I have been very surprised that what is turning out to be a common “hot button” with atheists with regard to Christianity is the concept of grace. Actually, more than surprised – I am just shocked. I never would have thought that anyone (besides those legalistic types we refer to as Pharisees) would be so angered by the thought that someone else thinks they’re getting forgiven for free. One example comes from The Great Blasphemy Challenge Debate, where one of the atheists – I think it was Brian – went off on the subject. If you find it online somewhere, it’s worth watching, just to hear the emotion when the subject is discussed.
Grace is obviously offensive. Should I be shocked? As I mentioned, I’ve known legalists – those who insist that there’s some kind of point system, or that you get saved for free, but to stay saved you’ve got to work for it – who are outright grace-haters. I understand this – it’s all explained in the famous story we call the Prodigal Son: the older son gets ticked that the prodigal gets welcomed back with open arms. However, to those who don’t believe there’s a point system in the first place, why should they care? If there’s no God to do any law-giving or forgiving in the first place, and then no absolute moral code to break, therefore there are no sins to be forgiven from. What, then, does it matter that Christians claim to be forgiven for sins that don’t exist? Interesting, isn’t it?
Of course, there also seems to be a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel; there’s apparently some belief among atheists that Christians believe that because they are forgiven, they are now free to sin. On one hand, of course, the atheists may understand this better than many Christians. Paul works through this in Romans chapter 5, where his argument for grace comes to the point where sin increases, grace increases all the more. There is no sin (except that gnarly old unforgivable one) too big for God not to forgive. However, if we turn the page to Romans 6, we get to where Paul asks the obvious question, “should we then sin more to get more grace? God forbid!” For you see, the Christian teaching is that sin is tantamount to slavery – it is the opposite of freedom (which, of course, we get along with grace). So, “free to sin” is an oxymoron. Now, we do have some oxymorons out there who can’t seem to figure this out, but they are actually quite rare.
Paul teaches this clearly, as does John in 1 John 2:3-6:
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
It is clear Christian teaching that yes, we are forgiven, once and for all (no indulgences or penance required). It is also clear Christian teaching that we are to “be perfect, as the Heavenly Father is perfect.” That, of course, is really what grace is all about – the power to actually live up to the forgiveness we’ve received.
So, perhaps a better presentation of the Gospel would make it less offensive… or, perhaps not. As Paul also says in 1 Cor. 18 & 19,
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
The Gospel does have that offensive aspect to it, especially the way Paul puts it:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Romans 1:18-20
He goes on, before he gets to the grace part, to point out how we all have sinned, yada yada. Now maybe we’re getting somewhere… to get to grace, we have to get through the part where we actually need grace – and that means accepting who we are as sinners, and accepting who God is as not just the lawgiver, but as forgiver as well. It’s like accepting an Altoid from someone – it means admitting you’ve got barn breath.
So, grace is offensive… but given the option, I’d rather have it. Altoid, anyone?