By J. Kevin Butcher
It’s one thing to preach grace; it’s another thing to live it. Most of us who believe that eternal life is a gift of absolute grace have very little trouble relating that fact to others in our conversation. When an opportunity presents itself, we’re glad to share with co-workers, neighbors, children, and family members that God’s love is unconditional, that the Cross is fully sufficient payment for sin, that forgiveness is free, and that saving faith involves simply trusting Jesus Christ for eternal life. Expressions like guilt free, secure, and positionally righteous flow freely in our conversation as we eagerly declare that our eternal destiny is based not on our keeping of God’s standards but on Christ’s payment for our failure. We’re quick to suggest that even our commitment to Him as Master of our lives flows from a loving response to His grace, not the need to be accepted by Him or prove we are justified. The question is, Does our lifestyle reflect our conversation? Does what we do ring true with what we say?
While it is true that Christians have always believed that actions will either add to or detract from the impact of the gospel message, we have also wrongly assumed that conventional religious and moral disciplines were all that was necessary to make the gospel palatable. But while reading the Bible, praying, telling the truth, and abstaining from immorality are certainly indispensable to a solid witness, there are several other areas of lifestyle commonly neglected by the evangelical community which if practiced will bring greater power to our gospel presentation. Allow me to suggest just four:
1) Love others unconditionally. The message of grace to the unbelieving world is that God loves us unconditionally before and after our conversion in spite of our sin. That message sounds hollow to those who feel rejected by the Christian community because of their immorality, substance abuse, divorce, anger, foul tongue, or some other type of sinful behavior. It’s one thing to reject someone’s sin. Jesus did that. But, it’s quite another to reject the sinner. Even when the early church exercised necessary discipline in the assembly, it was always with a view toward loving the person. Though the sinning believer was separated from the body, the church was not to “count him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15). Those with whom we share the gospel will be looking to validate our claims of God’s love with the quality of love we share with them and with sinning believers.
2) Love yourself unconditionally. How wonderful it must sound to the unbeliever to hear that because of the Cross of Jesus their life of positional and judicial guilt is over! But, that kind of message must also sound incredibly foreign to those who have never known God’s forgiving grace. Thus the non-Christian needs to observe this theology in action in order for the message of grace to have full impact. Legalism, workaholism, low self-esteem, and guilt-motivated behavior all militate against the grace message. Allowing these patterns in our lives will diminish the believability of the spoken gospel. However, self-acceptance, inner peace, patience with one’s progress, the ability to relax, and a Spirit-directed Christian life all project the reality and power of the Cross.
3) Forgive easily. Christ forgave us an insurmountable debt based not upon our performance or worthiness but on His great mercy and grace. The greatest testimony to the existence of that kind of forgiveness is the believer who forgives one who has wronged him, not on the basis of the degree of the sin or the attitude of the sinner, but based solely upon his personal experience of God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ. Angry grudge-holding in the life of the Christian may lead some unbelievers to wonder whether Christ’s blood alone is sufficient to purchase their redemption. On the other hand, a forgiving heart and lifestyle surrounds the spoken gospel message with an aura of reality that will penetrate the fallen world.
4) Portray humility. The grace gospel tells us that eternal life is a gift from God. Admirable intentions, commitments to righteousness, and promises of good deeds have no merit in His sight. It was while we were yet sinners that He justified us, and it will be while we still struggle with sin that He returns to glorify us. Salvation is all of grace. That it the message we preach. A prideful, pompous countenance in the life of the believer suggests that perhaps there is something man can boast about after all! On the other hand, a humble, submissive spirit gives a sense of reality to the message that salvation is all of God. Be careful of sharing the gospel in a condescending manner. When conversing with an unbeliever about sin, avoid pious responses which subtly communicate that your sin nature is not quite so depraved as theirs. Ask God to keep you from angry interaction that displays an underlying defensiveness or arrogance about your beliefs. There is no place for pride in the walk of one who wishes to impact a lost world with the message of God’s grace.
We all want our loved ones to trust Jesus alone for eternal life. We want our children growing up knowing God’s unconditional love. We want our world to understand grace! It can happen. In fact, the grace gospel can be proclaimed with greater clarity and impact than ever before if we’ll not only preach grace, but live graciously!
Kevin Butcher is the Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan and is a member of the GES Board.