Most Christian people are aware of the “full-gospel” movement that had its roots in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements of the twentieth century. The so-called “full-gospel” was a message that encouraged Christians to proceed beyond initial conversion faith unto participation and experience of the supernatural spiritual gifts.
Today in contemporary Christendom we are observing a plethora of individuals and groups advocating a renewed understanding of grace to counter the predominant religious legalism of modern Christianity that emphasizes the self-effort performance of “good works” both to become a Christian and to function as the Christian one has become. These varied emphases on God’s grace action through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit range from a renewed focus on the redemptive grace of God, and extend to a call for “radical grace” that explains that the sovereign action of God orchestrates all things and the human individual is not capable or responsible for any cooperative action.
Those involved in the teaching of divine grace must beware of advocating a “cheap grace” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against (cf. The Cost of Discipleship) – a concept of grace that focuses on the preliminary threshold implications of entrance into Christian life, but avoids the “costly grace” of constant repentance and obedience leading to genuine discipleship and holiness in the Christian life. In like manner, the more recent twenty-first century advocates of “radical grace” tout an “inclusive grace” that universally encompasses all human beings within God’s historical and objective action in Christ, requiring no personal action on the individual’s part, in fact disallowing such action, for all human action is performed in the “vicarious humanity” of the hypostatic incarnation of the archetypal Man, Jesus Christ.
The practical implications of both of these extremes of grace teaching (and numerous other varieties as well) cause many ordinary Christians to develop a passive approach to Christian living. Yes, “grace” by definition pertains to God’s divine action, but the Christian gospel of a personal relationship between God and human beings necessitates an interactive involvement wherein individuals are responsible for receptivity to God’s grace action in faith. Faith is “our receptivity to God’s activity of grace.” This is true both of initial “saving faith” that responds to God’s redemptive grace, as well as the continuous “living faith” whereby the Christian relies on, and receives from, God’s provision of grace to live the Christian life. “As you received Christ Jesus (by faith), so walk in Him (by faith)” (Col. 2:6).
The concept that many Christians are hearing from the contemporary grace teachers is a message that emphasizes freedom from legalistic human performance within their religious experience. That is, without question, a portion of the biblical grace emphasis, but it is just a negative introductory feature of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The negative must have its correlative positive in the recognition that the dynamic of God’s grace provision in the living and indwelling Lord Jesus Christ supplies everything necessary for the re-presentation of the life and character of Christ in Christian lives today. Grace is not just an introductory feature of the gospel, and neither is grace just a negative declaration of what the Christian “does not have to do.” Thus the call for a “full-grace gospel.”
When grace is regarded merely as an aversion to and release from the legalistic performance of “works” oriented religion, it soon degenerates into the passive declaration of “I don’t have to …” do this or that religious activity. “I don’t have to read the Bible.” “I don’t have to pray.” “I don’t have to be involved in the programs of the church, and I don’t have to go to church services anymore.” “ I don’t have to give time, energy, or money for any cause.” On the flip side it may be an assertion of “I don’t have to quit drinking,” or “I don’t have to give up this or that activity.” These reactions are predicated on the awareness that our relationship with God in Christ does not require us to do anything or not do something to please or appease God, or to earn God’s approval – human “works” do not effect one’s salvation. Jesus’ declaration from the cross, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), implies that He has done everything necessary to redeem, save, and restore mankind. The “finished work” of Jesus Christ does indeed mean that there is nothing we can do to add to or supplement what Jesus has done for us. It is true that the individual who is spiritually united with the risen Lord Jesus isn’t under obligation and “doesn’t have to” engage in prescribed activities to retain or enhance their relationship with Christ as a “Christ-one.”
It is important to understand, however, that the “I don’t have to” perspective of grace is but a partial and inadequate representation of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In fact, the “I don’t have to…”attitude of negative grace is equally as self-oriented as the “I have to…” incentive of legalism. Both perspectives are equally concerned with what I have to do, or what I don’t have to do. The Greek word for “I” is ego, and both of these perspectives are equally egocentric. The genuine dynamic grace of God, the activity of God consistent with His character, will never lead a person to self-orientation, as selfishness is the very opposite of God’s character. Egocentricity always fosters a pretense that is the essence of hypocrisy! “God is love” (I Jn. 4:8,16), and His grace will always lead His people to participation in His gracious loving concern for and active involvement in the lives of others. God’s focus is always on others. “It’s not about us!”
“Christ in you” (cf. Col. 1:27; Gal. 2:20; II Cor. 13:5) is always “Christ in you for others.” Christ does not dwell and live in us to make us spiritually fat and content, or to make us spiritually inflated and proud. The living Lord Jesus is the expresser of divine LOVE, and such agape LOVE is always directed toward others. The opposite of divine LOVE is selfishness (me, me, me, me, me; even and especially when expressed as “I don’t have to…”). Divine LOVE always seeks to flow out through the Christian in sacrificial service for others.
Is it any wonder that pastors and leaders of local churches are not very excited about having so-called “gracers” in their fellowships – those who have listened to the contemporary grace teachers and falsely surmised that the grace of God is primarily the negation of any effort or involvement, whereupon they have become crusaders against the legalism of religious “dead works,” fervently insisting, “I don’t have to be involved in the work of the church.” Such a partial awareness of God’s grace produces passive, lethargic Christians and paralyzes the function of the church of Jesus Christ.
The “full-grace gospel” being suggested in this article is an understanding and experience of the grace of God in Jesus Christ that goes beyond the preliminary “I don’t have to” negation of human performance and “works” to a positive and constructive awareness of God’s grace wherein the Christian individual perceives what God wants to continuously be involved in doing in his or her life and the purposed objective of such “growth in grace” (cf. II Pet. 3:18).
Each individual Christian must grow beyond the “I don’t have to” perspective of God’s grace to the recognition of what God desires to do in their lives. The Spirit of Christ does not come to dwell in the Christian (cf. Rom. 8:9; II Cor. 13:5) merely as a static resident serving as a down payment for future heavenly benefits. Rather, the living Christ as the “life-giving Spirit” (cf. I Cor. 15:45) dwells within every Christian in order to be their life (Col. 3:4) and to be the divine manifestation of Christ’s character and activity (II Cor. 4:11) in the behavior of their mortal bodies.
The new covenant, new creation reality of the indwelling presence and provision of the resurrection life and power of Christ (Rom. 1:4) grants every Christian the privilege of living by the positive dynamic of God’s grace. This “living grace” of Christian life and experience is not all that concerned with the “I don’t have tos,” but finds joy and satisfaction in the opportunity to participate in the unique Christ-life expressions afforded to each of us. We may have thought that there was real Christian freedom in the “I don’t have to” freedom from regulations and prohibitions, but the ultimate reality of Christian freedom is the freedom to be the contemporary expressions of the life of the living Lord Jesus – the freedom to allow Christ to be lived out as the particular epistle that is our personal life (cf. II Cor. 3:3).
God, by His divine grace in Jesus Christ, gives the Christian individual His desire to be involved in the ecclesia of His assembled Body, His church. The Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives to each Christian His desire to relationally love His people, as well as to love those who are in desperate need of being restored to functional humanity by the receipt of Christ’s life. The grace of God gives to Christians His desire and willingness to be the vessels whereby He makes Himself known to a fallen world. The desire to commune with God in prayer, as well as the desire to allow the Spirit of God to speak to our hearts through the inspired scriptures, are gifts of divine grace. The givingness of God’s grace is exhibited in every Christ-one (Christian) as they are prompted by God’s desire to be the conduits of God’s gracious givingness in terms of time, energy and monetary gifts. It is by the grace of the living, indwelling Christ that we are given His strength to override the fleshly patterns of self-indulgence that have developed throughout our earthly lives, and the desire to be vessels that manifest His character, the “fruit of the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:22,23), in holiness.
What a privilege it is to be Christian participants and partakers of God’s grace. God provides the dynamic, i.e. the power, to implement everything that He desires and expects in our Christian lives. Oh yes, we are responsible to be receptive in faith to all the grace that He provides in the Son and by the Spirit, but it is not our responsibility to attempt to generate and produce the Christian life by our own human self-effort. Individually as Christian believers and collectively as the Body of Christ, the Church, God’s grace is the supply of everything “Christian.” We were “created for His glory” (cf. Isa. 43:7), and are to “do all to the glory of God” (cf. I Cor. 10:31), but God can only be glorified by the manifestation of His all-glorious character and activity implemented by the dynamic of His empowering grace made available in Christ and by the Spirit.
The grace teachers alluded to earlier in this article may properly be indicted for their failure to proclaim “the full-grace gospel.” If the message of grace does not issue forth in the dynamic expression of God’s holy character in Christian behavior and in the Christian assembly, then it is just another “whitewash” to make the dead look alive (cf. Matt. 23:27), to make sin look like righteousness, and to make selfishness appear like love. Religion is full of such hypocrisy, but new covenant Christian grace should never be misrepresented in this manner.
The pastors and leaders of local churches have rightfully been skeptical of the faulty grace message widely proclaimed and advocated in our day. It will be incumbent, however, for every legitimate Christian leader who desires by God’s grace to lead the people of his/her congregation to live by the grace dynamic of the living Lord Jesus, to lovingly assist people to move beyond the “I don’t have to…” phase of inadequate grace understanding in order to appreciate and experience the inner prompting of God’s grace via the indwelling Spirit of Christ. Only by such a “full-grace gospel” understanding will God’s people develop the maturity of faith that allows them to be a “holy people” (I Pet. 2:9) evidenced by “holy conduct and godliness” (I Peter 3:11) representative of the character of God and bringing glory to God.
The “full gospel” movement mentioned at the outset of this article brought a needed reintroduction and renewal of emphasis on the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. Its downfall can be attributed to a disconnect between the spiritual gifts and the grace dynamic of the living Lord Jesus, a failure to note that the Holy Spirit always testifies of Jesus (cf. Jn. 15:26). In fact, the “full gospel” emphasis fell prey to the same egocentric faults that were identified earlier in this article concerning the grace emphasis. Christian individuals tended to assert, “I have this particular spiritual gift,” and “I do not have that gift, so I don’t have to get involved in that type of ministry.” They failed to realize that the spiritual gifts do not belong to an individual, but are the expression of the active ministry of Jesus dwelling in and acting through the Christian. The spiritual gifts are not trophies that we can lay claim to possess with privileged pride. It’s not about us! Rather, the spiritual gifts (all of them) are the giftedness of the active ministry of the living Lord Jesus that is present and available in every Christian person from the moment the individual receives Jesus, always to be employed as He deems fit for the benefit of the church and for others.
As we consider and promote a “full-grace gospel” emphasis, we would be wise to let the faux pas of the “full gospel” movement serve as a warning of the possible stumbling-blocks. Avoiding the egocentricity of self-focus, we must forever understand that the focal-point is always the divine Lord Jesus. The gifts of the Spirit pertain to the dynamic ministry of Jesus active in Christian people by His divine grace. A “full-grace gospel” will always remember that the grace action of God in Christ by the Spirit will always have as its objective the manifestation of God’s holy character expressed via the “fruit of the Spirit (in) love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and the godly control of oneself” (cf. Gal. 5:22,23). By means of the “gifts of the Spirit” and the “fruit of the Spirit” the full-grace action of God can and will express the holy character and ministry activity of the living Lord Jesus by the Holy Spirit for others to the glory of God.
©2014 by James A. Fowler
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