Grace, a license to sin?

by James Johnson

James Bond, in the novels written by Ian Fleming, was given a licence to kill. That was fiction, of course, but does anyone in the real world have a licence to kill?

First, what is a licence to kill? A licence is a legal right to do something, in this case to kill. Clearly, governments give their armed forces a licence to kill the enemy in a war zone. But it is a restricted right. If a soldier kills a citizen in a saloon brawl, he cannot claim immunity from prosecution. But so long as he uses the legal right to kill according to the conditions laid down by the king or president, he will not be guilty of the crime of murder. Consequently, no royal or presidential pardon is necessary. Grace does not need to be shown to him.

Has a believer of the Lord Jesus Christ been given a licence to SIN? Are there any conditions when a believer does have a licence to sin? Clearly, this right cannot be given by any human authority. It is obvious why a soldier has a licence to kill, but does a believer have a licence to sin?

This is not a new question. Ever since the Apostle Paul first preached GRACE, there have been those who have twisted his teaching for their own purposes. Paradoxically, if anyone does have a licence to sin - a legal right to sin - they don't need Grace!

To answer the question,"Has a believer a licence to sin?" we need to understand what the God of Grace is doing in our world.

By definition, God, if He exists, must be all-powerful and all-knowing; omnipotent and omniscient. What is not so obvious, though, is that He would also have to be a holy, righteous, loving and gracious God.

The pagan concept of a god did not include these attributes. In Greek myths, for example, the gods had similar weaknesses to humans and were capable of great vindictiveness, revenge and favouritism. The Greek mythological gods supposedly played games with humans for their own perverted pleasure, on a whim of the moment. There were many gods and they fought among themselves. They had sons and daughters who were also gods.

Although the gods were portrayed as powerful, they were not all-powerful. Their 'power' was really the ability to perform magic tricks and was limited to a local area or function. Incredibly, their gods could be wounded or even killed! Their gods were all deified human beings. It was an attempt to form God in the image of man.

So we can see big differences between the gods of human imagination and Yahweh as revealed in the Sacred Scriptures. The one true God is revealed as faithful, not having favourites, does not lie, the same today, yesterday and forever, merciful, kind, forbearing and patient. His power and influence is universal. Most importantly, He is a holy, loving God.

But there is one attribute of the true God which is nowhere to be found in the gods of human imagination, and that is GRACE. For the simple reason that the mythological gods did not need Grace. Why not? Grace is only needed when there is a resurrection from the dead.

Why is Grace only needed if there is a resurrection of the dead?

The incontrovertible fact of life is that every human being will one day die. It is also true that no one can prevent their own eventual death or raise themselves from the dead. If this life is the only one there is - there is nothing beyond it - then we might as well, "Eat, drink and merry, for tomorrow we die." Why not just indulge ourselves if there is no resurrection and no judgement, as many pagans believed?

There is a problem with this lifestyle though, even for unbelievers. If we are the 'centre of the universe' and we get what we want at the expense of others, then someone else may be harmed. Not every wicked person is punished for his or her wickedness in this life. The Psalmist (in Psalm 73:3) complained that the wicked often prosper. Good deeds are not always rewarded. It is not fair if all wrongs are not righted and all good deeds are not rewarded.

Human justice, however, is incomplete. A human judge can punish a convicted murderer but cannot bring the murdered victim to life. Not only that, it is possible in this life, to get away with murder.

If there is no God who can raise human beings from the dead and judge them righteously, life is futile and has no purpose. Human life would be no better than plant life.

Whether people accept it or not, everyone in the whole world is a sinner. Paul wrote in Romans 3:9-12:

" ... we previously charge both Jews and Greeks to be all under sin, according as it is written that 'Not one is just' - not even one. Not one is understanding. Not one is seeking out God. All avoid Him: at the same time they were useless, Not one is doing kindness: there is not even one!"

Death is the disease - Sin is the symptom

Adam was unable to procreate children who were immune from dying and death. We sin because we are dying. It is the flesh that is weak. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are mortal. This applies to every single human being who has ever lived, except One.

The classic human way to resolve this dilemma has been either:

  • to refuse to believe there is a God or:
  • to keep laws to appease God or the gods and hopefully receive rewards and avoid punishments.

As man cannot save himself, the only One was can save us is God. He has done this through Christ our Saviour - Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, all sinners.

It is not just man's inhumanity to man that needs to be corrected. It is easy to forget that GOD has also been wronged. Mankind cannot right the wrongs against God. Incredibly, only the God of Grace can do that. This is yet another reason why God must provide Grace to fulfil His purpose for His creation.

When Paul preached at the Areopagus in Athens, he spoke to, among others, Epicureans and Stoics.

The Epicureans did not believe the Universe was created, there were no morals, no judgement and no resurrection. For them, pleasure was the supreme goal of life.

The Stoics had many gods, needed no Saviour and acknowledged no sin. There was nothing beyond death for either group. Both groups, in effect, believed they had a licence to sin, not because they had received authority to do so, but because there was no authority to stop them, and there was no sin anyway.

The Greek philosophers did not believe in the one Creator God who can raise humans from the dead, so they reasoned that they did not need Grace.

Clearly, Paul could not, as he did with the Jews in the synagogues on the Sabbath, preach that Christ fulfilled the Hebrew scriptures. So Paul's message was twofold:

  1. God is Creator and
  2. Christ rose from the dead.

Did the Greeks have an excuse for not knowing the Creator God? The answer is in Romans 1:19-21:

" ... that which is known of God is apparent among them, for God manifests it to them. For His invisible attributes are descried from the creation of the world, being apprehended by His achievements, besides His imperceptible power and divinity, for them to be defenceless, because, knowing God, not as God do they glorify or thank Him, but vain were they made in their reasonings, and darkened is their unintelligent heart."

But the Jews believed in Yahweh, the One true Elohim. So surely, this was not a problem. One sect of Judaism, the Sadducees, however, did not believe in the resurrection, as is mentioned in Mark 12:18 and Acts 23:8.

Even so, the Jewish theologians looked for a sign, yet rejected the only sign Christ would give them - His resurrection. They relied on the Law, so they too reasoned they did not need Grace.

As many Jews thought themselves superior because they had the law, Paul wrote in Romans 2:11-13:

"For there is no partiality with God, for whoever sinned without law, without law also shall perish, and whoever sinned in law, through law will be judged. For not the listeners to law are just with God, but the doers of law shall be justified."

Paul makes clear in Romans 3:20 that we are not made right with God by works of the law:

" ... by the works of the law, no flesh at all shall be justified in His sight, for through the law is the RECOGNITION of sin."

One of the dangers of relying on law to make a person righteous is that it can lead to self-righteousness. Which can then lead to judging others. In Romans 2:3 Paul asks:

"Yet are you reckoning on this, O man, who art judging those committing such things, and art doing the same, that you will be escaping the judgement of God?"

Some argued though, that when human beings sin, it reveals the righteousness of God. So why does God complain? Paul had been accused of teaching this, but he was not saying, "We should be doing evil that good may be coming." If that were true, Paul says, "How shall God judge the world?"

Paul dismisses human reasoning; the true God Yahweh exists and we cannot become righteous by keeping the law. So how does God resolve the problem of Sin?

Does God pretend we are righteous? Is it a legal fiction? We are not really righteous but He pretends we are? That cannot be, because whatever God does, He cannot compromise His love, truth, justice and righteousness. The reality is that in ourselves we are NOT righteous. Romans 3:21-23 reveals the truth:

"Yet now, apart from law, a righteousness of God is manifest ... yet a righteousness of God through Jesus Christ's faith, for all, and on all who are believing, for there is no distinction, for all sinned and are wanting of the glory of God."

We are now able to say with Paul in Galatians 2:20:

"With Christ have I been crucified, yet I am living; no longer I, but living in me is Christ."

It is vital to understand what 'living in me is Christ' means. We have died, been crucified with Christ. More than that - we have died the shameful death of Christ on the Cross. We become a new creation - a union of our spirit with Christ's spirit. Everything outside of that is the natural man, not the new creation.

We cannot find newness of life in the old man. We look in vain at our flesh to find spirit. We look in vain at our natural man to discover righteousness. That would be the same as putting our faith in ourselves. It is foolish to base our standing before God on that which God says is dead by virtue of the Cross. The reality is revealed in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31:

"Yet you, of Him, are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, besides righteousness and holiness and deliverance, that, according as it is written, He who is boasting, in the Lord let him be boasting."

Without understanding this, we can become disillusioned, disappointed and discouraged.

Christ's spirit in us is a treasure, as Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 4:7:

"Now we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the transcendence of the power may be of God and not of us."

This treasure of Christ's spirit is in earthen vessels, our flesh and blood. That is where the problem lies, as Paul records in Romans 7:18-20:

"For I am aware that good is not making its home in me (that is, in my flesh), for the will is lying beside me, yet to be effecting the ideal is not. For it is not the good that I will that I am doing, but the evil that I am not willing, this I am putting into practice. Now if what I am not willing, this I am doing, it is no longer I who am effecting it, but Sin which is making its home in me."

He could see a war between his will or mind and Sin in his mortal body. But he thanked God that there was something which rescues him out of this body of death - GRACE.

Most followers of the Lord Jesus Christ can quote Ephesians 2:8-9:

"For in GRACE, through faith are you saved, and this is not out of you: it is God's approach present, not of works, lest anyone should be boasting."

It is one thing to know the Scripture, but it is another thing to live the Scripture. Many say that they teach Grace, but it is usually,"We believe in Grace, BUT ... ." What they are saying, in effect, is "Terms and Conditions apply - read the small print."

Just as the Jews added laws to the Laws of Moses, so some Christians have added conditions to the Truth about Grace. They reason that this unqualified teaching would give people an excuse to sin expecting to get away with it - a licence to sin. Without the rewards and punishments of the Law, they reason, people will sin. They would sin all they want, because God will forgive them anyway.

When does God apply His Grace? Is it before, during or after we sin? Is there a 'sell by date' with God's Grace? 'When it's gone it's gone'?

Imagine for a moment, that you are a new believer. You believed that Christ died for you.

You received justification for all your past sins. Fine. Wonderful! But, incredibly, it is more than that - you were made right with God for all your past sins and all your present sins, and all your future sins. But you imagine that that is too good to be true. It can't work like that? Can it?

In your zeal for God, in those early days, you determined never to sin again. But inevitably you do sin. What do you have to do now to receive forgiveness? Do you say that in future you will keep the law so that you will not be thrown into 'hell-fire'? Your works are going to get you back into God's good books?

This idea has been around for centuries. What did Paul think about it? He tells us in Galatians 1:6-7a:

"I am marvelling that thus, swiftly, you are transferred from that which calls you in the GRACE of Christ, to a different evangel, which is not another ... "

Why did the Galatians think like this? Paul continues:

" ... except it be that some who are disturbing you, want also to distort the evangel of Christ."

What was the evangel, what was the good news, that others had distorted? Paul tells us in the previous verse:

"GRACE to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, Who gives Himself for our sins, so that He might extricate us out of the present wicked eon, according to the will of our God and Father, to Whom be glory for the eons of the eons. Amen!"

God is doing all this for His glory, and because He loves us. Romans 5:8 brings reassurance:

"Yet God is commending this love to us, seeing that, while we are still sinners, Christ died for our sakes."

NOTHING can separate us from the love of God, EVEN when we sin.

Paul wanted to know only one thing from the foolish Galatians (chapter 3 verses 2-3):

"Did you get the spirit by works of law or by the hearing of faith? ... undertaking in spirit, are you now being completed in flesh?"

He emphasizes again the point in verses 5-6:

"Did you get the spirit by works of law or by the hearing of faith, according as Abraham believes God, and it is reckoned to him for righteousness?"

The evangel, the true evangel, is God's POWER for salvation, and cannot fail. The law failed for it was weak through the flesh. Abraham was justified, made right with God, by faith not by works. WE are made right with God by Christ's faith in us, not by our works.

We receive God's Grace EVEN when we sin because God is conciliated. I repeat, the evangel is the POWER of God for salvation, and does not depend on the sinner.

It is not just the new believer who discovers that the flesh is powerful. Like Paul we know how easy it is to sin even when we don't want to. But this exposes one vital lesson we must all learn. In me is no good thing. There is only One Who is good and that is God (Matthew 19:17).

There is one word which Paul often uses with the word GRACE and that is PEACE. Peace follows when we receive Grace from God. Both my grandmothers used to say, "There's no peace for the wicked." As a boy I thought that was just an old saying that grandmothers used. Only years later did I read it in the book of Isaiah!

There is no peace for the wicked because they live in fear of death and judgement. Human reason and human efforts do not bring peace.

Many assume that the only alternative to Law is Licence. The Apostle Paul was well aware of this argument. He wrote to the ecclesia in Rome (6:1):

"What, then, shall we declare? That we may be persisting in sin that grace should be increasing?"

But to ask the question is to reveal the foolishness of it. If we have been washed clean in the blood of Christ, why would we want to go back to the cesspit of sin?

Paul answers his own question in the next verse:

"May it not be coming to that! We who died to Sin how should we still be living in it?"

Instead of trying to find a loophole in the law to allow us to sin, we should follow Paul's exortation in Colossians 3:1-3:

"If, then, you were roused together with Christ, be seeking that which is above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Be disposed to that which is above, not to that on the earth, for you died, and your life is hid together with Christ in God."

In that same chapter he says that because God has been so gracious to us, we are to be gracious to others.

Romans 7:4 reveals what our responsibility is under Grace:

"So that, my brethren, you also were put to death to the law through the body of Christ, for you to become Another's, Who is roused from among the dead, that we should be bearing fruit to God."

Galatians 6:7 comes with a warning:

"Be not deceived, God is not to be sneered at, for whatsoever a man may be sowing, this shall he be reaping also, for he who is sowing for his own flesh, from the flesh shall be reaping corruption."

The next verse should encourage us to do what is right:

"Yet he who is sowing for the spirit shall be reaping life eonian."

Even more encouraging are Paul's words in Romans 8:1 which should be etched in our mind:

"NOTHING, consequently, is now condemnation to those in Christ Jesus."

Don't walk according to the flesh, but according to spirit, Christ's spirit in us. These are God's words to us today.

If we did have a licence to sin, we would not have peace with God, we would not be gracious to others, and we would not be bearing fruit for Christ.

James Bond's licence to kill is fiction.

Thankfully, the believer's licence to sin is also fiction.

I shall end as Paul ended his letter to the Galatians:

"The GRACE of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brethren! Amen!"

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©James Johnson

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