The Key to Understanding Sin and Grace

Why do we need to be forgiven in the first place? And what kind of power does grace give me to grow that I don’t have just by living in the world? These are good questions to ask. For some people, the answers are obvious. For others, they aren’t obvious at all.

The need for both pardon and power from God are due to what the Bible calls “sin.” But since a word like sin isn’t really self-explanatory, it is worth looking at how the Bible describes it. Let me do that here.

There are really two ways we can think about sin: it is both an act and a disease. The notion of sinful acts is the easier of the two for us to wrap our minds around. We’re all taught from a young age that there are things we aren’t supposed to do. Don’t hit your sister. Stop grabbing toys away from the other children. Don’t take an extra cookie from the cookie jar. Those are all household rules, which are established by moms and dads to teach kids right from wrong. When we grow older, we learn that there are laws that our towns and cities and states have put into place to make sure society is livable. Obey the speed limit. Don’t steal other people’s things. Pay your taxes each year. So young or old, we’re confronted with a world where there are certain rules or laws we’re expected to keep in obedience to the authority over us (our parents, the government). Those authorities are responsible for keeping the peace and providing a good environment in which to live. Rules are necessary for that.

The Bible teaches us that God is the creator of all things, including us. God also loves everything that he has made, which we see in a passage from Psalm 145:9 that was one of John Wesley’s favorites: “The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works” (KJV). So beyond being just the creator, God is the governor of creation as well. As governor, God has also seen the need to establish a law for his creation and especially for those special creatures that he has made in his own image—human beings. One place we see God’s law summarized is in the Ten Commandments:

The Ten Commandments

(Loving God)
1. You shall have no other gods before God
2. You shall not cast idols
3. You shall not take the name of God in vain
4. You shall honor the Sabbath and keep it holy

(Loving Neighbor)
5. Honor your father and mother
6. You shall not murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall not bear false witness
10. You shall not covet

God’s law does more than constrain wrongdoing (although it does do that). It also shows us how to embrace all that is good. As you can see in the previous diagram, the Ten Commandments give us guidance about how to love God and how to love our neighbor.

Sin comes into the picture when we break God’s law. We can do this through outward acts and we can also commit acts of the heart when we sin through our thoughts and desires. “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” Psalm 51:10 says, “and renew a right spirit within me.” It is a statement that recognizes the way that outwardly sinful acts usually begin as sins of the heart.

Sin is like a disease inside us as well. This may not be quite as obvious, but it explains everything about why we end up committing sinful acts at all—especially when we know such acts are wrong. Sin is like a plague that everyone in the human race is born with. The apostle Paul spoke about this in his personal testimony when he said that sin “deceived me” and “killed me” and that he had been “sold under sin.” For Paul, sin was like a presence that was constantly pressing him to do evil rather than good: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).

When we think about sin not just as things we do but as a presence within us, we begin to understand just what a problem it is. You can’t just decide that, starting right now, you’re not going to sin anymore. It just isn’t that simple! What’s worse, sin is something that affects the whole human race. Paul told us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). That means that there isn’t anyone who is free from the predicament of sin. We are alienated from God, living broken lives in a broken world. Whether it is in our actions or our hearts, we are constantly living lives of rebellion against the One who created us and will ultimately judge us.

Grace at Work

That word—judge—can be a scary one. But it is another one of those terms we use to describe how God relates to us: Creator, Governor, and Judge. We do stand on the outside of God’s law because of our sin. As our judge, God should be expected to hold us accountable for our rebellion against the good and holy plan he has for our lives.

It’s here that we can come full circle to where we began, though. We started by talking about God’s grace. When we talk about grace as God’s love for us, the pardon and power of God in our lives, it all sounds great. But it’s only when we come to grips with the enormity of our sin that we truly realize why grace is necessary. Otherwise we might look at grace in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. The truth, of course, is that we stand in desperate need of God’s grace in every
possible way.

Once we understand our deep need for grace, how can we understand the way that grace actually works in our lives? After all, saying that grace is God’s love for us is one thing. Understanding how we receive that love is another. I can open up my arms to receive a hug from my wife or my brother. But how do I open up my arms to receive God’s grace?

Not long ago I heard Bishop Gary Mueller of the United Methodist Church present a teaching on the Wesleyan view of how grace works.3 He describes God’s grace interacting with us in these three ways:

• Grace is unconditional—God comes to each of us with the message that he loves us as we are, no matter our past, etc.
• Grace is transformational—God does not leave us as we are but rather transforms our hearts and lives.
• Grace is invitational—By grace, the Lord Jesus calls and empowers us to join him in the work of the gospel.

This is a wonderful way to capture the Wesleyan sense of how grace works in our lives. Unconditional, transformational, and invitational—these are terms that speak to the way the Bible shows how grace works, and they also help us to think about how the Wesleyan approach takes the biblical view seriously as it relates to daily discipleship.

Do you want to learn more about the transforming power of God’s grace in our life of discipleship? Get The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice for Today’s World by Andrew Thompson from our store! It’s September’s Book of the Month, which means when you buy one copy, we’ll send you a second one FREE!

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