One of the complaints made against the gospel of grace is that it promotes sin and slothfulness. However, those who say such things know little about the grace of God that empowers us to reign in life.
Elsewhere I have addressed the misperception that grace is a license to sin. Today I want to look at its evil twin, namely the myth that grace is a license to be lazy.
Here’s the short version: Grace succeeds where law fails. Law leads to dead works and weariness, but grace leads to good works that change the world.
Need an example? Let’s look at an issue that used to be a biggie, namely, the care of widows.
What does the law say about widows?
To be a widow in Biblical times could be a death sentence. There was no social security, no food stamps, and limited employment options. The great need of widows and orphans was recognized in the old covenant with four good laws:
- Don’t hurt them (Exo 22:22)
- When harvesting, leave crops and fruit for them (Deu 24:19-21)
- Once a year invite them to a feast (Deu 16:10-11)
- Every three years, share your tithe with them (Deu 14:28-29, 26:12-13)
These laws had teeth (Ex 22:22-24). If you failed to heed them – if you neglected to care for widows – God would punish you with death and make your wife a widow!
With solid laws and clear incentives you might expect that widows were well cared for under the old covenant. They weren’t.
Beware of the teachers of the law… They devour widows’ houses… (Luke 20:46-47)
Instead of being protected by the law, widows were exploited. The very men whose job it was to protect them – the law experts – were robbing them blind.
(Incidentally, this is why Jesus marveled at the poor widow’s offering (Mark 12:42-44). Instead of the rich giving to the poor, she was giving to them! It was an astonishing reversal of the law.)
What does grace say about widows?
The gospel of grace reveals God’s heart for widows. We see this is in the way Jesus related to them. The first time he met a widow, he raised her son from the dead (Luke 7:12-14). Then he told a story about a widow who got no justice (Luke 18:2-8). It’s like Jesus was sending a message. He was saying, “Under law, you widows had no hope, but I am here to tell you that God cares for you. He’s not a corrupt judge who must be pestered. He’s your loving Father who responds to the cries of his children.”
Inspired by Christ, the early church made the care of widows one of its priorities (Acts 6:1-7). Later, the apostle Paul gave practical instructions on how to look after them (1 Tim 5:1-16).
Stories and instructions are all well and good, but wisdom is proved by her fruit. Were widows better off under grace? Is there any proof that grace does better than law when it comes to caring for the widow and orphan?
The Bible records two famines, one in the old covenant and one in the new. These two famines allow us to compare the fruits of law and grace. If the law makes people generous while grace makes people lazy, then the widows in the first famine would’ve been better off than the widows in the second. Were they?
I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. (Luke 4:25-26)
The implication is that 99% of the widows in the first famine were starving to death. True, one was saved but only by divine intervention. The law did nothing to help her.
This makes sense because the law doesn’t help anyone. That’s not its purpose. But the law can surely hurt you, and in the hands of the religious it can be a tool for exploiting poor widows and devouring their houses.
But is grace any better?
Let’s look at the second famine which struck Judea and Syria during the reign of Claudius. (Agabus prophesied about it in Acts 11:27-28, and Josephus wrote about it in his Antiquities, Book 20, chapter 2).
This second famine led to a period of great suffering in Jerusalem. According to Josephus, “many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food.” In other words, food was available, but it was prohibitively expensive. If you were a penniless widow, you and your children were going to starve, and your death would be slow and brutal.
In this hour of great need two men stood tall; Paul and James. Paul famously collected money from the Gentile churches for the starving saints in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:14–32), while James challenged religious Jews to dig deep for widows (Jas 1:27). These two apostles of grace inspired generosity without invoking the curses of the law, and as a result lives were saved.
Can see the difference?
- the fruit of law = dead widows
- the fruit of grace = widows cared for
The paradox of law is that it provides the strongest possible incentive for you to work (God will punish you if you don’t), yet little gets done and what is done is useless. And the wonder of grace is that there are no sticks and carrots (God loves you regardless of what you do), yet much gets done and the world is changed.
As a Pharisee, Paul was part of a law-based system that exploited widows, but as an apostle of grace he was their champion. Paul said he was compelled by the love of Christ. That’s the difference. The law tells you what to do and doesn’t lift a finger to help, but those who are compelled or inspired by love move mountains.
Grace is powerful. Grace makes lazy men productive and fruitful. Grace saves lives. All this is to the glory of the Jesus who works in us and through us.