Grace is instrumental in salvation. It also spurs us to righteous behavior. Scripture tells us that it is “the grace of God” that “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives” (Tit. 2:11–12).
The idea that grace teaches self-control can seem a bit surprising. After all, if I’m freely forgiven of my sins by the grace of God, why resist sin? If there’s always more forgiveness on tap, why strive after righteousness?
The apostle Paul anticipated this reaction—“Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”—and immediately shot it down: “By no means!” he wrote. “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1–2) To Paul, the idea that we should keep sinning because of grace was silly, absurd, the equivalent of Bill Gates knocking off a 7-Eleven. Instead, forgiveness lays the groundwork for transformation.
THE POWERFUL PROSPECT OF FORGIVENESS
In high school I had a close friend who described himself as an atheist. When he told me he didn’t believe in God, I could only think of one biblical rejoinder: “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). Since he was a lot stronger than me, and liked to fight, I kept the verse to myself.
I tried talking to him about my faith, but nothing seemed to get through to him. Nothing except for this: I described to him, as best I could, the experience of forgiveness. “There’s nothing like coming to God with all the bad things you’ve done and asking for Him to cleanse you,” I told him. “It’s like taking a shower after being dirty for a long time. You feel completely new, totally clean.”
He was silent.
“Hey, man. I don’t mean to preach at you,” I said.
“That doesn’t sound like preaching,” he replied looking off at something. “It doesn’t sound like preaching at all.”
I wasn’t much of an evangelist, but I got one thing right. There’s something powerful about the prospect of forgiveness, of being made clean. As the Presbyterian minister Henry Van Dyke said, “For love is but the heart’s immortal thirst to be completely known and all forgiven.” When you feel that forgiveness, the last thing you want to do is rush out and start sinning.
THE BEAUTY OF A BLANK SLATE
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul gives a long list of “wrongdoers” who will not inherit the kingdom of God. The list includes some pretty despicable characters, including swindlers, drunks, thieves, and adulterers.
But before his readers could feel too superior, he added these words, “ . . . and that is what some of you were.” Those descriptions only applied to his readers in the past tense. Something had changed: “you were washed, you were sanctified” (6:11), Paul reminded them. In other words, because of the fact that they’d been forgiven, they had entered a whole new way of living.
The next verses unpack how “washed” people are to live, by “not [being] mastered by anything” and living free from sexual immorality. Holiness flows from forgiveness.
It’s a spiritual principle, and a psychological one. Researchers talk about the benefits of the “fresh start effect.” Basically it means that when we feel like we’ve been given a clean slate, our behavior improves.
That helps explain why people who use “temporal landmarks” like birthdays, the beginning of a new year, or even the beginning of the week to start pursuing a new goal make greater progress. They feel like they’ve been given a new start and they don’t want to mess it up. According to Francesca Gino, a behavioral scientist, “We feel more motivated and empowered to work hard toward reaching our goals when we feel like our past failures are behind us.”
That’s good news for Christians. We get the ultimate blank slate when we place our faith in Christ. Then we receive that blank slate over and over again. First when we come to Christ and receive a whole new life (2 Cor. 5:17), and then repeatedly as we repent of our sins and ask God for forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
FALSE STARTS AND FRESH STARTS
Unfortunately, we don’t always take advantage of this blank slate. Or at least I don’t. When I mess up, I’m reluctant to confess my sins and ask God for forgiveness. Not only that, but I start avoiding my Bible and stop praying. In order words, I start avoiding God (as if I could).
I realize this makes no sense. I know God loves me unconditionally. But because of my actions, suddenly I feel like we’re not on talking terms. This strange avoidance behavior is always a mistake. When I fail to confess my sins, I’m more likely to sin again. What’s one more sin, I think. I’m already messing up.
Researchers have a name for this phenomenon too. They call it the “What-The-Hell Effect.” Basically, it means that after messing up, we tend to mess up even more. It was coined by dieting researchers who noticed that when their subjects had even small indiscretions (a bite of ice cream or one slice of pizza) it was followed by a full-on binge. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains this thinking behind this behavior.
Giving in makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to feel better. And what’s the cheapest, fastest strategy for feeling better? Often the very thing you feel bad about. . . . It’s not the first giving-in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control and loss of hope that follow the first relapse.10
BREAK THE CIRCLE OF SIN
I’m convinced this dynamic plagues my spiritual life as well. When I sin, the shame and guilt drive me away from God. I feel bad about myself, and in a cruel irony, I engage in more of the sin that made me feel bad in the first place.
When I confess my sins, the circle stops. I feel like I’ve hit the refresh button on my spiritual life. Suddenly I’m motivated to resist sin and pursue holiness. Wallowing in my guilt merely makes me sin more. Confession gives me a fresh start and I don’t want to mess it up.
It can be natural to think that feeling really bad about yourself is the way to improve your behavior. But piling on guilt is never the answer. It’s to keep diving back into grace.
Drew Dyck (M.A. in Theology) is an editor at Moody Publishers and the former managing editor of Leadership Journal. His work has been featured in USA Today, the Huffington Post, Christianity Today, and CNN.com. Drew is the author of Generation Ex-Christian and Yawning at Tigers. He lives with his wife Grace and their three children near Portland, Oregon. Connect with Drew at www.DrewDyck.com or follow him on Twitter @DrewDyck.