Paul once framed an issue with a question so shocking that it hits us upside the head. He asked the Christians at Rome: “Shall we keep on sinning so that grace may increase?” He hastened to answer: ”Absolutely not!”
There have always been people who turn liberty from sin into a license to sin. Noting that Christ’s grace and forgiveness are full and free, they assume they are licensed to wipe their muddy boots on God’s holy will for them.
Such “liberty” is really no liberty at all, but rather a foul bondage. Eve became the first “liberated” woman – declaring her independence from God only to hide in the bushes bound by shame, guilt and fear.
The prodigal son wanted to be free, out from under the influence of his father. Instead, he ended up fettered with his own failure in the pig-sty of a far country.
The rich fool in a parable our Lord told wanted to be free of financial worry. So he staked his life on the single card of bigger and fuller barns – a grand retirement fund. But he had to leave it for the relatives to fight over in probate court when, on that very night, the jail-keeper of death slammed the door on his life.
For all these people, their so-called liberty was a lie – a lonely, bitter bondage. None of this is the fault of the gospel. People do not live godless lives because they believe in the free forgiveness of Christ. They live godless lives because they do not truly trust Christ in the first place.
Anyone who truly knows what it is to have the debt of a lifetime cancelled by Christ, to have all his IOU’s torn up, gets a new and grateful heart that loves Christ, wants what God wants, thinks the way God thinks. The sinful nature becomes this hated houseguest from hell, not the lord of the manor.
Paul’s famous words in Ephesians are well known to good Lutherans: “Indeed, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Grace is God’s undeserved love – not just getting something for nothing – but getting the very opposite of what we had coming. That said, “licensed” Lutherans need to keep reading. The very next verse says: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10 EHV).
We are saved by grace, through faith, for good works. This is James’ point in his New Testament letter. We are saved by faith alone. But real faith is never alone. Living faith bears fruit. Apple trees have apples. Living faith doesn’t just talk the talk. It walks the walk. “Faith without works is dead.”