Thank God for failure! Why? Because if I had not failed miserably as a legalistic Christian, I could never have known the transforming power of the grace of God.
Oh yes, I became a Christian totally on the basis of God’s grace. But I had no knowledge that the Lord intends for me to continue growing in my walk with him on the basis of grace alone. Therefore, as happens with scores of Christians, it wasn’t long before I let go of grace and fell into the abyss of legalism as my basis for relating to God. And then came failure upon failure. Christ had taken away my sin and guilt, but legalism amplified both! As a result, I quit on Christianity for five years in the mid-1960s and lapsed into a worse condition than I had been in as an unbeliever. Ironically, that’s when I began to understand grace.
Many Christians constantly doubt that God’s will for them is to continue to relate to him on the basis of grace alone. Is this biblical? Is it Orthodox? Can it produce Christian maturity?
Of course, most blood-bought, born-again believers in Jesus Christ realize that they came to God initially as nothing more than lost sinners and the Lord reconciled them to himself on the singular basis of the blood of Christ. In other words, they began with grace alone. But does God intend to produce Christian maturity in us through exactly the same grace whereby he saved us to begin with? The answer to this question is an emphatic yes!
It has been my observation throughout forty years of Christian ministry as both a counselor and a teacher that a surprisingly high percentage of true believers in Jesus Christ are hindered or crippled in many vital areas of their Christian growth, worship, and witness because they lack understanding of how to appropriate the grace of God on a daily basis. This lack of understanding causes multitudes of Christians to become disillusioned and frustrated. Some have given up the faith, while many more are merely treading water, having been robbed of the joyful, intimate relationship with the Lord that he deeply desires.
Church history demonstrates that believers in every generation become enslaved to a performance basis for earning God’s approval and blessing. In other words, they believe they are right with God because they do the right things. This is a constant temptation for all who desire to please God. In this book I’ll be using the term performance basis interchangeably with the term legalism.
Because performance-based living is so deeply rooted in human nature, the entire world, not just the Christian world, is filled with people who either thrive on it or who are constantly striving to extricate themselves from it. But apart from the applied grace of God—the exact opposite of performance-based living—nothing more than superficial relief is ever realized by anyone, Christian or not.
Grace plus Nothing is offered as a tool to help eradicate legalism from your life and to establish you in the grace of God as a way of life. The book will help you deal with guilt and shame permanently in God’s way. Many are already using it for this purpose in various types of recovery programs. I will also speak to crucial issues such as developing forgiveness, commitment, a consistent devotional life, and a confident prayer life. The book is organized as a series of readings that define both legalism and grace and continually encourage the reader to learn to stand in the grace of God and to live in his righteousness.
The series is designed to be read slowly and meditatively in much the same way as one would use a book of daily devotions. The articles are in a logical sequence. Most of them build upon those preceding. The emphasis is not merely on providing information, but also on applying the truth of grace in one’s life day after day. Sometimes I have been purposefully redundant because it seems so difficult for most Christians to learn to habitually relate to God on the basis of grace alone.
The bottom line in this book is this: It must bring you to Jesus again and again, for that is your real need.
For years I published a monthly devotional letter called Grace plus Nothing, and it seemed to me that the title might appear to be imbalanced. Therefore, I always included the following introductory statement in Grace plus Nothing:
Every Christian should be aware that Jesus Christ is full of grace and truth, not just grace (John 1:14). Therefore, what I mean by grace plus nothing isnot some sort of cheap grace without truth. My intent in naming this letter Grace plus Nothing is to emphasize the biblical truth that, in the formation of Christian character, God’s truth works only through his grace, not apart from it.
I emphasize grace plus nothing because there has always been a tendency in the body of Christ to preach salvation by grace through faith and then to attempt sanctification and holiness through every imaginable form of legalism. Certainly the Lord calls every Christian to press into sanctification and holiness, but neither happens apart from grace: Legalism— the attempt to justify ourselves before God through good works — can never satisfy God. Therefore, sanctification is by grace: “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace. . . those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:14; 5:17).
This introduction from my newsletter (including the Scripture) expresses the exact thrust of this book. Christians need to be taught to completely forsake any performance basis for relating to God and to forever embrace the grace basis, carefully avoiding the error of cheap grace in the process.
The grace of God is neither legalistic nor cheap. One of my most important objectives is to help you define and avoid both distortions. In a nutshell, legalism means any attempt to earn right standing before God based on our performance or good works, while cheap grace refers to the all too common misconception that we can accept Jesus as our Savior and yet somehow simultaneously avoid his lordship.
In our generation many Christians fear cheap grace so much that they have completely rejected preaching about grace. Thus, in many circles, even sincere believers are not secure in their salvation. Legalism is usually substituted for grace. Clearly, the baby has been thrown out with the dirty bath water. The cure is worse than the disease.
Grace plus Nothing asserts that without grace all preaching is just wasted hot air. Sin cannot be removed apart from grace. Hearts and minds cannot be transformed apart from grace. Grace is God’s program. Grace is God’s design. We have celebrated virtually everything else in our churches; now, let us celebrate grace! My central objective in this book is to glorify God through a definition of his grace and its applications, and, in the process, to demonstrate how only grace leads to true obedience.
Legalism, performance-based-acceptance (PBA), never produces pure obedience. Grace alone will produce what God wants: the fruit of the Spirit and godly character. This approach is called ABP, acceptance-based-performance.
I do not address this book primarily to people who want to play games with God and therefore attempt to abuse grace. God will have to deal with you some other way. But I dedicate this book to all of you grace-starved Christians who have a genuine hunger for God. God’s grace is for you! You will be liberated as you read.
I have included a lot of my own personal testimony because I have found it to be helpful for illustrating grace at work. I hope none of it offends you in any way. I think you will discover that it ministers to you and encourages you. Besides, I have treated the written Word of God itself as an authority far superior to any personal testimony.
May the Lord bless you as you read, and may this book provide a springboard for you to study these things for yourself.
How I Lost My Devotional Life
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
I turned my life over to Christ while I was stationed on an army base. I was alone in making this decision. As far as I knew, there were no other Christians in my barracks. I had been taught the gospel years before in Sunday school, thank the Lord, and that’s the only reason I understood how to receive him.
Immediately after I received him, I wanted to buy a Bible and study it. I wanted time with God. I wanted to pray. I didn’t know most Christians called this practice “devotions”.
I was so full of joy! I had been a chief among sinners, always in trouble, who had been reconciled to God and saved as a gift because Jesus died for me. My response was a strong desire to know God. And I wanted to learn to share him with others. I had a genuine hunger for the Lord.
I found a chaplain on the army base who gave me the key to his office, and every evening I eagerly spent literally hours with God. The words in my Bible lived; the prayers I prayed were answered; God showed me so much then. This continued for months.
After I was discharged from the army, I began to associate more and more with Christians. They were very sincere, and they immediately began to teach me that I had to have a devotional life. Not just, hey, the Lord really wants time with you, and you need this for your spiritual growth (which would be the correct approach), but, you have to do this if you want God’s blessing and direction on your life day by day. And in addition: Devotional time early in the morning is best. Thus, my evening devotions, though powerful, were inferior to morning devotions. Christians who rose early in the morning were considered more spiritual. (I had best hasten to add that the Christians who said these things to me may not have meant their statements as strongly as I took them. I may well have jumped to the wrong conclusions totally on my own.)
Unknown to me, I moved from practicing devotions as a response to grace to devotions as a law for righteousness. I already had God’s blessing and direction on my life as gifts, but now, it seemed, I had to try to earn these gifts. I already had a healthy relationship with God as a gift, but now I had to try to earn it.
What do you suppose happened to my devotional life after that? Right! It died. It became drudgery after that, and much less edifying.
All legalism bears similar fruit: death. As soon as I shifted from the grace basis of relating to God (being a simple sinner saved by grace) to the works basis (developing my own righteousness), sin revived and my spiritual life died. Bang! As though I were shot! Whenever I succeeded at keeping my devotions religiously, I felt righteous (self-righteous), and whenever I failed I felt that God had withdrawn his presence from me.
For the letter [law] kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
I encourage you, by the mercies of God, to put all of your confidence in the Lord. He can bless you and direct you even if your devotional life presently stinks! He can create devotion in you through grace. Devotions, by definition, should spring from devotion rather than from self-justification.
And may he help us all to learn that since the power of grace ain’t broke, we don’t need to fix it with legalism.
As time goes on, we shall observe how faithfulness and self- control—both of which are fruit of the Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22-23—play a role in building a stable devotional life. Suffice it for now to say that the fruit of the Spirit is utterly opposed to legalism. Legalism is any systematic attempt to earn right standing before God. Whereas, in contrast, true obedience to the Lord is never an attempt to earn right standing before him. Instead, it is a response of simple faith to the gift of righteousness we have received from him in Christ.
Coming to Jesus with Mixed Motives
“All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).
Think of all the sick, all the demon-possessed, all the lame, and all the blind who came to Jesus. Do you think all those people had perfectly pure motives for coming to Jesus? Did they all come purely because they loved Jesus? Or do you think most of them had mixed motives for coming to Jesus? It seems likely (you can disagree if you like) that most of them had mixed motives. It seems likely that most of them were motivated by the desperate needs in their lives.
They came to Jesus driven by pain and suffering and fear rather than pure love for God, but Jesus never cast any of them out. Matthew records:
And when evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill (Matthew 8:16).
He healed all who were ill. All. He cast out no one. Only the demons got cast out. He never rebuked a blind person, saying, “You are selfish. You just want your eyesight. You are just trying to use me. Go away and produce pure motives, and then I will accept you and heal you.”
No, no hurting person was ever cast out for being selfish. The only issue was that these hurting people came to the right Person.
In John 6:37, Jesus said that he will certainly not cast you out if you will only come to him. Certainly means certainly! The only issue is that you come to the right person. Your motives for coming to him are probably mixed (mine usually are, too), but his invitation is, “Come to Me” (Matthew 11:28).
The Lord will purify our motives, sure enough. But it will be through acceptance, not rejection. The issue is, always begin by coming to the right Person.
What Can You Learn
from the Size of Your Bible?
Before you ever open it the Bible can teach you a big lesson. Sound ridiculous?
OK, the next time you are in a good library, take a look at the shelves that contain books on the history of England. No doubt you will notice that one of the greatest works on English history is a three-volume set of books that fills about one foot of library shelf space. It seems quite detailed, yet, if you think about it, a great and old nation like England must have generated a mass of historical documents that could easily fill ten libraries from floor to ceiling. So a three-volume history is actually extremely selective and, for the most part, quite sketchy.
Now think about the Bible—one volume. How much material do you suppose has been generated in all of God’s dealings with mankind during thousands of years of world history? Jesus’ ministry alone could overwhelm our libraries. Speaking of Jesus’ three years of ministry, the apostle John exclaimed:
And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written (John 21:25).
Talk about a selective book! How many tough decisions do you think John had to make concerning what to exclude from his Gospel? Similarly, how many tough decisions do you think had to be made concerning what material to exclude from the Bible as a whole?
Therefore, the Bible is far and away the most carefully selective book in the world. Our Sovereign Lord governed the process.
An almost automatic conclusion has to hit you at this point. The Bible must be filled with the most important words in the world because, out of the billions of events, illustrations, teachings, and characters the Lord could have chosen, he chose what he chose. There is divine wisdom in each and every word that’s there, right down to the genealogies. It is dangerous to teach or to believe that the Lord was somehow imprecise in the way he allowed those words to be chosen and expressed, because, whether we like it or not, our faith in redemption through Jesus rests primarily in the testimony of the Bible.
Grace: The Tender Trap
Here is a verse that used to puzzle me greatly:
But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared (Psalm 130:4, KJV).
This verse was puzzling to me because it says that God is to be feared because of his forgiveness. Why should anyone fear God’s forgiveness?
Allow me to illustrate the answer to this question from my own life experience. Back in 1963, when I quit on Christianity, I had magnificent reasons, not just excuses, for doing so. There were still some areas of my thought life that were easily as bad as before I got saved. For example, I was constantly pressured by lust and jealousy and anger. I didn’t want to be some sort of lukewarm Christian. Therefore, I couldn’t accept such gross imperfections. I wanted to be an on-fire Christian or no Christian at all. No halfway, no games. I wanted to be holy as he is holy—or I wanted to quit.
At that very time, I was teaching and preaching and the Lord was using my testimony mightily. Believe me when I say that I was no slouch. I was trying as hard as I could. But, because I was so far from perfect, I quit. I went back to my old life and for five years I lived life with almost total abandon. I concluded that Christianity was only for good people, not sinners like me!
But after five years, when Jesus brought me back, he taught me his grace. Now I know his grace. I know that his grace is greater than all my sin. I can purify myself, even as he is pure. I can get up and start over again anytime I fall. I can serve him without hypocrisy, because he is my righteousness, not I. I used to be able to say, “I’m too weak to be a good servant of God,” but now I have to agree with God that my weakness is no excuse to quit. The Lord says:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9, my paraphrase).
Of course, the Lord spoke these words to the apostle Paul, but they apply to us all. What an amazing and crucial revelation:
God can manifest his power best through our weaknesses! Therefore, Paul went on to express the great paradox of Christ- centered ministry:
Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. . . for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
My personal weaknesses can no longer provide me with excuses to quit. I now understand that the most fearful thing in God is his forgiveness. Why? Because if I can always be forgiven and accepted in spite of my weaknesses, then I’m trapped!
As you finish this book, you need to realize that the most dangerous thing about God is not his judgment or his wrath but his mercy! His mercy wipes out all excuses. Every sinner qualifies for mercy, so the entire world is left without excuses. The refusal to respond to grace leads to eternal hell because there is no excuse not to respond. Thus you are trapped by grace!
Legalism can never hold you the way grace can. You see, if the legalist falls, he’s dead. But the person who is justified by faith has power not only over sin but also over defeat. The Bible says:
For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again (Proverbs 24:16, KJV).
So you see how the grace of God is the most dangerous thing in the world. Even if Satan manages to whip you, under grace you can still get up immediately and start over. You have no satisfactory excuse to remain fallen because God forgives you. You have one option: Get up! Over and over and over and over again, until you learn to stand firm. Quitting will never again be a viable option for you. That’s why the Bible says that the just man (justified in Christ, remember) gets up as often as he falls. In the formation of godly character, this is foundational.
Look at what the psalmist said:
Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6, KJV).
How did the psalmist learn this? The hard way. This is your verse. Take it. What it means is that there is no way of escape from God’s love. You are trapped by infinite mercy. Mercy will follow you all the days of your life. Legalism can never save you, but grace will never let you go. The tender trap has been sprung—on you!