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Abusing Grace: Finding the Line Between “Guilt Trip” and “It’s All Good”

By Tim Downey March 3, 2015

I will never forget one Sunday after the worship services when I was about eight years old. My older brother grabbed my shoulder and said, “You have to see this!” He took me up to the stage and positioned me where the pastor typically stood. My brother told me to look closely at the top of the lectern, made of some sort of matte black Formica product. I cocked my head and strained my eyes, but the lectern was empty. I turned to my brother and whined, “Whaaat?” My brother pointed at what looked like a textured finish on the lectern top. Eew! There, splattered all over the top of the lectern was the dried spittle of our exuberant pastor. Clearly his “hellfire” preaching had spewed more than condemnation toward the congregation.

I grew up in an atmosphere where Romans 8:1 wasn’t heavily emphasized. I came to believe that my hope for salvation only started on bended knees—after that, I needed to work hard to appease a very angry God.

Walking away from that environment as a teenager wasn’t difficult. Nevertheless, God’s far-reaching grace drew me back into “the fold” in due time. Upon resuming my journey of faith in a different church, I began to hear lots of teaching on God’s grace: grace for salvation (Eph. 2:8–10), grace for security of the believer (John 10:27–29), grace for growth (Eph. 2:10). I liked this concept. Why hadn’t someone brought this up before?

Sometime later I noticed yet another shift taking place in the Christian landscape. A whole generation of believers began to embrace this grace idea—not as a cherished truth, but as a body shield. “I’m under grace!” became an excuse to live with few boundaries and little discipline. Instead of leading to confession and repentance, sinful living produced responses of “It’s okay; we’re forgiven,” and “I don’t have to practice holiness; I am holy because of Christ.” But this lifestyle has a way of eroding our character, leaving us empty, and plaguing us with our own dysfunction (Rom. 6:15).

Those who abuse grace respond quickly: “I don’t have to live under a legalistic set of rules any longer. I’m free in Christ.” But are they living in true freedom? Christians do not earn grace through actions, but Christ purchased for us freedom from sin, not freedom to sin. We must ask ourselves one simple question: Has the “freedom” we have embraced brought us liberty or bondage (Gal. 5:13)?

grace_quoteTo be clear, there’s no way I’m going back to screaming, spitting condemnation I grew up in. I’m cured. I don’t need to take on that weight again. Once was more than enough, and it nearly ruined my view of God.

However, here is the key question for the next generation of Church leaders: Are your actions communicating grace-filled or grace-exploiting living to your students? If someone asked your students what it looked like to follow Christ, how would they answer? Would they describe a fear-based life of works and guilt? Would they describe a lackadaisical life with no expectations or desire for change?

Hopefully, they would recognize the truth of the gospel: God’s grace is both freeing and transforming. It removes our guilt and shame once and for all, and it begins our journey to become more like Christ. When we begin following Christ, the Spirit indwells us, sealing us as holy in God’s eyes and convicting us when we live as if we haven’t been redeemed. Now that’s a wonderful, powerful truth worth instilling into your students.

If you’re looking for a helpful way to teach your students about the beauty of God’s grace and truth, check out the Rescue Root of Deep Discipleship: fully downloadable curricula digging into the salvation story of Jesus. It includes five Bible study lessons, parent pages, videos and graphics, and four bonus large-group talks.

CC Image courtesy Dia™ on Flickr.

About the Author

Tim Downey

Tim Downey is an Associate Professor of Youth Ministry, specializing in the areas of discipleship and leadership at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. For 30 years, Tim has served the Christian community as a youth pastor, missionary, college professor, and international speaker. He and his wife, Kaye, have three daughters and one granddaughter. Tim…  Read More