Self-Loathing vs. Cheap Grace

While counseling I often find myself reminding people either of the wretchedness of sin or the magnificent grace of God. I say “or” instead of “and” because it is sometimes difficult for us to believe both truths at the same time. Nonetheless, it is vital to believe in both. And it’s not really that we’re supposed to try to keep them “in balance” (in the modern vernacular “the force” ;-) because there is no balance: God’s grace always wins, hands down. Rather we are supposed to keep them “in mind.” We are supposed to know and treasure and fight to believe that we are horrible sinners and God is magnificent in his grace. Take away one or the other and we lose the main component of living the Christian life: Love. Here’s what I mean:

If you’ve been raised to follow the strict regimen of the “guilt diet” (as many Christian circles trend towards), you will struggle to believe in God’s grace. One of the reasons you will struggle is that you know that you are guilty of sin. You know that sin is a horrible offense to God. It is a Big Deal. Guilt pressed down on you and causes you to taken sin seriously. (Liz wrote a really excellent piece on this cycle called “Is God Disappointed when He Looks at Me?”) To you, it may seem that people throw around the word “grace” as if just mentioning the word will somehow decrease the impact of sin. To you, “grace” seems to take sin, and the guilt of sin, too lightly. Like it’s trying to make sin inconsequential.460-74325-003

If you tend to gravitate towards the “grace bastey” people (a term I coined in order to irritate Liz on a regular basis… “You never take me seriously Paul!” Ah. It’s just my nature. She knows that I love her :-), perhaps you don’t understand why everyone is so upset about sin. Really, what is the Big Deal? Didn’t God say that your sin is plunged to the depth of the sea? Gone forever from God’s sight, not to be held against you anymore? I mean, sure, sin is bad, but is it something that you should let ruin a wonderful day that is full of blessings from a good God? You have the righteousness of Christ! God forgave you at salvation and has promised to continue forgiving you in the future so you can go about your business serving him and just, well, move on.

And the rub is, if you’re guilty and then you get a really good look at grace, you end up swinging hard to that side. And if you are “gracey” and finally get a really good look at your sin you become very confused and distressed. In a counseling situation, I’ve seen it over and again, someone will finally understand grace and come in the next session shrugging off sin with easy nonchalance. I’ve also seen people so broken over their sin that they can’t seem to look up into the face of Jesus.

But there is a third way to view things and it gets at the heart of Christian Living. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matt 10:27). Love happens when you understand that each and every one of your sins was horrible enough for you to deserve a future in hell (Rom 6:23). By understanding this you give sin the gravity it deserves. And sin really is horrible, there is no minimizing it. My sin was so costly that the debt could be paid only with Jesus’s life (John 8:12, John 10:10-11, I Pet 3:18, etc). At the same time, we must understand that salvation is totally free (Eph 2:8-9). Feeling guilty, even horribly guilty and sorry and wretched can’t atone for your sins. That feeling that you carry around does nothing to improve your standing before God-not before you were saved and certainly not after. The truth is, children of God have no reason to carry guilt (Rom 8:1, Rom 5:1, John 1:12).

This is where love comes in. We must understand our sin (and it’s guilt) but we must also understand that grace has cancelled that sin debt. If we understand that we deserved hell and also understand that Jesus took our hell as the crucified Lord, then we can move beyond both perpetual guilt as well as perpetual “not caring” about our sins. Instead, we can move toward love. The only response to God’s love, to the God who IS love, is to love him in return. This love must accept grace as the expensive (it cost a life) gift that it is. Thus, this love cannot be fostered by either cheap grace or guilty self-loathing.

No, when we understand the expensive, free, wretched, astonishing mountain of God’s love for us (Eph 3:17-20), we begin to change. We humbly accept the overwhelming terribleness of the sins we commit. We then accept the much more overwhelming grace for those sins and humbly run back to God in repentance…which means letting go of guilt. Lastly, we respond with hearts full of love and thankfulness and do whatever it is he calls us to do for him. Here is the better way to live. Here is a spiritual habit that we all need to cultivate. We love Him….all because he first loved and graciously rescued sinful, broken us.

This is a topic that we’ve written about often. So if you are still looking for some ways to think about this topic, here are a few of our other posts, “Giving God Grief,” “There is No Sin,” and “The Joy of Repentance.”


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