In youth ministry, we’ve limited the definition of grace to “super-nice.” That’s a heresy, because grace is much more than that. Sometimes it looks like chemotherapy, which involves poison and suffering but can lead to life. Grace is always kind, but it’s not always nice. It’s intended to rescue us, not placate us.
For Christians, especially those in ministry, grace calls us to set boundaries in our life, develop accountability, and fuel our endurance as we run the race before us. Of course, we still sin and face trials and temptations. But God’s grace allows us to face these things in victory. Even more, God’s grace calls us to fix our gaze on Jesus, who has already won the battles before us.
According to Scripture, a life that’s boundaried by grace is characterized this way:
- You’re not condemned (Romans 8:1).
- God calls you his child (Romans 8:15-17).
- You have hope and strength (Romans 8:26, 37).
- You have assurance that God is for you (Romans 8:31).
- Grace shouts aloud God’s unconditional and unrelenting love for you (Romans 8:38-39).
Grace is the backbone of the Story of God, as these passages reveal:
- In Titus 2:11-14, Paul says God’s grace has brought us not only salvation but also the means to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.”
- In Hebrews 12:3-4, the author reminds us to consider the endurance of Christ when hard-pressed with trials and sin.
- In 1 Peter 4:1-2, Peter exhorts Christians “to arm themselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”
We can’t escape the shadow of sin; it’s permanently stuck on us. In Romans 1–5, Paul builds a case against humanity and explains the gospel. Explore his closing “summary” of the court case in Romans 5:12-21.
Paul makes the point that Adam’s sin results in condemnation for all humankind. He also explains that Jesus’ death results in grace being available to all of humanity. God’s grace miraculously frees us from the shadow of sin and death. Through God’s grace, not even a trace is left!
Grace Isn’t Cheap
Grace means “favor”; it’s God showing us his favor, love, compassion, and forgiveness when we don’t deserve it. We receive this grace because of Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice. Not only are we saved through grace, but grace is also part of our lives all the time. God’s mercy, forgiveness, love, and comfort are always available to us. However, though grace is “free” it should not be treated cheaply.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship… [Grace] is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us… Costly grace confronts us with a gracious call to follow Jesus.”
Grace can motivate us to obey, rather than serve as an excuse to be lackadaisical. When we really grasp the cost of grace, we’re motivated to respond in love through committed obedience to Jesus.
Grace is an expression of love that transforms, not panders. This is the way Jesus redefines love in those who love him. The “Jesus-love” we offer others is only “nice” when it needs to be—it is also fierce and exposing and uncomfortable when it needs to be. It is bent on offering others the seeds of transformation, not our passive permission to remain stagnant in a life that is self-destructing. It is a love that invites others to discover the glorious truth about themselves, not settle for the inglorious lies they’ve unconsciously swallowed their whole life. The doorway into this kind of “grace-full” love is well-marked:
- It does not put a “positive spin” on the brutal realities of others—instead, it acknowledges those brutal realities as if they are weeds surrounding a flower. The “flower” is the person’s intrinsic beauty, a characteristic that reflects something of the heart of Jesus. We see the weeds, but pay peculiar attention to the flower. That is grace.
- It offers the other whatever it needs to move into greater life and freedom. For some, that means “watering the plant” with compassion, generosity, perseverance, and focused attention. For others, that means pruning branches that are choking the plant’s growth. It’s a lot less emotionally draining to water, compared to pruning. And pruning is risky, because you might cut something that you shouldn’t. Pruning is a necessary aspect of Jesus’ love flowing through us—but it is selective and restrained and aware that the plant will feel the pain of the “cut.” Both the compassionate and pruning aspects of grace are equally motivated by love.
- It gives not because the receiver deserves the gift, but because “Jesus-love” is transformational. The motivation for a love that’s redefined by Jesus is grace—it is, by definition, underserved.
- It is able to love enemies because it is not a transactional kind of love—“If you give, then I will give” or “If you deserve to be loved, then I will love you” or “If you treat me badly, then I will stop loving you.” Instead, “Jesus love” is a differentiated force of grace in our lives. It loves because its source is the headwaters of Love, not because it has found the object of its love deserving.
The more time we spend hanging out inside the heart of Jesus, the more we are likely to be infected with his transformational way of loving—it’s called “grace.” It invades us like a virus—life-giving rather than life-taking. We have to get close to a person if we’re going to be infected by whatever they have, so getting close to Jesus makes it possible for us to love the way he loves. For more on this, check out The Jesus-Centered Life by Rick Lawrence or Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace?