When God, through Jesus, offered grace to sinful people, he was not saying that sin was of no consequence. It is; it cost the life of a sinless saviour. No one who truly accepts grace from God will determine to go on sinning as if it does not matter.
Paul made this clear to the Galatians. In the midst of his teaching about God’s grace, and emphasising that ‘man is not justified by observing the law but by faith in Jesus Chris’ (Galatians 2:16), he nevertheless made the point strongly that Christ, in offering undeserved forgiveness – grace – is not ‘promoting sin’ (2:17).
Jesus never condoned sin, but he loved sinners. That is never better demonstrated than in the events that took place in the house of Simon the Pharisee where Jesus went as a guest (Luke 7:36-50). A woman who entered ‘had lived a sinful life’, presumably as a prostitute. She came, however, in penitence, weeping and offering Jesus tokens of her devotion. Of course, the Pharisee immediately judged both her and Jesus, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner’. But Jesus did know; he also knew what the Pharisee was thinking, and spoke to him of two debtors, one who owed much and one little. When the debts were cancelled by the money-lender, which would love him more? Simon knew the answer, of course; ‘the one who had the biggest debt cancelled’.
In fact both Simon and the woman were sinners, both were in debt. The woman, however, was aware of her sins, penitent and ready for forgiveness. Simon was totally unaware of his sins, or thought them very few. Repentance was far from his mind and he was in no condition to accept what Jesus would willingly have given him. Like the man with the small debt, Simon would not be grateful to the man who cancelled his debt.
The woman, however, received God’s grace; ‘Your sins are forgiven’, Jesus told her, ‘Your faith has saved you. Go in peace’. Faith in him was all that was required for forgiveness – and eternal life – to be bestowed.
It is unrepented sin that causes the barrier between humans and God. The Old Testament is unequivocal about sin; God hates it, and sinners have no right to be in his presence (Psalm 5:5-6). This is made starkly evident in the account of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a). A greedy and self-indulgent king, Ahab, coveted the vineyard owned and cherished by Naboth. When Naboth refused to sell it to him, Ahab went home and sulked. His scheming and rapacious wife, Jezebel, arranged to have Naboth murdered, and when told that he was dead and the vineyard now available, Ahab took possession of it, not asking – and perhaps not caring – what had happened to its owner. God sent word to him, however, through Elijah – and in uncompromising language. ‘You have sold yourself to do evil’, was his message; God’s judgment would fall upon him and dogs would lick up his blood.
It sounds a long way from grace! However, to return to Paul’s letter, it is stated clearly that we are ‘justified’ (forgiven and saved) only ‘by faith in Jesus Christ’. It is not our own efforts, nor our keeping of laws that saves us; ‘by observing the law no-one will be saved’ (2:16). We cannot save ourselves; conversely – if we put faith in Jesus – nothing can prevent our salvation, not even the most serious sin.
Salvation through faith sounds so easy that many stumble over this simple truth, trying to earn their place in heaven and laying burdens on their fellow believers. There are countless Christian groups that have their own set of rules, excluding those who do not measure up or fit in. It might look like zeal – trying to do something extra for God – but it is actually ‘setting aside the grace of God’. It is the mistake the Pharisees made and it is serious because – in effect – it declares that ‘Christ died for nothing’ (2:21).
In truth, though, Jesus died fully to pay the price of sin so that all sin could be forgiven – even the terrible sins of Ahab and Jezebel. All that he asks is that we repent and put our faith in him.