Grace is incredibly powerful. Grace is unbelievably extensive. Grace is infinitely sovereign.

Yet there is one small, weak thing that has the ability to effectively disempower grace, to undermine the vast, rich, liberating impact of grace and render it useless.

This thing, this foolish puny thing, is found in the human mind.

It is a human attitude: a doubt, a fear, a refusal to trust, a clinging to personal significance, in which believers refuse to embrace the full meaning and impact of the grace given to us in and through Jesus Christ.

Just as we rebel against God, even so we rebel against grace. Just as we distort God’s self-revelation and create gods according to our own definitions, even so we distort God’s grace, tampering with it, corrupting it, meddling with it by making it conditional on our actions, and ending up with a weak and powerless thing that, in our revised definition, does not and cannot deliver us from our present condemnation and our present guilt. And we live out our days before God as though grace, real grace, does not exist.

For this reason the Bible warns Christians very strongly against this disempowerment of grace:

‘As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain’ [2Corinthians 6:1]. Paul is here addressing believers, not unbelievers. They have received the grace of God, but Paul warns them against receiving it ‘in vain’, that is, in a meaningless, empty, futile way that erodes their perception of their relationship with God. He has just explained to them the reconciliation with God achieved through the substitutionary death of Christ, and implored them ‘be reconciled to God’ [2Corinthians 5:20]. This is a plea to these Christians to live before God with the joy and peace of the already existing reconciliation resulting from their union with Christ. They had received God’s grace in an empty way – in a way that was not permitting them to live guilt-free in the presence of God. They were relating to God as though Christ had not died for them, as though they still stood before God on the basis of their own performance, still locked into the old, man-centred, performance-based mindset of the flesh rather than living in the new ‘in Christ’ mindset of the Spirit [2Corinthians 5:14-17].

Similarly, Paul warned the Galatian Christians against disempowering grace. The  false teaching in the churches in Galatia was locking the Christians into a relationship with God based on adherence to ritual laws. Paul strongly warned them against this mindset that diminished the power and the reality of grace in their lives: ‘I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing’ [Galatians 2:21]; ‘Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery …if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all … You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace’ [Galatians 5:1-4].

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul also seriously admonished the believers who were allowing false teaching to disempower grace: ‘See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ’ [Colossians 2:9]. ‘Do not let anyone judge you … Do not let anyone … disqualify you from the prize … For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God …’ [Colossians 2:16 – 3:3].

There was no doubt in Paul’s mind that his readers in Corinth, Galatia and Colosse were genuine Christians, but they had allowed the mindset of the flesh – the performance mindset, to over-ride the mindset of the Spirit – the grace mindset. To embrace this flesh/performance mindset that attributes our relationship with God to our human actions is to reject the mindset of grace, in which our every moment before God is determined, not by our actions, but by God’s great liberating action in Christ. When we as Christians do this, when we allow this foolish thing to happen in our minds, we effectively disempower grace.

Let us remember Paul’s indictment of these early Christians who disempowered grace: ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was portrayed as crucified … Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?’ [Galatians 3:1,3].

© Rosemary Bardsley 2010