Cheap Grace and Cheap Living

Sometimes the contrast gets quite overwhelming. In this case, it involves reading two quite contrasting texts. On the one hand, we have press reports of some pretty reprehensible behaviour, and on the other hand we find very strong admonitions to holy and pure living. The two certainly clash.

I believe it was Karl Barth who once said we should read the newspapers in one hand while reading our Bibles in the other. That has long been my practice. So just now I have been reading some pretty staggering headlines, and in stark contrast to them, some powerful commands about holy living.

The tragic headline reads as follows: “Former Glenorchy mayor and MLC Terry Martin has admitted he spent $150,000 on 162 different prostitutes in the two years before his arrest over sex with a child in September, 2009.” Wow, that is just mind-blowing and soul-destroying stuff.

This incredible story continues: “The 54-year-old sobbed in the dock as the Supreme Court in Hobart watched his recorded interview this morning. Mr Martin’s distress was palpable – both in court and on the DVD recording – when the questioning turned to a stack of child pornography found in a locked drawer in the study of his Claremont home.

“Mr Martin had oral sex with a Glenorchy 12-year-old and took sexually explicit photos of her at his home in September, 2009, after she was advertised as a prostitute by her mother and the mother’s partner Gary John Devine. Mr Martin has pleaded not guilty to underage sex charges and one count of producing child pornography, arguing that he believed the girl was 18, as advertised at the time.”

Wow again. What an amazing and morally devastating tale. The heart just breaks to read this, especially if one has at the same time just been reading one of Paul’s calls to a devout and holy life, urging us to stay well away from sexual immorality.

In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Paul offers us a very forceful admonition on the topic of sexual immorality. His advice is spot on: “flee sexual immorality” (v. 18). That means what it says: don’t even hang around such sexual temptation – get out of there right away.

There is a clear example of this of course in Scripture: Joseph, who fled from the seductive temptations of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:12). Indeed, he “ran out of the house”. This is sound advice for every one of us. Unfortunately this MP did not take to such thinking.

But the really sad truth is, there would be plenty of Christians caught out in sexual sin as well. We may well expect non-believers to get themselves into such horrendous moral jams, but unfortunately far too many believers also get themselves into such sinful situations.

I suspect a good part of this is because we simply are not heeding Paul’s advice – indeed, his commands. Nor are we listening to Jesus or the other New Testament writers as well. And the problem goes even deeper than this. You see, all over the Christian churches today we are getting heavy doses of cheap grace.

When it comes to the gospel message that we preach to non-Christians, all we seem to hear is stuff like this: “Come to Jesus and all your problems will be solved. Come to Jesus to get healthy, to get wealthy, and to have all your needs met. Jesus is here to serve you and to make you happy and give you everything that you want.”

And when it comes to the Christian life, all we seem to hear is: “Jesus is your pal, your friend, he is here to have a nice time with you. He wants you to just be happy, to have a nice self-image, and to feel good about yourself.” It is all a me-centred message in other words.

We seldom hear what Jesus talked about: about how we must deny ourselves, crucify our flesh, take up our cross, and follow him daily. We forget how often Jesus in fact made it hard for people to follow him. Just consider for example Luke 18:18-30. Here Jesus highlights the very thing the rich man did not want to part with: his riches.

Jesus knew that he had to ruthlessly deal with the false gods in his life. He did not pander to him, but said he must renounce his riches entirely and decisively. And we read that the ruler “became very sad”. Indeed, the people around him asked, “Who then can be saved?”

The gospel is never meant to be made easy and palatable for us. It is a costly gospel, which demands our all. That is because it cost Jesus his all. That is the very point Paul makes in the Corinthian passage: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (vv. 19-20).

This is an absolutely crucial truth which we ignore at our own peril. We are not just casual friends of Jesus who can do whatever we want. We are not just his buddies, free to live the same way we always have. As the Narnians were reminded of Aslan, “He is not a tame lion you know”.

He is the holy, pure and exalted God of the universe, not a celestial Jeeves waiting to do our every bidding. The idea that we are not our own stands in marked contrast to the worldview of the surrounding pagan culture, which say the whole cosmos exists for me and me alone.

The humanist idea that you are the centre of the universe and are entitled to do whatever you want to do runs head on with the biblical gospel. Jesus paid the ultimate price for us, and we are not our own anymore; we are His and His alone. When Paul spoke of being bought with a price he was of course pulling imagery straight out of the slave market.

As Thiselton comments, “The imagery stresses primarily the new ownership, and secondly a costly act on the part of the new owner which makes the believer legitimately and contractually the one to whom the believer now belongs.” Indeed, the Corinthians would have understood exactly what Paul was getting at here.

Garland puts it this way: “The Lord has full property rights over them. The imagery derives from the slave auction, familiar to Corinthians because Corinth was a major center for slave trafficking.” The trouble is so many of us today have no idea of what is being demanded of us here.

And most preachers are not giving us the biblical message either. They are not telling us that we are slaves of Christ, and that he demands total obedience of us in every aspect of our lives, not just a haphazard acquaintance. So we have been told that we can come to Christ on our own terms, not his, and we can live as we please, and expect him to be just peachy about all that.

Well, it does not work that way. All the preaching of cheap grace does is result in the living of cheap lives. When the going gets tough these shallow and lukewarm believers will give up the Christian life as easily as they got into it. Until they hear a gospel which demands their all, they will never give their all.

Bonhoeffer had it right when he said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”. Or as A.W. Tozer rightly stated, “If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament on the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity… The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter.”

Today’s cross is all about self, and everywhere we see Christian casualties as a result. What this Tasmanian MP did is being done every day by believers as well in various forms. As long as we are reared on a gospel of self, we will live a life of self. It is that simple.

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15 Replies to “Cheap Grace and Cheap Living”

  1. Great article Bill.

    I think people have too much faith in the verbalisation of the ‘sinner’s prayer’ – thinking they will be saved because they’ve said or repeated ‘sacred’ words, but Jesus told us how we will be saved – as you say in your article – we must deny ourselves, crucify our flesh, take up our cross, and follow Him daily.

    Annette Nestor

  2. Nothing could be clearer than Christ’s saying:

    “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”

    Mark 9:42-48

    David Skinner, UK

  3. It shames me, that in this amazing world we live in, there are more homeless and hungry than ever before.

    I would appeal to the rich, and to the politicos, but i fear it would fall on deaf ears for they’d be too busy splashing hundreds of millions of $$$$ on anything but their own constituents who so desperately need it.

    Instead, i give food to the lost soul who lives in the park down the road, i volunteer at the youth centre, and i watch many of the ‘so called’ responsible & respectable people around me use & abuse the system they are running.

    I really envy small children. They may not know the pressures of work, mortgages, taxation, or the paying of bills. But neither do they know of the depravity that lies in so many of our fellow men’s hearts.

    I wouldn’t blame the Lord if He turned his gaze from humanity.

    We deserve worse.

    Colin Thompson

  4. Hi Bill. You may be familiar with the Rev. Allen Meyer’s Valiant Man training for men wishing to tame their/our natural bent (more like multiples ‘bends’) to sin in this area. It’s a great program. I’ve gone through it twice, over three years ago and one principle among many still remains in force: You often cannot help the first look, but you are in control of every look beyond that–turn away…run!

    Have a look at 1 Thessalonians 4:1-3ff, I don’t believe it is any coincidence that, immediately following admonitions to walk the walk they had been taught so as to please God, because ‘this is the will of God’, Paul in the very next verse launches into a targeted attack on sexual immorality. Don’t know how it is for women, but the matter of sexual purity among us men is the key to our sanctification–it is surely the last bastion to fall under the complete control of the Holy Spirit.

    Steve Swartz

  5. Dear Mr Bill Muehlenberg. Grace is not cheap. It is priceless – to us anyway. Nothing we can pay can purchase Grace. And nothing we can do can add to it. Including trying to improve ourselves in order to ‘be worthy’ of it. It is a free gift. Completely free, and we have absolutely no choice in that. All we can do is enjoy the freedom that it brings. That is not freedom TO sin, it is freedom FROM sin. Big difference.

    I have to say, Mr Muehlenberg, your tone reminds me a little bit of the older brother of the prodigal son – who didn’t understand that all the Father had was already his, but he never let himself enjoy any of it – chose instead to continue to work for what had already been given, and make snide remarks about the Father’s pleasure in his other lost son returning. Seems to me that the older brother is lost too. Lost in a false concept of Grace.

    Not sure about what your point is about the Tasmanian politician. Seems a rather loose connection to what you really want to say – which I take it is about moral decline amongst Christians. Is he even a Christian? It isn’t stated in your article. And if he isn’t, how is his story relevant here? In fact, almost half your article is setting out this man’s offenses with rather graphic descriptors.

    Why spend your time pointing out other people’s sins in this way? Does God really need your help?

    Kerrie Subritzky

  6. Thanks for your thoughts Kerrie

    But I will leave it to my readers here to decide just who it is who seems to lack grace, who is being judgmental, who has missed the spirit of this article (and the biblical message), and who is attacking others in a very harsh and unChristlike tone.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. Hi Kerrie, the Corinthian church was in need of a strong rebuke and Paul gave it to them knowing they were in danger of hardening their hearts (because of sin). They were sinning just like the non-believers!

    As a new Christian, my own pastor fell into vile sexual sins and eventually left his family to go off with a friend of mine – I’m saddened that neither of them listened to the firm rebukes of caring friends. As an older Christian, another leader who discipled me fell into the pornography trap, leaving his wife – I’m also saddened that he wouldn’t listen to the strong rebukes from others who cared. I believe that the grace of the Lord can also be seen in a jarring rebuke. Some people will listen, but some are unwilling to repent as the pleasure of sin has enchanted them. Yes the Lord saves us by His grace alone, saving us from our sin. It’s not by works, but some of us may need a firm slap now and again!

    Annette Nestor

  8. Kerry
    You sound very sure of yourself and I’m worried it is in fact you who is placing yourself in the older brother position. Bill is one of very few who dare to stand up and say the unfriendly thing, the true thing, the bringing us back to the real Jesus message thing, rather than this PC dominated world and church.
    Daniel Kempton

  9. “He’s not a tame Lion”

    One of my favourite quotes! C.S. really had a lot of wise things to say. Thanks Bill for reminders like this.

    Christie Ewens

  10. When we invite Jesus into our lives it is as both Saviour and Lord. God invites us to call him Father. A father is loving and forgiving and kind. A father also disciplines, rules over his family, puts his children’s growth above their temporary happiness.
    Kylie Anderson

  11. A.W. Tozer rightly stated, “If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament on the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity… The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter.”

    I wonder–is this the day the cross kills me?

    Steve Swartz

  12. Almost more than anything the call in today’s church is come and exert yourself for Christ, scratch that itch to do for God, everyone has the call, go for it and fulfill your visions and dreams, don’t wait, take the world for Jesus.
    Is it any wonder the world is not touched as we use the same wisdom they operate in.
    A cross less Christianity is just as heretical as the cults. Tozer and Karl Barth would turn over in their graves if they saw what passes for the faith these days. Is it any wonder the divorce rate is the same inside the church as outside, that fact alone should bring us to the cross for answers.
    Until we come to the place of becoming totally undone at the seams like an Isaiah when his earthly king bit the dust we will never see the Lord as He really is.
    Rob Withall

  13. Kerry, prophets are called by God to” tell it like it is” and they attract a lot of mockery, vilification and criticism because of their obedience to that call. Prophets are passionately concerned for the salvation of souls and God seldom seems to choose docile or retiring personalities for the role, so far as I can see. It is the nature of their calling to cause “offence”! We need to be thankful for all those men and women of God who are in the front lines of spiritual warfare and support them by our prayers.
    Anna Cook

  14. I have no desire to undo the good work of Wilberforce and others, but one side effect of the abolition of slavery is that we no longer feel the impact of the idea of being “owned” (either by another individual or by society as a whole). Indeed, we are more likely to feel “owed”.
    Andrew White

  15. It is vitally important for the church to be loudly expressing the standard by which we live. Yes it is by grace that we achieve the standard but many need to know that the standard is there and just because “everyone else” is doing it doesn’t mean we as Christians should.
    Aaron Downs

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