In a recent CharismaNews article, Dr. Michael Brown confronts what he calls the “dangerous error” of the hyper-grace movement. He describes the foundational doctrines of this movement as follows; (1) we have been made righteous by the blood of Jesus, (2) all our sins have been forgiven, (3) the Holy Spirit never convicts believers of sin, and (4) we need never repent for nor confess our sins.
Although I would qualify the last point, Dr. Brown has done a fair job summarizing the gospel that we in the grace movement proclaim. (Some movement – it’s 2000 years old!) Those who are united with Christ are just as holy and righteous as he is (1 Cor 1:30); God dealt with our sins once and for all on the cross (Heb 10:12); and consequently the Holy Spirit remembers our sins no more (Heb 10:17).
As for repentance and confession, the Bible tells us that these words mean different things to different people. Repentance in the old covenant meant turning from sin but repentance in the new means turning to God. As the Pharisees showed, you can turn from sin until you’re dizzy but it won’t make you righteous. However, you cannot turn to God without leaving your old life behind.
Similarly, confession under the old covenant meant reviewing one’s sins, but confession in the new means agreeing with God. It’s a subtle difference with profound consequences. Reviewing your sins in the vain hope of earning forgiveness or fellowship will ultimately leave you guilty and sin-conscious. This sort of confessing-to-be-forgiven is a faithless work of the flesh. In contrast, healthy confession will always leave you focused on Jesus and his finished work.
Where Dr. Brown takes issue with the grace movement is in the claim that “when God looks at us, he loves what he sees.” Dr. Brown provides examples from scripture that seem to challenge this idea. Did Jesus love what he saw in the Revelation churches? Did Paul love what he saw in the Galatians? Obviously not for Jesus and Paul both rebuked what they saw.
The punch-line of Dr. Brown’s message is that we must purify ourselves from everything that contaminates. He concludes by describing self-purification and the pursuit of holiness as our “beautiful, lofty calling.”
There is a way that seems right to man…
I would argue that Dr. Brown’s conclusion leads to exactly the same sort of self-reliance that caused Jesus to get nauseous over the Laodiceans. It promotes the same sort of performance-based Christianity that caused the Ephesians to forget their first love and the Galatians to fall from grace.
Dr. Brown’s concerns regarding sin’s destructiveness are on the money. But the gospel Jesus revealed and Paul preached is first and foremost a declaration of God’s love. The gospel is the unqualified announcement that God loves us and will do whatever it takes to get us back, even if it means dying on a cross.
Dr. Brown surely knows this for the word “love” appears 13 times in his short article. But where Dr. Brown and many Christians get confused, is what we must do in response. Evidently, Dr. Brown thinks we must turn from sin. (The word “sin” appears 14 times in his article.) But this is old-covenant thinking. It is selling the love of God for the price of a little old fashioned repentance. It is not the gospel of unmerited grace.
One of the most stunning claims in the Bible comes from Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If God loved us while we were still sinners, he surely loves us now. We don’t repent and confess or do anything to merit God’s love but because we are loved. The love of God is the foundation of all we are and do.
This is why Jesus rebuked the Ephesians – not because they weren’t loving God enough, but because they had left their primary love. Like many Christians today they had got so caught up doing things for God that they forgot to do the most important thing of all, which is to receive and remain in their Father’s love.
“Remember the height from which you have fallen,” said Jesus. “Repent, and do what you did at first.” What had they done at first? Well what did you do when you first came to Christ? You probably did nothing other than receive his love. “Do that,” says Jesus. “Stay in the high place of my love and you won’t fall back into the old ways of trying to earn what I have freely given you.”
Dr. Brown asks an important question: “Does God always love what he sees when he looks at his people?” According to him, the answer is no. God doesn’t like what he sees when he looks at us. Our sins grieve him. But here’s the thing: we are not our sins.
The most important question
Defining people in terms of their behavior is old-covenant thinking. It is not how God relates to us. Children are defined by their parents. In his article Dr. Brown asks no less than 20 questions but he never asks the most important question of all: Who’s your Daddy? This is the question Jesus came to answer.
Want to know what your heavenly Father is like? Look to Jesus. Jesus is exactly like his Father (John 10:30). This is why we are told again and again to fix our eyes on Jesus.
And this is why I have a problem with any message that distracts us from Christ, even a religious message that frets over sin. You simply cannot focus on yourself and Jesus at the same time. You cannot attend to your shortcomings and behold his glorious perfections simultaneously. It’s one or the other. It’s you or him. Who are you going to trust?
Our calling is not to try and purify ourselves in the vain hope we might become pleasing and acceptable to God. Trust me – your best efforts will never be good enough.
Rather, our beautiful and lofty calling is to, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph 5:1). We don’t imitate God to become his children, but because we are his children, and dearly-loved.
*Special note: For those looking for a more detailed response to Dr. Brown’s scriptural examples, check out the articles I have written on Jesus’ warnings to the churches in Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea. I have also written on what it means to be friends of the world and I have a forthcoming post on what it means to fall from grace. If you’re having trouble reconciling what I wrote above with what you have been taught, it will greatly help if you first understand what makes the new covenant new.