So what does it mean practically when we cheapen grace? There is an interesting case study in the New Testament in one of the letters written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth related to an incident of cheap grace.
I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you — something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship.
Even though I am not with you in person, I am with you in the Spirit. And as though I were there, I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus... you must throw this man out.... Don’t you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough?
When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in [such sins].... Don’t even eat with such people.
It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, “You must remove the evil person from among you.” (I Cor. 5:1-13, NLT)
Someone in the church was engaging in a sexual sin. He was unwilling to repent, unwilling to say it was wrong, and he even flaunted it. In my time as a pastor, sadly I’ve seen this happen first-hand. And when you see people make a choice against the moral will of God, they tend to go in one of three directions: repent, flee or harden.
Those who repent have their heart break over what they've done, they seek forgiveness and reconciliation and do whatever it takes to get back on track.
Those who flee do so because they don't want to stop what they're doing, and they don't want to have to face the consequences of what they have done. So they flee the church, the people in the church or those that represent their faith, and sometimes, even their closest friends and family. They run away from responsibility and accountability and they have too much pride to come clean about their sin or failure or weakness.
Those who harden themselves, however, are the ones who put their souls in the most danger. They make a choice for sin and disobedience, which they know is wrong, but instead of repenting, or even running away, their hearts turn hard and they say, “Who are you to tell me what's wrong? Don’t judge me!”
Then they get militant, mean-spirited, hardened, resolved, defiant and rebellious about their choice. It's frighteningly dark. They shut down their hearts and turn cold and rebellious. Morality is flipped on its head as bad becomes good, wrong becomes right, and some even become almost boastful about their choice.
Paul felt it important to write to the Corinthians about this because the church had so screwed up grace that they thought the only thing real grace called for was acceptance, affirmation, and continuing on as if nothing was happening! Paul’s response to this was swift and to the point:
… you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship. (I Cor. 5:2, NLT)
Now we don’t like words like that, but the alternative is to make the church’s reputation a joke. And even worse, to fail to act would be to trample on the cross of Christ and make a mockery of it.
We are not to judge others in the world, but we are to make honest assessments of ourselves as Christ followers. And if someone claims to be a Christ follower and flagrantly parades a life that dishonors Christ, then we are to stand up for the reputation of Christ and His Church.
Paul says we should not even eat with them – meaning, socialize with them – while they are in that state, because it sends out the signal we are affirming their choices. They must know that no one associated with Christ feels anything but disdain for those actions.
Grace is meant to be applied to something. But make sure you understand it is not to be applied to sin. Grace is applied to repentance and to remorse. Grace is applied to someone who screws up, but admits they have screwed up.
For someone who refuses to do that, who flagrantly flaunts their sin, grace doesn’t apply to that. Grace is not about an easy “off the hook” for whatever you want to do, and it’s not about affirmation. Grace isn’t about accepting someone who says they are in Christ when they are living in a way that shames Christ – and they know it, and don’t care.
So be careful when you say, “Well, I sin, too, so who am I to judge?”
That’s not what this is about. There are things we are supposed to be discerning about. There are things that no matter how sin-stained we are, the church is to look at and take a stand against for the sake of Christ such as the wholesale embrace of sin without remorse, without blushing, flagrantly flaunting it before the world as if it’s honoring Christ.
That is beyond heinous, beyond shameful and beyond repugnant. That’s cheap grace, which is no grace at all. And you have to get this right or you screw up the entire Christian faith.
So has Meck ever removed people from membership for this? Sadly, yes. Not often – in fact I can only count it on one hand. But we’ve done this because the church is to be protected. The church has a collective witness; it stands for something, and membership should stand for something.
Because Christ stands for something.
If there is a habit or pattern or act of sin that brings reproach upon the church and its mission and ministry, a member who refuses to turn away from a life that brings shame on the reputation of Jesus, it must be dealt with by the leaders of the church – lovingly, and as privately as possible, with the goal of repentance and restoration. But it must not be avoided.
Grace is to flow freely toward our sin. We are all sinners – weak, frail and fragile. And we screw up a thousand times a day. The grace that was gifted to us through Christ not only saved us from our sin, but continually washes over us every day of our life. And we are to make sure we let it wash over others in Christ. No one was more of a champion for that grace than the Apostle Paul.
But when someone wants to take that amazing grace and cheapen it, distort it, reconfigure and redefine it for the purpose of pursuing sin, to use grace to say that their sin is good, acceptable, or not sin at all…
That cannot be allowed.
And the church, and those in it, must be clear about this. Or else the world will believe that we approve of such behavior, and thus dishonor the name of Christ. And we cannot, must not, dishonor the name of Christ.
So where are you with cheap grace? C.S. Lewis once wrote that God gives when He finds empty hands. Are your hands empty? Empty through remorse or repentance? Or are they full because you are clinging to your sin? Defiant?
Grace must be received. You empty your hands by admitting guilt. If you admit no guilt, there can be no forgiveness. That’s why cheap grace is no grace at all.
But real grace?
Nothing is more amazing.
James Emery White
C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady.
Adapted from the third installment of “Getting Grace Right,” a series at Mecklenburg Community Church, Charlotte, North Carolina. If you would like to listen to this address as originally delivered, as well as the series of which it was a part, click here. To read the first two installments of this blog series, click here.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.