I was a senior in college, interning at a local church. The youth pastor asked me to attend a high school Christian club meeting on his behalf. I was happy to oblige. It was almost the end of the school year, and this club was meeting one last time before the summer started. During the club, students played a couple of games and sang a couple of silly songs. Then, at the end of the night, a college leader got up and asked students to share what this club meant to them and how they had grown that year. One by one, students began to go to the front of the room and tell their story. Some stories were goofy, some were mushy; none was substantive.
I was disappointed that no students were sharing about what God had done in their lives or how they got to lead a friend to Jesus. But then a girl (“Jasmine”) stood up and began to speak: “Hi. Most of you know me from school, and so you know I’ve got a reputation. Throughout high school, I would go partying every weekend. I’d get totally plastered. But then I met one of the college leaders here—‘Kristen’—and—” At this point, she welled up and giggled a bit to compensate for her tears. I thought, “Here we go! Finally! This girl is going to straight up share the gospel and talk about how the grace of Jesus has changed her life! This is awesome!” She continued, “I met Kristen, and now—well, I mean, I still go to parties and I still get drunk. But now I know that God loves me, and so it’s okay.”
“I met Kristen, and now—well, I mean, I still go to parties and I still get drunk. But now I know that God loves me, and so it’s okay.”She giggled some more, hugged Kristen, and sat down as her peers clapped for her. It was all I could do not to do a facepalm (although I was doing one on the inside). I had just witnessed a modern day example of what Bonhoeffer called a “cheap grace”—a so-called grace in which people take God’s offer of forgiveness as a license to live however they want without any fear of divine retribution.
I wish Jasmine’s story were unique. The truth is many teenagers think this is how grace works. They have a warm, fuzzy feeling that God loves them and has a wonderful plan for their lives; they just don’t think that plan involves any change on their part. Many today are good at calling teenagers to “faith” in Jesus. Believe this, pray that, and you will be saved. Upon praying a prayer, students are given the assurance that they can never, ever lose their salvation—which is absolutely true if they are actually saved. But they can’t lose what they never really had. The fact of the matter is if a continued pattern of sin is evident in their life, it is doubtful they have ever truly known grace. As youth pastors, we must equip students to understand that genuine faith requires repentance—and that a call to grace is a call to holiness. Students need to know . . .
Grace is not freedom to sin; rather, grace is freedom from sin.
What Jasmine failed to understand was that Christ did not die for our sin so that we could continue in it; He died for our sin so that we could go and sin no more. Will we all still struggle with sin? Absolutely. Does our struggle with sin separate us from the love of Christ? Absolutely not. But the attitude of sinners truly saved by grace is not to wallow in the very behaviors that Jesus died to deliver them from. Rather, redeemed sinners trust in the work of Christ on the cross and desire to become like Him. When the Apostle Paul explained salvation by grace, he anticipated the replies of those who would seek to abuse it. That’s why he asked, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1-2). The Apostle John likewise warned, “No one who abides in [Jesus] keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen Him or known Him” (1 John 3:6). Jesus Himself warned that we “will recognize [people] by their fruits” (Matt 7:20). Thus, anyone who continues in sin, thinking that God’s grace will cover it, only reveals that he has not known God’s grace at all. We must not offer students a cheap grace that allows them to proclaim devotion to Jesus with their lips while having a love affair with sin on the side. Jesus is an all-or-nothing kind of guy. We must call students to choose their sin or choose Jesus. They cannot have both.
Grace does not mean we take sin less seriously; it means we take sin more seriously.
Contrary to what Jasmine thought, it was not “okay” that she was still going to parties and getting drunk. It is certainly true that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. But that doesn’t mean we can be flippant about our sin. Jesus told us, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Apostle Peter reminded us that “as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet 1:15). Genuine faith produces the fruit of good works; by the same token, “faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:26). That’s why Paul, even after he has told us that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1), admonished us to “put to death the deeds of the body,” which themselves lead to death (Rom 8:13). A casual attitude toward sin reveals a casual attitude toward Jesus. While we don’t want students to live in guilt and shame over sin from which they have truly repented, we cannot allow them to think that a “decision to follow Jesus” means anything less than actually following Jesus.
Grace is simultaneously a call to rest and a call to action.
There is nothing more liberating than knowing that we have contributed nothing to our salvation. It means we can do nothing to mess it up. Praise God that it is “by grace [we] have been saved through faith”—and that even this faith is a “gift of God” so that there is no room for boasting (Eph 2:8-9). Praise God that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom 8:39). Indeed, we fix our eyes on Jesus as the “founder and the perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2), knowing He will be faithful to complete the work He has started in us (Phil 1:6). Our trust is in who Christ is and in what He has done on our behalf. What a joy to rest in that truth. But resting in that truth is not a call to become a spiritual couch potato. Instead, in light of the fact that our standing in Christ is sure, we are called to get to work. No sooner does Paul tell us that we are saved by grace through faith does he tell us that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10). Even after telling us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author of Hebrews goes on to tell us to “strive . . . for holiness” (Heb 12:14). When we experience God’s grace, we don’t just check out and wait for Jesus to come back. Instead, we recognize that we are the firstfruits of a coming kingdom, showing all creation what the restored image of God looks like (Jas 1:18; Rom 8:18-23, 29-30). “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). And this newness isn’t just “not sinning”; rather, this newness is marked by a zeal to advance Christ’s kingdom (2 Cor 5:20). Don’t shortchange your students when it comes to grace. They have work to do—glorious work—work that is inaugurating the kingdom even as it is transforming them.
I think many of us are afraid to talk about holiness because we’re afraid of being legalistic. But calling students to obedience is not legalism. Legalism is telling students they have to do a bunch of good things in order to earn God’s grace. Holiness is the sign that we have experienced God’s grace.
Many teenagers—and adults too—want to accept the grace of God without the life transformation that is supposed to come with it, thinking they can have the one without the other. They can’t. There’s a generation of “Jasmines” out there who are perishing, and they don’t even know it. In grace, let’s call them to that which Christ has called them: a life of obedience and repentance. Anything less is not only cheap; it’s damning.
Header image provided through creative commons. Adaptation from a photograph by Laura Bittner.