Yesterday I wrote a piece in which I looked at six common sayings which in effect can become nothing but cheap excuses for sin. The article got a bit of attention, and some folks offered a few more such excuses. So here I offer more of the same: regularly heard sayings or expressions which may contain some biblical truth, but can too often be used to justify sin. These six excuses are:
“God knows my heart”
Yes he sure does – and better than we will ever know it. But that ought to put the fear of God in every single one of us. As we read in Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
Yes, at conversion we have a heart of flesh replacing our heart of stone. This is part of the new covenant blessings that Jeremiah spoke about in Jer. 31. But the old man or the old sinful nature does not disappear altogether. We do not achieve instant experiential holiness and perfection.
We still struggle with sin, we still can deceive ourselves, and we still can fall back on the flesh instead of the Spirit. So to rely solely on one’s heart can be quite misleading and deceptive. We can so easily fool ourselves and think everything is just fine when it may not be at all.
Our lives must always be held up to the light of Scripture. We may think we are doing pretty good, but when we stay on our knees before God as we read his Word, all sorts of dark areas will be uncovered. We will find all sorts of things that need to be taken to the cross.
Self-deception can be one of our biggest problems. And pretending that everything is just fine between myself and God, when others can see clear problems or sins, is the height of folly. We need to listen to others. We need to be open to reproof and criticism from others.
Sure, not everything they say may be true, so we just take it all to the Lord in prayer and ask him if there is truth in these matters. If there is, we take the appropriate steps to sort things out. If not, we move ahead. But refusing to learn from others and to heed the advice and counsel of others – including warnings and corrections – is a dangerous place to be in.
“God is not finished with me yet”
Once again there is some truth in this. Sure, he keeps working in our lives until the day we die. We never graduate from God’s school until we leave this planet. We are all on a journey, and it never ends this side of heaven. Sanctification is an ongoing process in which we slowly but surely become ever more Christlike.
But that cannot and should not become an excuse for sin. Sure, if you are a brand-new Christian, there will be many areas that God will need to shine his light on. But for those who have been believers for a number of years, we should be making some real spiritual progress, and dealing with various sin issues.
We do not expect a toddler to carry on adult tasks – but we expect an adult to. It is the same in the spiritual life. As time goes by, we should be making some progress. Sanctification is indeed a lifelong process, but we should be able to see some signs of growth and improvement along the way.
Too many believers have simply plateaued, or in fact gone backwards. If there is not slow but steady growth, one may need to ask some hard questions as to one’s actual spiritual state. We are not talking here about sinless perfection, and we are not saying there will never be some detours along the way, and perhaps even some steps backwards.
But it is the trajectory as a whole that we are looking at here. Is there forward motion overall? Is there a growth in grace and spiritual maturity? Is there an increased hunger for God along with an increased dislike and revulsion of sin and self? These sorts of questions are always worth asking ourselves now and then.
So yes, we are all still a work in progress. But be careful that you do not let this become an excuse for sin. Our aim should be growth, not stagnation. Our aim should be to glorify God in our spiritual development, and not to offer lame justifications for a real lack of progress here.
“Who are you to judge?”
This is one of the most common responses you will hear when you seek to encourage others in personal holiness. It is as common as it is bogus. Of course we are to judge others. We have numerous biblical passages urging all believers to reprove, rebuke, warn and alert other believers.
It is part of our duty as Christians to seek to encourage others in their spiritual development, and to warn about sin and backsliding when necessary. As I said in the companion piece I wrote yesterday, yes we must be humble and careful here. We certainly should not judge in a hypocritical fashion, which was the point Jesus was making in Matthew 7:1-5. https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/07/31/stop-making-cheap-excuses-for-sin/
But we are all called to be our brothers’ keeper. We are called to love others enough to challenge them when needed, to offer correction when needed, and to deal with issues of sin when needed. But I have laid out the biblical material on all this often enough, so let me simply point you to a few other articles on the topic:
“We are saved by grace, not works”
Yes of course, and we all rejoice in what we find in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” This is great news: salvation is not of human effort, but God’s grace.
But we must go on and read the next verse. In verse ten we see what we are saved unto: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Salvation by grace is just the first step – what we refer to as justification.
But that is only the beginning. The rest of our life is meant to be a growing conformity to Christ, and a life of greater love, obedience and holiness – what we call sanctification. Both are integral parts of the salvation process, and without sanctification, we have no evidence of justification.
As Paul Washer rightly states, “The doctrine of justification by faith is one of the most majestic and comforting doctrines in the Scriptures, but it never appears alone in the life of the Christian. The work of progressive sanctification, a grace of equal beauty, always accompanies it.”
In his book on sanctification A. W. Pink put it this way, “Make no mistake upon this point, dear reader, we beg you: if your heart is yet unsanctified, you are still unsaved; and if you pant not after personal holiness, then you are without any real desire for God’s salvation.”
Or as Martyn Lloyd-Jones has said, “To divorce forgiveness of sins from the remainder of the Christian life and to regard it as if it were the whole is clearly heresy.”
“We are not under the law, but under grace”
While the issue of the law and its place in the Christian life can be a hotly debated and complex discussion, we know for sure that whatever role it plays, even its complete absence is no excuse for the believer to allow sin to run riot in their lives.
Although adherence to the law cannot save a person, the law is still good and perfect as Jesus and Paul both made clear so often. And what the law entails in terms of personal holiness and devout living, the believer by the Spirit is able to live out.
While legalism is to be avoided, so too should licence be avoided. And of course the Apostle Paul famously deals with this excuse in Romans 6:15-18:
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
All the great saints have known these truths. J. Gresham Machen for example put it this way: “The Gospel does not abrogate God’s law, but it makes men love it with all of their hearts.” Or as Charles Spurgeon said, “Grace is the mother and nurse of holiness, not the apologist of sin.”
And J.C. Ryle said it this way: “When I speak of a person growing in grace, I mean simply this – that their sense of sin is becoming deeper, their faith stronger, their hope brighter, their love more extensive, and their spiritual mindedness more marked.”
Or as John Piper remarked, “Grace is not simply leniency when we have sinned. Grace is the enabling gift of God not to sin. Grace is power, not just pardon.” And A.W. Tozer so rightly said: “If we are not changed by grace, then we are not saved by grace.”
“But the more we sin, the more God’s grace abounds”
This is one of the most scurrilous and damnable excuses of all. And since it is one that goes straight back to the Roman believers that Paul had to rebuke, we will let him deal with this foolish and reckless charge. In Rom. 6:1-4 we read this:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
We are never to let the glorious grace of God become a cheap excuse for sin. The grace of God always drives us toward God and godliness, and away from sin and self. As Randy Alcorn said, “Any concept of grace that makes us feel more comfortable sinning is not biblical grace. God’s grace never encourages us to live in sin, on the contrary, it empowers us to say no to sin and yes to truth.”
Indeed, any preaching on grace which in any way makes excuses for sin is not biblical grace, but cheap grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote so much about. Let me finish with a few of his quotes:
“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
“The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ. Such a man knows that the call to discipleship is a gift of grace, and that the call is inseparable from the grace. But those who try to use this grace as a dispensation from following Christ are simply deceiving themselves.”