Devotional Podcast #11: “If Grace Is Cheap, It’s Too Expensive”

How can we be confident that all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven? For starters, by not being confused about justification and sanctification. That’s what this special “flu-length” episode is all about. Enjoy!

Devotional Text: Genesis 18:22-33

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, February 3, and this is Devotional Podcast number 11. It’s a very special flu edition of the podcast, which means it’s an extra long version. In fact, you might even say it’s a sermon-sized podcast. Lucky you! Yes, I intended to record this for Friday, per my usual schedule—but I have been wiped out with the flu since Thursday. Anyway, while my temperature is down and the headache has subsided and ibuprofen works its wonders, here we go…

You’re listening to Keith Green and a song called “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” written by his wife and frequent collaborator, Melody. This comes from Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise, which could easily be a motto for his entire ministry. He is famous for not compromising—even going so far as to give his records away for free to anyone who couldn’t afford them.

I like the line in the song, “I guess I’ll have to trust and just believe what you say.” So honest! Isn’t that the hard part of being a Christian—that it actually takes faith to believe what Jesus said. If you’re a Christian, you sometimes say, “I guess I’ll have to!”

After today’s podcast, I hope you’ll trust and believe what Jesus says about forgiveness and grace.

Years ago, I was reading theologian Phillip Cary’s excellent commentary on Jonah. In the book’s introduction, he wrote something that literally changed the way I read the Old Testament—which is to say, it changed my life. He wrote:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[1]

Did you hear that? Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.

This was exactly opposite what I’d learned in the liberal mainline Protestant seminary I attended. I’ve blogged about this before. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot of useful things in seminary—I did! But I was spiritually unprepared for it. I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare—by which I mean attacks by a literal Satan—that inevitably accompany one’s decision to uproot one’s life and family, to leave a relatively prosperous career, to go to an expensive school, and to devote oneself to serving the Lord as a pastor. I was a sitting duck for the devil! And it didn’t help that few if any of my professors in seminary even believed in the devil!

Regardless, it was all for the good. I was tested. I failed miserably. But emerged on the other side a much better person for it. Thank God!

Anyway, we were taught in seminary that the Old Testament—which of course shouldn’t even be called the Old Testament, because that sounds pejorative, but rather, it should be called the “Hebrew Bible”… We should call it the “Hebrew Bible” because, by doing so, we recognize that this is a book that doesn’t even belong to us Christians. At best, when we read the Hebrew Bible, we are eavesdropping on someone else’s scripture. We certainly shouldn’t read Jesus into the Old Testament. He doesn’t belong there! It’s disrespectful to our Jewish friends. Or so the propaganda said…

I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me now.

Of course Cary is right: the whole Bible, including every book of the Old Testament, is about Jesus… Jesus and the New Testament authors certainly thought so. I shouldn’t have needed someone like Cary to tell me this, but there you are…

My point is, I can now find Jesus on nearly every page of the Old Testament!

Take Genesis 18, for instance. After the Lord warns Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, Abraham intercedes on behalf of the citizens of Sodom. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

From there, Abraham—very cautiously—asks God if he will destroy the city if there are only 45 righteous within it. And then 40. And then 35. Until he negotiates God down to ten. Even for the sake of only ten righteous people, God says, he will not destroy the city.

Abraham doesn’t dare go further, but the principle is clear: God would not destroy Sodom, even if there were only one righteous person who lived there. So let’s say that Sodom had a population of 10,000, if there were one righteous person, God would spare the lives of the 9,999 unrighteous people who were in the town.

Think about that…

The principle isn’t, “God will destroy the guilty and spare the innocent.” No, the principle is: God will spare the innocent along with the guilty… so long as the guilty happen to live near the innocent. Do you see? If God wanted, after all, he could have destroyed the 9,999 and spared the one. That would be easy enough for God to do. But no: God would save the lives of the 9,999 if there were only one righteous person in town. The problem for Sodom, of course, is that there isn’t even one righteous person.

How could there be?

As Paul writes in Romans 3,

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”

Or Psalm 130:3: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

It’s clear that we are all guilty before God. We are all unrighteous sinners. We all deserve God’s judgment and wrath. If we want to be saved from it, what do we need? We need the same thing that Sodom needed! We need a righteous person to live near us!

But here’s the good news! That’s exactly what we have… in Jesus Christ! He alone is the one righteous person for whose sake God will spare the lives of us sinners!

All we need is to “live near him.” How do we do that? Through faith in Christ! Not only are we “near” him, we become one with him. Romans 6:5: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In fact, this union with Christ is such a present reality, that Paul can later tell us, in Ephesians, that God has “seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”[2]

And you might say, “I don’t feel as if I’m ‘seated with Christ’ in the heavenly places. I feel like an average, everyday sinner, who struggles mightily to be faithful to Christ.” But see… this is why it’s critical to understand that what God did for us on the cross—through the atonement—which literally means “at-one-ment”—he did objectively. It doesn’t depend on how we feel about it!

What we should feel is overwhelming and undying gratitude that God rescued sinners like us—who have done nothing to deserve it; who can do nothing to deserve it.

Listen: We Christians often have a mistaken view of what it means to be justified. That is, what it means to have all of our sins forgiven and be declared “not guilty” before God. We often think that the moment we are justified, the slate has been wiped clean by God’s grace alone, through no effort of our own, through no meritorious works of our own. We believe, rightly, that we can do nothing to contribute to our justification—that God has done everything. And praise God for it!

But then comes sanctification. And here’s where we get messed up. Sanctification is the very biblical doctrine of becoming holy through the power fo the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is changing us within, making us, over time, holier people. We Methodists especially emphasize sanctification. We talk about it often—perhaps more than we should.

Because unless we’re very careful, the message that we risk communicating is that sanctification is the role that we play in salvation; it’s the kind of self-improvement that God needs to see before he’ll truly forgive us; it’s the stuff that we have to do in order to be saved. God has done his part; now we better do ours!

If you are a Methodist, or you’ve been around them long enough, don’t tell me that thought hasn’t crossed your mind!

But we forget that even sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit. We forget that sanctification is made possible only through faith in atoning work of Christ on the cross! We like to quote Philippians 2:12: “[W]ork out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” There it is “work out”—that’s all about what we do; that’s work!

But we ignore the very next verse: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God works in us and through us, but he also enables us to will to please God. In other words, according to Paul, even the desire to please God comes from where? From God!

And even as I say this, some of you are thinking, “Yes, but… you are preaching cheap grace”—that overused and misappropriated term from Bonhoeffer. But I’m not preaching cheap grace; I’m preaching free grace. If grace is cheap, it already costs too much. If it’s cheap, you and I cannot afford it, and we will be damned!

The good news is, we don’t have to afford it. Christ has paid it all on our behalf.

Now… don’t misunderstand… you have heard me preach—loudly—that good works are necessary for salvation. Read the Letter of James. But they are necessary in this sense only: they will necessarily follow from the inward transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit when we believe in Jesus as our Savior and Lord. They will inevitably follow once we’ve been born again. Jesus makes this point in the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about healthy trees and diseased trees in Matthew 7:17-18:

So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.

Good fruit, in other words, is a sign of a healthy tree. Good fruit plays no role whatsoever in making a tree healthy. The healthy tree has to come first. Right? So to make the point plain: We have to be justified and born again first… and the thoughts, words, and deeds commensurate with this changed life will naturally result.

If our lives fail to demonstrate this change, however falteringly, then that may be a sign that we are not justified.

But with that qualification, I think I can safely say that good works play no role in saving us. Think of the thief on the cross in Luke 23:39-43. Jesus said that would be with him in Paradise—in a matter of probably hours. Because, like Jesus, the thief was literally dying on a cross. What could he possibly do—between the moment his sins were forgiven until he died—that would demonstrate good works? And you might say, “Yes, but he could have had good thoughts… and these thoughts would have been necessary for salvation.”

O.K., but Jesus doesn’t say that: without attaching any conditions to the man’s thoughts or behaviors over the next few hours of his life, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” He does not qualify this forgiveness by saying, “so long as you think good thoughts between now and when you die. So long as you avoid sinning in any spectacular ways!”

No… the man’s behavior plays no role in his being saved. But Jesus knows the man’s heart; he knows his faith is genuine; that’s all that matters. That’s the sole basis on which he will be with Christ in Paradise.

And this gets us back to the topic of my last podcast… the theme of sin and guilt in the life of the Christian. I know you already believe you’re a sinner, otherwise you wouldn’t feel guilty right now. The question is, do you believe in Jesus—do you believe that he has done all that is necessary through his atoning death and resurrection to reconcile you with God? Are you turning to him in faith right now, confessing that you’re a sinner who needs his grace?

If so, then you can be confident that you are saved. Period. It is something that he has done—objectively—for you. It doesn’t depend on you.

Believe that. Be confident, not in yourself, not in your own ability to resist sin and do good works, but in Christ’s ability to save you through faith.

Believe that and take comfort. Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30. Amen.

1. Phillip Cary, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

2. Ephesians 2:6 ESV

30 thoughts on “Devotional Podcast #11: “If Grace Is Cheap, It’s Too Expensive””

  1. Wonderful message Brent.

    John 10 speaks to me on this subject. Particularly about how the sheep know the good shepherd’s voice. Whether they are sheep of this fold (Jewish), or other folds (Gentiles) they will know His voice. To me that means hearing the Truth that Jesus speaks through the Word and through the Spirit. As you know, this also informs my view of election, but it doesn’t have to be taken that way. It can simply mean that you have been born again and are being sanctified. And, it means that you are truly saved.

    One of the things that I didn’t realize until I was well into my Christian walk was the incredible power that is involved in Salvation/Sanctification. It’s as powerful as the God who created the universe.

    Lastly, I had a similar experience of changed understanding and appreciation of the Old Testament. Oh how much more beautifully rich it became when I began to see Jesus everywhere. This is especially true for me in the Psalms, Ruth, and the Prophets.

  2. Good lesson. As somewhat usual, however, I think of a couple of caveats (which may or may not be valid). First, as to Abraham, I don’t think he was thinking of, “There is none righteous, no not one.” Without a doubt, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Nevertheless, consider what God had to say about Job. Or Noah. Or even Abraham himself, the “Friend of God.” While nobody, at no time, is “good enough” to deserve or earn salvation, that does not mean that God does not treat people differently based on their RELATIVE righteousness. Judah said Tamar was more righteous than he was. Ezekiel said, “If even these three were there, THEY WOULD SAVE ONLY THEMSELVES, not the others.” So, I think Abraham was probably thinking, if there were ten (or even less) who were not “sold out to sin,” would God save the city. And, indeed, God did not save the city. It appears there was only one “righteous,” Lot (according to a New Testament reference), whom God did save (taking along his two daughters with him–it appears doubtful that they were “righteous”). Thus, if Lot had not been “more righteous” (obviously not totally), he would not have been saved either; but, as it was, he was. So, actually, God did exactly as Abraham had insisted: He did not “treat the righteous in the same way as the wicked.”

    All of which discourse goes to show, in my estimation, that while it is true that God “works with us” towards our “sanctification” righteousness, by the indwelling Holy Spirit, it is likewise true as to the preceding reference that you quote–we still do have to “work out our own salvation, with fear and trembling.” It is a joint effort, and we are capable of “quenching” the Spirit. Now as to exactly HOW all that works out, I plead ignorance. But James says, the prayer of a righteous man avails much. I don’t think he is saying, the prayer of simply everyone who is a Christian avails much. We are to do right by our wives, “lest our prayers be hindered.” We receive greater or lesser rewards. So, while I am in general agreement with you, and recognize the essential and primary role of God, I just do not want recognition of “our role” in “holiness” to go by the wayside.

    1. Thanks, Tom. Originally, my manuscript said something like, “There’s much more to be said on the subject of sanctification and the role that good works play when it comes to ‘rewards,’…” I do believe that the Bible teaches the benefits of “relative” righteousness, but this post was restricted to “getting in” to heaven.

    2. Tom, your tenacious clinging to your role in your salvation never ceases to amaze me. If you died and St. Peter told you that all you had to do to walk through those pearly gates was to admit that your entry was based on the work of Christ alone and absolutely no merit on your part, would you insist on debating him on the subject? 🙂

      1. Grant, no offense taken! 🙂 And, no, I won’t debate with St. Peter or whoever is guarding the gates! However, as long as breath remains in these mortal lungs, I don’t intend to stray from my convictions! 🙂

        What “sticks in my craw” is this. It seems to me that if God selects those who get in, then, by the negative of that choice, he selects those who won’t. Romans 9 can be read to that effect. I recognize a weight of verses “in your favor,” including the aforementioned Romans 9, but I have a hard time with the idea that God consigns people to Hell when there is nothing different between them and those who, luckily for them, get to go to Heaven. You see my difficulty?

        And so I go back to Abraham as my chief support. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? Will he treat the righteous as the wicked? Far be it from you!” Not quite as weighty, but still somewhat on point, when Moses offers to go to Hell on behalf of the errant Jews, God rejects the offer, and says, “The soul that sins against me, him will I blot out of my book.” Now, obviously if God meant to Moses that “ANY sin will keep you out of Heaven,” then no one would go, including Moses who was talking to God on that subject. So, there must have been something different between Moses and those Jews killed in the plague for the golden calf for God to destroy them and not Moses.

        I don’t mean to suggest that Moses or anyone else than Christ went to Heaven because they “deserved” it–what I do mean is that there is SOME REASON why God bestows grace on some and not on others. And I maintain that the “reason” does have something to do with a difference BETWEEN THOSE INDIVIDUALS THEMSELVES. Otherwise, Abraham’s plaintive plea would be simply a profound error on his part–an error God did not correct him about–as he conversely DID correct Moses about his somewhat contrary position.

        Now I can’t exactly “put my finger” on the “difference.” Probably only God knows such a thing. From my limited standpoint, I rely on my “My life for your life” exchange position. God wants my life so much he gave His life for me. I want God’s life so much that I “give up my own life also” to get His (as Jesus put the matter). This does not necessarily happen at the “moment of salvation,” but God “calls the end from the beginning,” and, as Romans 8 puts the matter, “Doe whom He FOREKNEW he did predestine. Nobody other than Jesus himself can give his life “perfectly,” but there is a “willingness to give” at the heart of the matter. Anyway, that is how I see the matter of “what we have to do” with our salvation.

    3. You and I are in the “classical positions” regarding election. Predestination? Double-Predestination? What does “free will” really mean? You are in some very good company in your position, as am I.

      I have listened to both sides “preached” by some of the best.(I assume you have too). For the free will side, I particularly liked the Remonstrance discussion on the subject that Brent pointed me to. When i listened to that, I really did see how fine a point we are discussing. What separates us is miniscule.

      In the end, I don’t think that one’s belief about election will have even the tiniest influence on our eternal destiny. That’s based on Sola Fide – Sola Christos.

      1. Yeah, I know we are both ably and repeatedly represented in Church history. My point is simply why this issue is so important to me in particular.

  3. I’d like to recommend a little book by Randy Alcorn titled, “Hand in Hand”, subtitle “The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice”. It’s written with Alcorn’s typical straightforward insight and thoughtfulness. Good thoughts all the war around. Non confrontational. Just a warm look at the issues.

  4. Grant, I was going to order your book off of Amazon but the price was a little steep once postage was added. Maybe I can pick it up at Mardel’s or somewhere.

    Let me ask you this. How comfortable are you with the notion that God sends people to Hell when they are “no different” from you or me or Brent? Are we just “lucky stiffs”?

    1. Tom, If you will send your mailing address to Brent, he can forward it to me and I’ll send you my copy. Unmarked btw. I won’t be reading it again and would be pleased for you to have it. When through you can pass it on as you see proper.

      As for God sending people to hell, that’s part of the mystery. How can God both remain sovereign and allow a free will. The classic answer is that we all deserve hell, but God choses some for himself. The rest he leaves to their own devices. I’m not totally comfortable with that, so I live with the mystery. I’m just thankful that he is wilingl to accept this poor sinner by faith and grace. My faith, His grace. And even my faith is by his grace.

      Get that address to me. I think you’ll enjoy the book. Won’t agree with everything, but will like the fairness and balance.

      1. Grant,

        You say, “How can God both remain sovereign and allow a free will?” You’ve said this before. I don’t see this as a problem. Kings and queens are sovereign, irrespective of their subjects’ free will—God infinitely more so.

        One difference is that God foreknows every “free will” decision we humans make, and he accounts for those decisions in his sovereign plan for the universe. Nothing any human being can choose will surprise him. Again, it was accounted for before he created the world.

        I agree that there are difficulties, and I’m happy to appeal to mystery. But if God foreknows and “builds in” his responses to human free will, such that NOTHING a human being chooses could threaten to derail God’s plan, how is God’s sovereignty compromised? I just don’t see it.

        The Arminian “compromise” between sovereignty and libertarian free will in this regard isn’t a bad one. You could still say that God “ordains” everything (I do) with the understanding that his ordination includes free will creatures (human and angelic) doing these things.

  5. Actually, I don’t say that as a question, but rather as a talking point. It gets to the crux of the issue. One way of looking at it is to say that God expects us to do our part. He allows us the freedom to make practical and moral choices. But, he also has a plan for us. You might say it’s a “partnership” between very unequal partners. And, the senior partner is very loving and very patient.

    I think that the discussion of what it means to be “created in God’s image”, to have and exercise “free will”, but to understand that we must “confess our sins before God” and “put our faith in the Son”, if we are to be saved; means we are grappling with great issues. Seeking to understand the dynamic of our relationship with the Godhead is good for the soul.

  6. I agree that God’s foreknowledge and “plan” take into account the free choice decisions of those created in His image. The real issue is, how can our decisions be “free” in the first place? That is the $6 million question. From my vantage point, there HAS to be a way that they can be. To say that God is incapable of creating free choosers, if that is what He wants us to be (to have a true “love” relationship, as opposed to being marionettes on strings), puts a limitation on God that I would be loathe to impose, and don’t think we should, or even should want to. So, I place my primary trust in God’s “character” (one of love, as John states), rather than in understanding his “capability.”

    1. A principled materialist would deny that we have free will because to affirm it would mean affirming the existence of a “mind” or spirit that isn’t completely dependent on the physical processes within a body. If that’s the case, well, you may as well believe in God. From my perspective, since everyone alive believes that he or she possesses free will, that’s one more giant part of reality that evolution and materialism can’t account for. Not that this is directly related to your comment. 😉

      1. When I was in college and bothered to think about such issues, I believed in “mind” as “distinct” from “brain,” but thought that what the “mind” did was just as “determined” as physics–both being responses to stimuli. Now that I have returned to faith, however, I am willing to lend space to the “mystery” that our minds can make decisions “independently.” I would say that the challenges to free will mostly take place in college classrooms (such as psychology and philosophy), not with the “man on the street.” Ultimately I agree with you that, regardless of what “intellectual arguments” one may make, as a practical matter virtually everyone considers themselves to be free choosers. Which is certainly one indicator that we actually are.

      2. From a materialist point of view, there’s no question the mind is as determined as physics. Free will is therefore an illusion.

      3. And that is just it. I don’t think God would instill in us such an “illusion.” It would be akin to lying.

      4. It’s important to me because skeptics often say, “We don’t need to posit a God to account for [fill in the blank]. Science explains it.” That you have an independent mind that chooses things is about as basic an intuition about reality as anyone possesses. Yet the skeptic’s “science,” far from confirming it, actively denies it. As far as “God of the gaps” goes, that gap is as large as they come!

  7. Look, there is a science to God’s creation. That’s the beauty of it. We call it “intelligent design”. For man to unravel the science of what God created is consistent with our being created in His image. We want to know how things work, because we are creators too. Most certainly the brain is the physical location of thought, even of intelligence, whatever your definition of that is. However, in my opinion, there is something much larger involved here. We call it the Soul. Scientists don’t believe in the Soul, only mind and body. So I guess Soul is a religious thing.

    1. I agree that science, properly done, is an effort to, as the prior Christian scientists put it, “think God’s thoughts after Him.” But we can’t ultimately do that fully. Some mysteries remain, regardless how thorough we are in our endeavors. God’s thoughts are that much “higher” than ours, as the prophet quotes God as saying. I think the existence of free choice is just such an insoluble mystery, to be understood only on the other side of the grave. Indeed, even in what we do know of science, we can’t fully comprehend it all. For example, light is understood to act like or be both a wave and a particle simultaneously. We understand some aspects of it viewing it from a particle angle, and others as a wave. To my mind this is a virtual “contradiction that actually exists.” Far more incomprehensible are the machinations of the mind and soul.

    2. In my discussion of the “mind” above, I was really talking about the soul. From a strictly materialist point of view, the “mind”—by which we are self-conscious choosers—is completely dependent on the brain. In other words, the brain “creates” every aspect of the mind at every moment. Think of a movie projector: what we call the “mind” is just an image projected on the screen by the brain. But the brain, at a subatomic level, is nothing more than particles bouncing off other particles. What controls those particles bouncing around? Nothing—beyond the laws of physics—because we’ve already said that the “mind” depends completely on the brain and not vice versa. The mind can’t “control” the brain anymore than an image of a person projected on a screen can “control” the outcome of a movie. Yes, it _appears_ that that projected image is in control, but it’s just an illusion. The image has no power to do anything other than what the projector “causes” him to do. In the same way, if the analogy holds, “we”—by which I mean our “minds”—by which I mean unguided physical processes in the brain—possess no free will, only the illusion of it.

      This seems to me like a major problem if you want your “scientific” beliefs to account for reality. Because they don’t account for it; they deny it. Everyone believes that they possess free will—that’s as true and obvious as anything. Yet everyone is wrong.

      But we Christians don’t have this problem: we believe we possess a non-physical part of ourselves that is “above” the body—governing it, superintending it. And that is the soul. That is the part of ourselves that will be judged by God some day, and for which we’re responsible and answerable to God.

  8. As an aside, it’s interesting to note how criminal defense lawyers will argue over whether a defendant was in his “right mind” (had free will) when they committed the crime.

    1. Very interesting aside. Of course, implicit in such an argument is the recognition that for the most part people DO have free will; but, their case is subject to an “exception.” The interplay between our physical condition and the exercise of our mental facilities is an intriguing subject, but, again, there is the recognition that generally speaking when the physical condition is okay, then free will is being exercised. Once again I have to leave it to God to assess to what extent our choices implicate our souls as opposed to implicating our physical conditions in certain circumstances.

      1. We have to leave it to God. Only God can know. That’s why he’s the only truly fair judge.

      2. Just to be absolutely clear, I have never meant to state or imply that man has no free will. He most certainly does. And, God is absolutely sovereign. It’s reconciling those two things that gives rise to the nuances of theology that some say divide “Armenians” and “Calvinists”. You’re going to like this book Tom. Goes in the mail tomorrow.

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