Grace: Crucified Between Two Thieves1
Acts 20:24 is surely one of the most powerful and breath-taking texts in all of Scripture. There the Apostle Paul makes this stunning declaration: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
What is it about “grace” that would lead this man to say such a thing? Do we today understand grace in this way? When you think about the grace of God in the gospel, can look at your life and say, “When compared with making known this grace in the gospel my life is neither valuable nor precious to me”? What is this grace that is embodied and expressed in the gospel that we preach?.
It has often been said that just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, one on his right hand and the other on his left, so too is the gospel of grace. Whenever the truth of salvation by grace alone is proclaimed, so goes the analogy, there are two thieves that seek to rob it of its glory. On its left is what is called Licentiousness. On its right is Legalism. Let me explain what I mean.
Whenever the truth of grace alone is made clear, people either get excited or nervous. Those given to licentiousness get excited, because any time you teach that human works or good deeds or personal holiness play no role whatsoever in bringing about the reconciliation between God and mankind, some people conclude that we are free to live however we please without ever taking seriously or considering the importance of righteous living and obedience to the commands of Scripture. Grace, so they say, frees us to live any way we choose. It gives us a license, so to speak, to sin all the more. After all, if what we do can’t save us, then surely what we do can’t condemn us. So let’s live like hell!
There is yet another thief that also tries to steal glory from the truth of salvation by grace alone. But it goes in the opposite direction. Those who tend toward licentiousness get excited about the idea of grace because they mistakenly think it gives them the freedom to live according to their own desires. But those who tend toward legalism get nervous about the idea of grace because they find their identity and security in what they can do to earn favor with God. Legalists think that grace is inadequate or insufficient to put us right with God. More good works are needed. Obedience to certain rules is required, rules that are most often man-made and can’t be found in Scripture. Conformity to such laws, so they argue, is essential for spiritual life and growth. Licentious people, on the other hand, think that grace releases them altogether from obedience and good works.
Both sides, both thieves, if you will, end up distorting grace. The thief of licentiousness robs grace of its holiness. The thief of legalism robs grace of its happiness. One says that we are free to do anything we want. The other side says we are obligated to do everything we can. Both sides misinterpret and thus distort the true biblical gospel of salvation by grace alone.
So what, exactly, is grace?
When God acts in grace, he contemplates the ugliness of sin, and, contrary to all expectation, acts benevolently toward us. When God acts in grace, he looks upon those who deserve only hell, and grants them heaven. When God acts in grace he loves the unlovely and shows mercy to the miserable. Or, as J. I. Packer so beautifully put it: "The grace of God is love freely shown towards guilty sinners, contrary to their merit and indeed in defiance of their demerit. It is God showing goodness to persons who deserve only severity, and had no reason to expect anything but severity” (Knowing God, 120).
In the next article we'll look more closely at the various features that make grace what it is.