Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I have had conversations with many people who think that to live fully in God’s grace, they must be tolerant of sin. Perhaps they came to that erroneous conclusion because their goal was merely to avoid legalism. But the Bible tells us that living in grace means rejecting sin, not tolerating or accepting it. The Bible is clear: God is against sin—he hates it. Scripture says that God, refusing to leave us in our sinful condition, sent his Son to deliver us. God could not possibly be for us without being fully against what is against us.
Jesus taught against sin. In addressing a woman who had been caught in adultery, he said, “I do not condemn you…. Go. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11 NASB). Jesus’ statement demonstrates his contempt for sin and conveys a grace that confronts sin with redemptive love. It would be a tragic mistake to view Jesus’ willingness to become our Savior as tolerance of sin. The Son of God became one of us, precisely because he was completely intolerant of sin’s deceptive and destructive power. Instead of accepting our sin, he took it upon himself, submitting it to God’s judgment, to be obliterated through his self-offering on our behalf.
As we look around at the fallen world we live in and as we look into our own lives, it’s obvious that God allows sin to occur. However, Scripture is clear that God hates sin. Why? Because of the damage it wreaks upon us. Sin hurts us—it hurts our relationship with him and with others; it keeps us from living in the truth and the fullness of who we are, his beloved. In dealing with our sin in and through Jesus, God does not immediately remove us from all of sin’s enslaving consequences. But that does not mean that his grace gives us permission to continue sinning. God’s grace is not his passive tolerance of sin.
As Christians, we live under grace—freed from the ultimate penalties of sin because of Jesus’ sacrifice. As workers with Christ, we teach and preach grace in a way that gives people hope and a clearer image of God as their loving, forgiving Father. But that message comes with a warning—remember the apostle Paul’s question: “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4 ESV). He also said this: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1-2).
The truth of God’s grace is never meant to encourage us to remain in our sin. Grace is God’s provision in Jesus to release us not only from the guilt and shame of sin, but also from its distorting, enslaving power. As Jesus said, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34) and as Paul warned, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Rom. 6: 16). Sinning is a serious matter for it enslaves us to the influence of evil.
This understanding of sin and its consequences does not lead us to heap words of condemnation on people. Instead, our words, as Paul noted, are to be “always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). Our words should convey hope, telling both of God’s forgiveness of sin in Christ, and his eventual triumph over all evil. To speak of one without the other is a distortion of the message of grace. As Paul notes, God in his grace will never leave us enslaved to evil: “Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance” (Rom. 6:17).
As we grow in our understanding of the truth of God’s grace, we understand more and more why God loathes sin—it harms and hurts his creation, it destroys right relationships with others, and it slanders the character of God with lies about God, undermining a trusting relationship with God. What, then, do we do when we see a loved one sinning? We don’t condemn them, but we do hate the sinful behavior that is harming them (and perhaps others). We hope and pray that our loved one will be freed from their sin and, as we are able, we reach out to help.
Paul is a powerful example of what God’s grace accomplishes in a person’s life. Prior to conversion, Paul violently persecuted Christians. He stood by (perhaps throwing stones) as Stephen was martyred (Acts 7:54–8:1a). Because he was vividly aware of the tremendous grace he received for the horrible sins of his past, grace remained a theme of Paul’s life as he fulfilled his calling to serve Jesus:
I consider my own life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)
In Paul’s writings, we find an interweaving of grace and truth in what he taught under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We also see that God radically transformed Paul from an ill-tempered legalist who persecuted Christians, to a humble servant of Jesus who was fully aware of his own sin and of God’s mercy in adopting him as his child. Paul embraced the grace of God, and throughout his life devoted himself to proclaiming it, no matter what the cost.
Following Paul’s example, our conversation and counsel to others should be grounded in God’s amazing grace for all sinners, and God’s firm teaching that we are to live lives apart from sin—the life that God’s grace frees us to live. We are to “encourage one another daily… so that none of [us] may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). When we find people living in opposition to God’s goodness, rather than condemning them, we are to gently instruct them, “in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
Comforted and instructed by God’s grace and truth,