In one of his letters, Paul says that we have been saved “by grace” (Eph. 2:8). But what is grace? On the one hand, some church-goers see grace as a sort of sin license. This is why so many ministers preach funeral sermons aimed at sending godless people right into heaven. This viewpoint dominates in many congregations of the church –churches ready to abandon a cappella singing, male leadership in mixed-gender assemblies, obedience to Jesus’ plain teachings about divorce and remarriage, and so on.
On the other hand, many church-goers see grace as something earned and deserved. This sort of thinking is dominant in legalistic churches. If a man obeys the gospel, attends church regularly, abstains from obviously immoral behavior, and worships according to the New Testament pattern, he’ll probably go to heaven. The more extreme the legalism becomes, the bigger the question mark after “probably.” This thinking pattern leads to arrogance and self-righteousness.
Biblical grace is neither a sin license nor a personal goodness reward. Grace is a glorious gift received in humble, obedient faith. Paul was staggered by it. Nothing he could do would blot out his dark past as a blasphemous persecutor of Jesus and his church. How could he possibly be forgiven? The answer was God’s tender love in the person of Christ. Grace! And Paul never saw that gift as a pass to live as he pleased. A man or woman truly overwhelmed by grace can never do enough to show his gratitude to God. “By the grace of God I am what I am,” Paul said, “and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).