How is Grace Commonly Misunderstood?
During an interview a few years ago, the interviewer asked this question:
“In what ways is grace most commonly misunderstood today?”
This was my answer then. And it is still my answer now.
I think the main way grace is misunderstood today is when people confuse it with cheapened law. Let me tell you what I mean: Think of the first and greatest commandment in Matthew 22: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Or think of Jesus crushing line in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Grace, for many Christians, is the reduction of God’s expectations of us. Because of grace, we think, we just need to try hard. Grace becomes this law-cheapening agent, attempting to make the law easier to follow. “Love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” becomes “try and love God more than sports.” “Be perfect” gets cheapened into “do your best.”
J. Gresham Machen counterintuitively noted that “A low view of law always produces legalism; a high view of law makes a person a seeker after grace.” The reason this seems so counter-intuitive is because most people think that those who talk a lot about grace have a low view of God’s law (hence, the regular charge of antinomianism). Others think that those with a high view of the law are the legalists. But Machen makes the compelling point that it’s a low view of the law that produces legalism because a low view of the law causes us to conclude that we can do it–the bar is low enough for us to jump over. A low view of the law makes us think that the standards are attainable, the goals are reachable, the demands are doable. This means that, contrary to what some Christians would have you believe, the biggest problem facing the church today is not "cheap grace" but "cheap law"—the idea that God accepts anything less than the perfect righteousness of Jesus.
Essayist John Dink writes, "Cheap law weakens God's demand for perfection, and in doing so, breathes life into the old creature and his quest for a righteousness of his own making…Cheap law tells us that we've fallen, but there's good news, you can get back up again…Therein lies the great heresy of cheap law: it is a false gospel. And it cheapens—no—it nullifies grace."
Only when we see that the way of God's law is absolutely inflexible will we see that God's grace is absolutely indispensable. A high view of the law reminds us that God accepts us on the basis of Christ's perfection, not our progress. Grace, properly understood, is the movement of a holy God toward an unholy people. He doesn’t cheapen the law or ease its requirements. He fulfills them in his son, who then gives his righteousness to us.
That’s the Gospel. Pure and simple.