A friend recently shared the story of his young daughter looking at her mom and saying:
“You are the best mom in the world!
But that could change.”
This exchange reminded me of our impulse to downplay God’s grace in fear of giving those we counsel a license to sin—God loves you … but that could change. Of course, we would never allow those words to slip out of our mouths, but we have likely wondered if we are encouraging sin by speaking too much of boundless grace.
My goal is to consider Paul’s understanding of grace, particularly in his epistle to the Romans, and consider how it should shape biblical counseling.
1. We can encourage the struggling counselee because grace is inexhaustible
In Romans 5 Paul highlights one of several benefits of justification: “Through [Christ], we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). We stand in grace. The realm of grace is the kingdom in which we reside. Those who have been justified through faith in Christ have been granted an all-access pass to the unlimited supply of God’s grace. The unending availability of favor for those in Christ is rooted in the infinite nature of God. If grace proceeds from the Infinite One, the well never runs dry.
We rest in the assurance that we do not move in and out of God’s favor and smile. If you are a child of God today, you will not be an orphan tomorrow. Therefore, the child of God does not have to wonder if God has forgotten about her or if He has finally given up on her. In Christ, there is sufficient grace to cover every sin, to grow in Christ, and to persevere in a hostile world. What an encouragement to the counselee who blew it this week. What a help to biblical counselors who have likewise blown it in many ways this week.
2. We can call counselees to do the hard work of putting sin to death because grace empowers change
Inexhaustible grace? Doesn’t this kind of grace encourage sinful living? Should we tap the brakes a bit? These sorts of questions arise in the book of Romans. Surprisingly, Paul does not pull the emergency brake, he hits the gas.
The Apostle gives his emphatic reply to those thinking grace encourages sin, “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2). Paul’s response is not that we need a little of the Old Covenant to keep us from going too far in our understanding of grace. Instead, he argues that we simply need a more comprehensive understanding of grace.
To sum up Paul’s argument in Romans 6, the grace that unites us to Christ does not free us to indulge in sin; it frees us from the dominating control of sin. God’s kindness manifests itself in freeing his people from the penalty and the power of sin. Those who stand in grace are empowered to obey the “righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4). By God’s wise purpose, grace not only justifies it also sanctifies. Thus, our believing counselees have no license to sin but are given everything they need in Christ to freely glorify God.
3. We can warn the unrepentant counselee because grace is not license
If grace cannot be exhausted, how should we understand the warnings like the one Paul includes in Romans 8:13, “If you live according to the flesh you will die … ?” Are these warnings the equivalent of pulling back on the promises of grace? Is it Paul’s way of slowing down so that we do not rely too much on divine favor? Not at all. Paul ends this chapter triumphantly declaring that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Warnings in Scripture are not meant to devalue grace, but to challenge the reader to consider whether they have truly experienced God’s grace in Christ. The warnings form a standard by which we can assess if we have been united with Christ through faith. Grace is freely given in Christ, but this grace manifests itself in a changed life. Therefore, if we put the promises of limitless grace together with the warnings given by Paul and others, we might conclude that grace is free, but it is not empty. It is powerful and effects change in those who have truly partaken of it.
Further, these warnings are used by the Holy Spirit to continually drive believers back to the throne of grace. As we understand the deceitfulness of our hearts and the dangers of walking away from Christ, we run again and again back to the Lord recognizing our need for undeserved favor. Schreiner explains, “the warnings are one of the means by which believers are kept until the end. All those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit heed the warnings and obtain final salvation.” So, we can warn professing Christians of the danger of unrepentant sin and anticipate that God will use our warning as a catalyst for change in those who are genuine believers.”. Only God can look upon the heart, but we must assess the fruit of someone’s life and plead for repentance in those who are in danger of deserting the gospel.
Grace is effective, so we warn.
Grace is powerful, so we call for change.
Grace is inexhaustible, so we comfort.
If we can step out of the book of Romans for a moment, we might end by saying that grace is more than just a concept, it is found in the person of Jesus Christ. The grace of God has appeared in the Son of God and He saves so completely that those he calls to himself are not only justified, but sanctified, and one day glorified (Titus 2:11-14).
Thomas R. Schreiner, Commentary on Hebrews: Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (B & H Publishing Group: Nashville, 2015) 489.