Shall We Continue in Sin?
Whosoever abideth in [God] sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him. Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as [God] is righteous. – 1 John 3:6-7
Passages like 1 John 3:6-7 (quoted above) offend us and our tendency to take God’s grace for granted, for they present a stark reminder that to be a Christian means to act like one. To be sure, John does not mean that those who abide in God never sin, for he says in 1:9 that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Rather, 1 John 3:6-7 is best understood as referring to those who delight in what has been called cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains cheap grace this way, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (Cited from https://virtueonline.org/cheap-grace-dietrich-bonhoeffer). What Bonhoeffer is speaking of is the idea that God’s grace given to us through Jesus Christ negates any requirement for godly living. To believe in cheap grace is to confess that Christ Jesus is savior while denying the personal title of Christian—for being a Christian means that you live like Christ. But aren’t we saved by grace apart from works? Is it not possible to be saved by grace but have no fruit to show for it?
To answer this question, we must first see what God’s word has to say about God’s grace in our lives. The Bible shows that our Christian lives are led by the grace of God from first to last. God loved us through Jesus while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8); we first came to Jesus because of God’s power at work in us (Eph. 2:5); we receive forgiveness of sins through Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross (Isa. 53:5); we work for God by the power of Christ, that is, the Spirit (Col. 1:29); we receive eternal life by grace (Rom. 5:21). In Galatians 3:3, Paul rebukes the Galatians for relying on their own works for holy living, “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” They began their race by the Spirit of God, they cannot now think that they will complete it by their own power.
If grace is truly gracious, what requirement can there possibly be for us who walk by the Spirit (the power of God) and not by the flesh (our own efforts)? In fact, the Bible presents many such requirements. Our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20); we must not become unjustifiably angry (Matt. 5:22); we must not divorce our spouse (Matt. 5:32); we must not be hypocrites (Matt. 6:5); we must be perfect (Matt. 5:48); we must not repay evil for evil (Rom. 12:17); we must be humble and gentle (Eph. 4:2); we must show hospitality (Heb. 13:2); we must keep ourselves in God’s love (Jude 1:21). Every book in the New Testament contains commands for how we should live, so clearly the authors did not see any contradiction between the grace of God given to us through Jesus Christ and our responsibility to live and act like Christians.
These two considerations, God’s free grace and His requirement for holy living, come together beautifully in Romans 6. Paul has just been discussing the grace that comes through Jesus Christ by contrasting grace and law. The law itself was good, but because of our sinful human nature we were not able to keep the law. Therefore, Paul describes the law as having come so that “the offence might abound.” In other words, the Law is solid proof that we are sinners, incapable of obeying God’s righteous command. Thankfully, Paul finishes his statement by saying that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (5:20). So, the Law sets us up for grace. Through it, we find that we are incapable of achieving our own salvation and it is plain that we need a savior. In this way, our failure to keep the Law actually glorifies and exalts how great Jesus’s grace is, because He is shown beyond a shadow of a doubt to be the savior that we need.
This understanding of grace, however, brings up a natural objection, which Paul takes up in the form of a hypothetical question at the beginning of chapter 6: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:1-2). If it is true that our transgressions against God have, in God’s amazing plan, turned out to exalt God’s grace in Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we keep sinning in order to exalt grace even more? Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that living in great sin is the best way to show how gracious God is in saving us? God forbid that we should ever think this. Paul’s reasoning for rejecting this idea is very revealing. He responds by first establishing that, through Christ, Christians have died to sin. As he says in the next verses, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” In other words, to become a Christian is to be united with Christ in His death and resurrection. When God saves us by His grace, a real change takes place in our hearts at the level of our very being: we become new creatures. There is no such thing as a Christian who does not seek after God in holy living, for everyone who has been made a Christian has had their humanity united with Christ. This unity is not merely legal (forgiveness of sins) it is also substantial (transformation of our being). That is not to say that Christians never sin, but we will certainly evidence a changed life and a general upward trajectory in godliness.
The key link, then, between faith and works and between grace and holy living is union with Christ. To be saved by God is to be united with Christ, but union with Christ entails that we begin to look like Christ. If to be saved means to be united with Christ and to become a child of God, then how I live out these realities is clearly connected to my salvation, even if it does not cause it. There is an organic link at the root. Another way to say this is that “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). If today you claim to have been bought by Christ’s blood through the grace of God, know that God has bought you for a purpose—that you should walk in good works. The opposite of cheap grace, the kind of grace that takes God’s work on our behalf for granted, is costly grace. What does it mean for grace to be costly? Bonhoeffer answers: “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”