be proud of myself for doing it better than other people, but it’s a cage I’ve spent too much time in already. I haven’t done a self-analysis, but I think rules and boundaries, as gross as they may be, provide a sense of comfort – a level of control. If we’re moving into the unknown, trusting Jesus as our sole evaluation, everything except him becomes uncertain to one degree or another…and most people don’t like uncertainty.
Sin reduction as a way of following Jesus really sucks. It’s impossible and usually leads to failure with a nice side order of burnout. However, following Jesus with an eye toward grace usually is the abiding that Jesus talked about.
But What Does “Abide” Even Mean?
Let’s lay a bit of ground work before we start. I don’t have all of the answers for what abiding means. Further, I have more questions than answers, so don’t take this as “Jake’s Perfect Formula for Living a Peaceful and Tranquil Christian Existence.” Consider it a diary entry for myself.
In John 15 Jesus talks a lot about abiding. In fact, in one way or another, He says it 6 times in verses 4 through 10. One of those times He says, “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love.”
So it’s simple! Do everything that Jesus ever said—and do it perfectly—and you’ll be abiding!
But that sounds law-ish. I can’t help it. It sounds like marching orders and list-making, and that sounds a lot like busy work.
Abiding sounds more existential. The word also means “stay” or “remain” and has also been translated as “endure.” Sorry to go nerd-a-thon about it, but I suffered through 4 semesters of Greek and have flashbacks from time to time.
Jesus started out His monologue in John 15 by talking about vines and fruit. The picture He gave was that He is the true vine and we are the branches that grow from Him. If a branch breaks from the vine it withers and dies, but if it remains attached to the branch it’ll flourish and bear fruit.
It wasn’t Jesus saying that I have to follow all of the rules and demands that He ever spoke or I’ll be cast out, but that my health as a branch is directly related to how I abide in Jesus. If I try to abide or endure in Him, but don’t follow the instructions He gave it’s nonsensical to think that I’ll thrive.
The big picture Jesus gave and the things He spoke of were to citizens of the Kingdom of God who happened to be living in a different kingdom at the time. Look at the Sermon on the Mount and see if that’s the normal rulebook for living on earth. So if we are supposed to be abiding in Him and He in us, it doesn’t make sense to orient our lives according to standards He doesn’t set or exist by.
And that’s why it’s not a set of rules.
It’s a set of resources—a set of resources to eliminate the difficulties and hindrances that would keep us from growing strongly and abiding well. Turn it into law and sin management, and you’ll be turning something organic into something mechanical. And Jesus pointed out how important it is to abide several times; He only said to keep His commandments once.
Looking at abiding while keeping grace in mind means it is completely to my benefit to bear as much fruit as possible, and that can’t be done apart from my connection to Jesus. So I embrace my imperfection and faults because what my life produces depends on my health as a branch.
I don’t fix my sinfulness by trying to clean myself up so I can be less ashamed when I try to abide.
It means by admitting what is shameful (repentance), I seek to abide and eventually see my life produce less sin and more good. After all, it says that God is the vinedresser and the one who prunes, so why would I put myself in the place to do God’s work for Him?
This abiding concept boils down to just living.
If you are a part of Christ, then seek that relationship out. After all, we say we believe He’s alive, right? Then treat him like it. Don’t worry about your mess-ups because you’re far worse than you think. I am too.
But the better I am at just abiding, the more I want to abide.
That’s how you get better. But you’ll be so busy enjoying the abiding that you may not even notice. That’s what grace means. Jesus’ sacrifice allows you to abide in Him.
Just so this post isn’t too fluffy, look at what John 15 says about not abiding. Between you and me abiding sounds a lot better than the alternative.