On either side of the gospel are two slippery paths called cheap grace and legalism that we may fall into so easily unless we take action.
Most people are familiar with Jesus’ comment on the ‘narrow way’ to his disciples. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14, ESV). That said, most people assume that they’re not only on the narrow way already but also that they don’t have to worry about slipping off of it. If we do slip, it’s a rare occasion, right?
Actually, I would suggest that all of us struggle with staying on this narrow way. It’s easy to slip into the two ditches on either side of the narrow path we’re called to walk. Even as committed believers, we can get caught up in an idea that feels gratifying…but isn’t truly biblical.
Paul talks about this in an important way. “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:1-3). He says outright that the reason there are false teachers is because people want what these false teachers have to say. They want to accumulate others who confirm for them the worldview they want to have.
The gospel in a nutshell is Jesus, fully man and fully God, died for our sins; and our lives must be entirely redefined by Christ and what he’s done and said. Every step we take away from that will leave holes in other areas of our faith where our beliefs don’t align quite right. The further we get from that narrow path of the gospel, the more porous and disjointed our other beliefs will become.
The most popular ‘ditch’ these days is probably the idea of cheap grace. This type of grace means that we can do as we please, and there will be no consequences for our choices.
This viewpoint often jumps off of verses like “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8) and “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). These verses are true obviously, but they get taken out of context and then used to justify viewpoints like God doesn’t want you to ever struggle with your children or suffer health problems or wonder how you’re going to pay your bills.
Not to pick on him, but Joel Osteen offers people a message that is man-centered rather than gospel-centered. He seems like a really nice guy, very friendly and probably quite generous, but his message is mostly about the life you want to live and how you should be happy, then at the last 60 seconds of the telecast, he’ll say something along the lines of “Hey, if you want to accept Jesus into your heart real quick, you can repeat these words.” In this perspective, God ends up being the frosting on the cake of the life we always wanted.
The problem is that God isn’t some addition to our lives. He’s the core of everything. If we truly grasp that reality, we can’t use him as window-dressing to our lives. God properly acknowledged as the core will recenter us and our desires and plans to him. That’s why really explaining the gospel is so important. For the unsaved, it means surrendering to Christ. For the saints, it means repentance and a return to proper reverence and obedience to Christ.
The Bible is very clear about what grace is intended for: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11-13). God’s incredible grace is meant to lead us into renouncing ungodly passions and living self-controlled lives because of the gratitude and wonder in us for what God has done.
That pursuit of an upright life, however, can lead us to the other ditch that we can for into: legalism or work-based righteousness.
We often see the solution to one problem, like hyper-grace, as swinging to the opposite side of the scale. More often than not, though, it’s an overcorrection. Much of the American church’s current struggle with cheap grace is a response to the very legalistic strain of Christianity that was predominant a few decades ago. That version of Christianity was far more concerned with biblical ethics. Do you have a good haircut? Are you an upstanding citizen? Do you attend church regularly and volunteer half the week? If they answer to any of those things was no, people thought you might not be saved. This mentality became crushing because you could never be good enough. There was no true redemption, so the overcorrection was to focusing almost exclusively on grace.
You know, that pendulum swinging in the other direction so far is probably why people often tell me these days, “I don’t deal with legalism at all!” Here’s the interesting thing, though; when misfortune strikes or we’ve lost an opportunity we wanted, what do we say? Even if it’s only in the privacy of our minds, the thought may rise, “Man, I've been living for you. God, I've served you. I was a pastor. How could this happen to my kids? How does this happen to my wife?”
Well, even if it's subconsciously, in some way we start to feel like our works and performance as a Christian determines what blessings we get or how easy our lives should be. We feel like we’ve ‘earned’ something we wanted from God, like kids doing extra chores in the hope that our parents will give us a slightly bigger allowance.
Now, I hope this is clear throughout: the call to holy living is not legalism. We are saved by the grace of God alone, but God’s work with us doesn’t stop there. He’s sanctifying us and bringing us into his calling for how the saints should live. We’re meant to flee from sin and immorality and pursue truth and righteousness. That’s not legalism. At least, it isn’t unless we start saying to other people, “Well, if you can’t achieve this level of holiness that I’ve decided upon, maybe you’re not really a Christian.”
I want to point back to Paul’s instruction to Timothy when he was talking about recognizing false teachers. He says, “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching…” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis added). There’s a graciousness and gentleness of spirit that should characterize us when we rebuke and exhort other believers. That can only come through, though, if we’re not walking in the ditch of legalism where salvation or God’s blessings must be earned. On the other hand, we’ll only reprove others at all if we’re not in the ditch of cheap grace.
We must continually return to the gospel and examine it closely to make sure our understanding hasn’t slipped into a ditch.
We won’t go back to the gospel if we don’t believe that God really cares about how we live and the ways in which we pursue him. In order to really examine ourselves and our beliefs, though, we need to assurance that in Christ, we’re not losing our salvation. The very act of returning to the gospel then starts that process of correcting us, pulling us out of whichever ditch we’ve stumbled into as we strive to follow the narrow way.
The saving grace of Christ is a call to repentance. It’s a call to surrender everything we are and have to Christ and call him Lord over our lives. As the writer of Hebrews so excellently says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Now you could get all bogged down in eschatology and questions of “Does regeneration proceed or follow a confession of faith” and those sorts of things while you’re struggling to figure out if you’re in a ditch and how to get out. Here’s my perspective: study God’s Word very closely, but also be gracious with other people. Meditate on the holiness of God and the necessity for Christ to come to earth, our neediness for Jesus, the unmerited grace, the imputed righteousness of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s love. Don’t let lesser things draw your eyes away from Jesus. Have good friends who will challenge you and encourage you in the faith.
This is why I have friends who are people of God’s Word but also hold different theological views than me. They may have different perspectives about the order of salvation, or they have different positions on the topic of predestination, or they see something different about eschatology. At the end of the day, though, I know that they are men of God, passionately studying his Word. We believe the depravity of man which could only be healed by Jesus Christ and him crucified. The rest we can debate about and be charitable with one another.
The gospel isn’t the entryway into Christianity. It’s the linchpin that everything else hangs on. No matter what, the gospel never gets old. Look back to what’s important. Stop looking down or in the mirror. Look up. Recenter on Jesus.