A Gospel of Irresponsibility by Tony Cooke

A Gospel of Irresponsibility?
Rev Tony Cooke

As I travel, I’m hearing more and more thought that is circulating in the Body of Christ regarding an “understanding” of grace that seems to be facilitating and promoting a sense of irresponsibility in people.  Some applications of this would include:

  • “Because I’m saved by grace, it doesn’t really matter if I sin or not, because Jesus has already taken care of all my sins – they’re already covered by grace.”
  • “I’m not under the law, so I don’t have to tithe.  I can just give whatever I want.”
  • “It doesn’t really matter if I attend or am a member of a local church or not, just so long as I’m a part of the Universal Body of Christ.”

Before addressing such lines of thinking, I believe it’s important to recognize that some have labored under wrong perceptions of God in the past.  They’ve been under a form of legalism—a bondage that causes them to think they are saved by faith in Christ plus never making a mistake, or faith in Christ plus tithing, or faith in Christ plus perfect church attendance or good works.  In doing so, they’ve never understood or rested in the fact that our salvation and forgiveness is not an issue of faith in Christ plus anything

They’ve never known the nature of God’s gift or the true rest offered by the One who said (Matthew 11:28-30): “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

When such an individual realizes, “I am saved by grace through faith, and that not of myself, it is the gift of God…” he or she may become resentful of any previously held perception of God as a taskmaster… of one who was “driving” them or putting them under compulsion to perform—to measure up—in order to be accepted by God.  As they throw off the chains of such legalistic thinking, they may end up in the ditch on the other side of the road and think that any form of discipline or obedience is a form of bondage that is to be rejected.  In short, they throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Paul taught a strong doctrine of grace, but it was not a grace that promoted irresponsibility or sinful living.  Grace, then as now, was misunderstood and distorted.  In Romans 6:1 and 6:15, Paul asked, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” and “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?”  To both questions, Paul responded with an emphatic “Certainly not!”

Paul was so misunderstood (I believe in particular about grace) that Peter referred to Paul’s writings in the following way: “Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction” (2 Peter 3:16, NLT).

The Galatians were greatly entangled in legalism, and Paul yearned for them to understand the grace of God (Galatians 2:16).  At the same time, though, he didn’t want them going to the other extreme.  He told this confused group of believers, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Titus has been called “The Book of Good Works.”  In this epistle to a young pastor, Paul reminded Titus that God’s grace alone is the source of our salvation (3:4-7): “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

This same book, which makes it so plain that works are not the cause of our salvation also makes it abundantly clear that works (good works) are a most appropriate result of our salvation:

  • Titus 2:7 – “…in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works…”
  • Titus 2:14 “…who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”
  • Titus 3:8 – “…those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men.”
  • Titus 3:14 – “And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.”

Was Paul—the man who said more about grace than anyone else in the New Testament —telling Titus to put the believers under some kind of legalistic bondage?  Absolutely not!  Paul understood that grace, while imparting the gift of eternal life to the believer based on the redemptive work of Christ, was not some kind of doorway into laziness and looseness for the believer, but rather, a springboard into a life of obedience.  Actually, grace (divine empowerment in our lives) provides the impetus for and is the very basis for our ability to obey God.

Paul also told Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age…” (Titus 2:11-12).  The true grace of God is never divine permission to do what’s wrong.  Rather, it is divine empowerment to do what is right!

As believers, we rightly rejoice in the gospel… the good news… the declaration of the fact that, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  But what does that free gift usher us into?  A life of self-indulgence?  A life of irresponsibility?  Conformity to the world?  A life of fleshly gratification?

I think the best way to tell what Jesus had in mind is to go back to the Great Commission that He gave.  We’re all very familiar with the first part of that commission (Matthew 28:19)… “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”   But the very next verse makes clear the type of life that Jesus intended for those who received his free gift… “…teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.”  Jesus didn’t say, “…teaching them that they don’t have to do anything at all because I’ve done it all.”  Yes, He did it all in terms of purchasing our salvation for us, but He then called us to lives of purpose, responsibility, and obedience.

It is 100% true that people don’t need to live holy in order to get God to love them; He loved us while we were yet sinners.  It’s true that people don’t need to tithe or go to church in order to get God to love them; He’s loved us with an everlasting love regardless of our performance of perfection.  But there are good works and a holy lifestyle that we are called to, not to earn salvation but to express salvation.

When Paul spoke to Titus about good works, He said, “These are good and profitable to men” (3:8).  We are responsible to live right so that others can see the nature and character of God.  We are responsible to tithe and give generously so that others can hear the gospel.  We are responsible to be vitally involved in a local church so that we have a place to serve and help others (as well as to grow personally).  It is absolutely true that it is grace that saves us and keeps us, but that grace will never lead us into leading irresponsible, self-indulging lives!

We would do well to remember the words of Dietrich Bonhoffer, the Protestant theologian and anti-Nazi activist, who said: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

May you have wisdom in both receiving and expressing God’s indescribable gift!