How Grace Changes Us

Are we to continue in sin, that grace may abound? —Romans 6:1

Johann Tetzel was a Dominican monk who went around sixteenth-century Germany selling indulgences. He used a little song: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” So a thief came up to him one day and asked how much it would cost for an indulgence to cover all his past sins. “A thousand gold pieces.” “And how much to forgive all my future sins?” “Two thousand more.” “All right, here’s three thousand. Give me the indulgence.” “Here it is. Thank you.” “Now here’s one of those future sins. See this knife? Hand back the three thousand.”

Why is that crazy? Because if we want forgiveness of our sins, we also want freedom from our sins. We want Christ. And we know that we can’t have both our sins and Christ. This is why sinful, Christ-desiring people are glad to hear this gospel: You’re not guilty any more. You’re now in Christ. When you put your trust in him, something happened. God transferred you from your natural dead-end in Adam, with all his guilt and despair and death and fraudulence and pain coming down on you – God transferred you into Christ, God gave you Christ, with all his life and righteousness and freedom and purity and hope as your new destiny. When you got Christ, God relocated you under the reign of his grace. You are totally forgiven through the cross of Christ, and your future is wonderfully redirected by the resurrection of Christ, and the power that will someday renovate the universe now dwells in you, never to leave. You will be able to enjoy Christ to the max forever. That’s the gospel. It’s not only forgiveness of our sins, and not only freedom from our sins; it’s Christ creating a new human race living happily forever in a new universe where grace reigns.

Many people in our city don’t believe the gospel, not because it’s too small to be worthy of their belief but because it’s so grand. And there are two ways not to believe the gospel, there are two ways to settle for something less than Christ. One way is religion, the other way is irreligion. Religion and irreligion look like opposites and they fight like cats and dogs, but they have this in common. All people, religious and irreligious, are asking the righteousness question, they are asking the justification question, a Christ-seeking question, even if they don’t think of it that way. All sinners are asking, What will make me okay? What will make me kosher? What can make me acceptable? What will make my life worth living? That is a gospel question. But the gospel answer takes some getting used to. So, some people go off to religion for their answer, and other people run from religion for their answer. But what they have in common is that they’re validating themselves by their own works. They are earning their own salvation from the emptiness they so deeply fear. The worst that can happen to you is not that you fail in your quest and discover how disappointing you really are.

The worst that can happen to you is to succeed and stay as you are. Here’s something the Pharisees never saw. The worst guilt of all doesn’t feel guilty. It feels good. The worst rebellion of all is when the conservative religious person is so upright that he never despairs of himself, and when the progressive irreligious person is so upright that he never despairs of himself. The worst that can happen to you is to miss out on Jesus, for whatever reason. If your heart is not close to the Lord Jesus Christ, you’re in a bad place, wherever you are. You need to repent of your sins, and repent of your righteousness, and come to Christ. You have nothing to fear from him. The Lord Jesus Christ announces in the gospel, “Grace to you.” His Word says, “Let the one who is thirsty come, let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). The best place to be is where you’re thirsty enough to come and desirous enough to take, because then Christ promises to give himself to you, whoever you are, whatever your background, whatever you’ve done, and set your conscience free. For God so loved your guilty, sad conscience that he gave his only begotten Son, that whenever you look away from yourself, both your failures and your successes, and look to Christ, your conscience would not perish but have everlasting life.
God’s grace is an adjustment, isn’t it? But one thing we all know: people who want forgiveness of their sins also want freedom from their sins. They want to change. They want more of Christ.
Romans chapter 6 is all about how grace changes us. Chapters 1-5 are about how grace forgives us, how grace accepts us, how grace validates us with the okayness of Christ himself. Now in chapter 6, a major new section of Romans, Paul explains how grace changes us. The law doesn’t change us. But grace is “newness of life” (6:4). Let’s go there together.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? —Romans 6:1

I like to think of Romans chapters 1-5 as Paul’s theological lecture. In Romans 1-5, he makes his case, he presents his gospel. The Bible says Paul used a lecture hall (Acts 19:9), so we can imagine Paul in that setting. But now, at the end of chapter 5, he stops the lecture and opens it up for Q & A. Chapters 6-11 of Romans are his Q & A session. That’s why he says here in verse 1, “What shall we say then?” He is inviting interaction. He wants us to talk through the implications of the gospel of justification by faith. So, as we come now to chapter 6, hands go up all over the lecture hall. Right in the front row there’s a man who’s been squirming all along and especially as Paul closed out chapter 5. He raises his hand: “Paul, are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” That’s the first question. Here’s what the question is asking: “Paul, you’ve just said that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (5:20). Do you mean that? That’s a dangerous idea. If you teach people that, what will happen? Think of Nashville. Sin has increased in Nashville. People are doing bad things, and it’s getting worse. And you’re saying, Paul, that God has a surplus of grace to overmatch the increase of sins in Nashville? You’re telling people that, as fast as they can sin, God’s grace can outpace their sinning? Doesn’t it worry you, Paul, to tell people God has a greater capacity for grace than they have a capacity for sin, that there’s more grace in God than sin in us? Is your teaching wise? If you tell people that, they’ll sin just to give God more opportunity to show grace! If we think the world is bad now, we haven’t seen anything yet! People need the threat of punishment, Paul. They need law and rules. And every now and then we need to make an example out of somebody. But what you’re saying about abounding grace gives people an incentive to sin.”

That’s the first question that pops up. Paul knew it was coming. He knew his gospel would bother people in this way. The Q & A section of Romans comes out of thousands of conversations he had with people. The fact is, the apostle Paul made some people nervous. Are we making anyone nervous? If our message is apostolic, we will. And as we’ll see here in chapter 6, Paul doesn’t back off one inch. He wasn’t exaggerating when he said that where sin increased grace abounded all the more – the way a teacher might exaggerate a point, just to get the students thinking. Paul meant it. The gospel is the power of God for changing people by grace. So now Paul leads us more deeply into the grace of God.

Let’s look carefully at the question: “Are we to continue in sin?” That question is not as outlandish as it might appear. It doesn’t say, “Are we to go wild in sin?” The guy who asked Paul this question is worried about that, but the implications of his question are more far-reaching than he knows. The key is the word “continue.” That word just means to stay where we are, as we are. Really, the question is, “Are we to continue as we are, while telling ourselves it doesn’t matter because we have the grace of God?” That question comes closer to home, doesn’t it? That way of thinking is deeply embedded in American Christianity: “I don’t have to change. I can stay the way I am. And it’s God’s grace that gives me my excuse. Gospel grace is the kind of acceptance that leaves me alone.” That is not Christianity. A Christian does not say to Christ, “If you’re really gracious, you will leave me alone, you will let me be.” A Christian says to Christ, “I have failed you so many times. I am a desperate sinner. Thank you for not leaving me alone and not treating me as I deserve. Thank you for giving yourself to me in your death, burial and resurrection. I beg you, let that grace change me more and more.” We need this today.

Ron Sider, at Palmer Seminary near Philadelphia, has published the results of polls about the behavior of people who call themselves Christians in our country today. Here are some facts. In the area of money, around 1.2 billion people in the world have to live on about one dollar a day. Plus, around one billion people have never heard the gospel. If American Christians – and we’re the richest people in human history – if we tithed to our churches, that is, gave ten percent of our gross income, we would have around $143 billion in private money for helping the poor and spreading the gospel. The United Nations estimates that basic provision for the world’s poor would cost around $70-$80 billion. So if we American Christians just tithed, we could ourselves feed the world’s poor and have $60-$70 billion left over for spreading the gospel. But in fact, only about six percent of American Christians tithe. Is that what the grace of God does?

In the area of our sexuality, since 1993 about 2.4 million young people have signed the True Love Waits pledge not to have sex before marriage. In 2004 researchers at Columbia and Yale reported a seven-year study of 12,000 teenagers who took the pledge. The study found that 88% had broken it. Another study at the University of Akron finds that 26 percent of Christians do not think premarital sex is wrong, and 13 percent say that adultery is okay. If I were 13 percent open to committing adultery, would you say to me, “Ray, you really understand the grace of God”?

In the area of race, the Gallup organization reported in 1989 that the group most likely to object to a person of another race moving into the neighborhood was people who call themselves Christians. Is that the impact of the grace of God?

What we need today is not to preserve the gospel, we need to rediscover the gospel. American Christianity is not working. We have lost touch with the power of grace, and we need revival. The truth of God’s grace toward us sinners has a powerful answer to the question, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” The answer millions of so-called Christians in our country are giving is, “Sure.” One man put it this way: “I like doing bad things. God likes forgiving them. Cool!” This past week, did you ever tell yourself that you could do something you knew was wrong because, after all, God forgives? God’s grace is not a compromise. In grace, God gives all, God claims all, and his power to give and to claim remakes us. Here’s how deep it goes:

How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. —Romans 6:2-4

What is Paul saying? He’s taking us into a profound truth – our union with Christ. We once lived in union with Adam as our natural-born condition. But when we’re born again, we enter into union with Christ. 164 times the New Testament says something amazing: as a believer, you are in Christ. We Americans would never say we are in George Washington, but the gospel reveals we believers are in Christ. Not just following Christ as an historic figure but in Christ as a living Presence. It’s more than an alliance, more than a relationship; it’s union. The Bible says that what God has done for us is like a branch united to its vine (John 15), like a husband and wife together (Ephesians 5), like a body joined to a head (1 Corinthians 12). We’re not absorbed into Christ, so that we become mini-gods. He is who he is, and we are who we are. But by grace God has so removed every barrier that we are as included as God can include us. It is so profound a change, it’s the death of what we used to be and the birth of what we’re destined to become. In Christian conversion, we die to the reign of sin and law and guilty sneaking around in shame and that whole existence we endured. We come under the wide open spaces of the reign of grace. It happens the instant you become a Christian. That’s why Paul brings in baptism.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Why did Jesus die? To bring grace to our sins. We cost him his life. Can we be complacent about him? “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.” My lexicon of Classical Greek informs me that the word “to baptize” was used of someone drowning, of a ship sinking, of a city being flooded with crowds, of people getting over their heads in debt. So, what has the grace of God done for us that we see visualized today in a baptism? God has immersed us in his grace, overwhelmed us in his grace. Our lives and our futures are flooded with his grace, we’re over our heads in his grace, we’re buried in his grace. That’s what Christ accomplished for us by his death on the cross and his burial in the grave, it’s what Christian baptism communicates and solidifies today, and we possess it all through union with Christ forever by grace.

I don’t get people who say they’re Christians but their schedules and budgets and lifestyles are clearly saying, “Yeah, I can fit Jesus in. I have some margin in my life. For cryin’ out loud, I give him a whole hour on Sunday morning. He ought to be thankful he has me at all.” Part-time, half-hearted Christians – were they baptized? Have they ever heard the message of overwhelming grace? Are they Christians?

I’ll close by saying something strong, and then something comforting. First, the strong message. Look at the purpose of God for you and me: “… in order that… we too might walk in newness of life.” See the purpose clause? God has united us with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life. I love that phrase, “newness of life.” Not maintenance. Newness like, “Wow. I’m going further with the Lord than I’ve ever gone before, further than I’ve ever dreamed of going.” That is newness. That is God’s purpose for you and me. If our purpose is not God’s purpose, if it is not our prayer and passion to walk in newness of life, if it is not in our hearts to journey into ever new regions of worship and fellowship and child-rearing and evangelism and cultural renewal and world outreach and song writing and church planting and social justice and all that Christ calls us to – if we have another purpose, then we are denying the resurrection of Christ just as faithlessly as any liberal church denies Christ and we should cancel Easter Sunday and we should stop being Christians altogether because our hearts are rejecting the resurrection of Christ.

Now the comforting message. Here’s the wonderful thing about union with Christ. If you are in Christ, God has rewritten your story within his story. You’re not trapped in your history any more. You’re not stuck with who you are any more. You’re connected by grace with who Christ is. And he gives new beginnings today to people who have failed to live up to his purpose. Do you know anyone else as forgiving as Jesus, when you let him down? The law makes us feel small and defeated and bitter. Grace makes us feel loved. Grace gets us thinking, “Jesus suffered for me at the cross. He was buried for me. He was raised for me. He’s preparing a place for me. I want to treat him magnificently. I am eager to make the adjustments he calls for. Newness of life? I’m in.” And if you still feel weak and defeated, here is the call of the gospel to you:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth – [including yourself] – will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.