Pastor's Desk

Grace or Tolerance?

September 12th, 2016

In continuing to muse upon the strangest of relationships, we encounter another contradiction in contemporary evangelical theology: the confusion that mistakes God's grace for tolerance. Not surprisingly, this contradiction also overlaps the practice of separating God's justifying grace from His sanctifying grace, because when grace is construed as tolerance, the place of sanctification is diminished to something that is optional and only self-driven, or eradicated altogether.

As seen earlier, God's grace which converts1 the sinner's standing in Christ, also converts the sinner's manner of life (Tit. 2:11-14 – See here for a brief exposition of this passage). This change, obviously as radical as it is in conversion, results in progressive sanctification and spiritual growth in the believer's life. We know this is true, because God's Word says it is true. The so-called “experiences” of a thousand professing Christians whose lives remain unchanged from worldliness and carnality following a profession of faith in Christ do not overthrow the truth of Scripture. How, though, do they confuse grace with tolerance?

Some of this thinking has unquestionably resulted from the reinvention of the doctrine of repentance by men like Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie, whose novel doctrine has been followed by scores of independent Baptists in the last thirty or forty years. The sin of unbelief (as in, not giving credence to the historical facts of Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection and doctrinal credence to some vague aspects of that event) has been put forward as the only sin from which men need to repent in order to find peace with God. The staggering burden of sin has been set aside. In this teaching, there is only really one sin to be dealt with, and that is the sin of unbelief, which is rectified by believing that Jesus died for your unbelief.

In modern evangelism, little attention is given to the significance of God's Law and the obligation of the sinner under it. Because it factors very little into most presentations of the gospel, the so-called conversions that occur produce “converts” who have little regard for sin. Paul (Rom. 6:1-2; Tit. 1:16), Peter (II Pet. 2:1-2), and Jude (Jude 1:4) all make significant points about the demeaning of sanctification and holy living, with Peter and Jude most notably observing that there were those entering the churches whose speech seemed orthodox, but whose doctrine and practice ultimately drew professing believers into following after the flesh. Nowhere do the apostles intimate that these men were simply unsanctified believers who had never experienced sanctification.

Scripturally speaking, God's mercy involves the postponement of unquestionable judgment, even when it is presently deserved. This can be illustrated through various circumstances in Israel's history in the Old Testament (I Kings 21:29; II Chr. 34:24-27) and is referenced in Paul's sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:30). Though judgment was certain, it was put off. This serves also as the basis for Peter's explanation of the seeming delay of the Second Coming of Christ (II Pet. 3:7-10). In considering God's mercy, one would both misunderstand and diminish the attribute of God's mercy by thinking that the delay of judgment indicated God's approval of or tolerance for sin. In other words, God's holiness is no less perfect or reduced by His mercy. His mercy involves delay in bringing man to the day of reckoning. For the penitent sinner who receives Christ, that reckoning took place on the cross. For the impenitent sinner, that reckoning will take place at God's great white throne (Rev. 20:11-15). Mercy is not truly mercy if it is tolerance. Mercy implies judgment and reckoning, or it would not be mercy. Sin is judged and will be judged.

God's grace, as distinguished from His mercy, has to do with the reckoning itself. Titus 2:11 says that God's grace brings salvation; Ephesians 2:8: by grace are ye saved. Thus, where God's mercy puts off deserved judgment, God's grace directly addresses that required judgment by furnishing the means of salvation, which we know to be the imputed righteousness of Christ (II Pet. 1:2) received by faith in His blood (Rom. 3:25). As with mercy, if grace is merely tolerance (e.g. "Let us sin, since God is gracious" – Jer. 7:10), then it is no true grace. Grace, just like mercy, entails judgment for sin. So also, as God's mercy does nothing to diminish the force, nature, or perfection of God's holiness, neither does God's grace. His abhorrence of sin remains unchanged whether before or after the cross. How, then, does one end up viewing His grace as tolerance?

It happens when there is no true repentance. The abhorrence for sin (both as to specific known sins and also as to its general substance, properties, and effects) is not present in many professed conversions because such an abhorrence is no longer seen as necessary for salvation. But does God not abhor sin, even all sin? Does He view it more lightly after the cross? Indeed, He hates it so much that the Father sent the Son into the world to make atonement for it. The Son set aside His glory to humble Himself and to become a man and to be made a curse (Gal. 3:13) and sin (II Cor. 5:21) for mankind, and to carry their griefs and sorrows (which incidentally, came as a direct result of the fall of man). For three dark, dreadful, agonizing hours, the Father turned His back on the Son, such that the perfect God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ, cried out in agony, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Tolerance for sin? Hardly! Immense and measureless abounding grace? Absolutely. If God's abhorrence for sin necessitated His equally unmeasured grace to cleanse the believing, penitent sinner, how shall he, thus dead to sin, live any longer therein? God forbid! (Rom. 6:1-2)

Salvation not only changes the relationship between the sinner and His Creator, Lord, and Saviour, but also changes the converted individual's relationship to sin, since it is sin that has alienated man from God. This is one of the main thrusts of Paul's exposition on the law, righteousness, and justification in the first eight chapters of Romans. With the sacrifice of Christ on the cross complete, and God now as my Heavenly Father, does it mean that He no longer has any concern over my sin? On the contrary, consider Paul's warnings about those who maintain certain lifestyles following their professed conversion in I Corinthians 6:9-10, Galatians 5:19-21, and Ephesians 5:5.

The previous question has failed to properly grasp both the substance and grievousness of sin. How repentant is the law-breaker, who, upon finding out that someone has stood in his stead, quips immediately to the Judge, “So am I free to go and violate the law of this land with impunity for the rest of my life, now that I have an advocate standing in my place?” This, though, is the attitude so frequently on display today, because of the lack of understanding as to the substance of sin! Grace is seen as tolerance, even as entitlement. The mindset has developed that since God has provided someone (the Lord Jesus Christ) to impute His righteousness to us, it must mean that God is tolerant of sin. Once again, God forbid! On the contrary, the price paid testifies to God's grace. God's view of sin has not changed. His holiness has not diminished. All that has happened (and, O! what a tremendous “all” it is!) is that God, by grace, has not held our sin to our account. We are freed not only from sin's penalty, but also its bondage – freed to become servants of righteousness!

If professing Christians were to give any consideration to the high cost of Christ's atonement in conjunction with God's unchanging abhorrence of sin, they would realize the Scriptural incompatibility with the cheap grace being peddled all over this continent today under the guise of “free grace” or “faith alone,” neither of which resemble the historical evangelical doctrine of Sola Fide. It is, in fact, because of God's intolerance for sin that so high a price had to be paid by God's grace in order to satisfy the justice and holiness of God, and it is that grace which works actively in the regenerated individual to produce progressive sanctification and godliness. Let that never be forgotten!

1 - As awkward as this wording may seem, it is used deliberately to emphasize the point of turning and changing. God's grace changes the sinner's standing and continues to change the sinner's manner of life (Phil. 1:6; 2:13). No Scriptural basis exists for dividing justifying grace from sanctifying grace, even though justification and sanctification are different from each other, inasmuch as practical sanctification is the promised and anticipated outworking of justification. Nevertheless, it is the same grace that operates in both. Thus, while Jude warns of apostasy and commands his readers to keep themselves in the love of God (Jude 1:21), he concludes his epistle by committing the same readers to God their Saviour who is able to keep them from falling (Jude 1:24-25).