Here’s a reassuring passage about God’s grace to us through Jesus Christ:
But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
-1 John 2:1b-2
This is exciting stuff: Jesus Christ, the righteous one, the one who has all the moral weight to throw around in heaven, has chosen to throw that weight around for us. He has dotted every “i” and crossed every “t” to make sure we can’t get our names crossed out of the book of life. Not only has he done this for us, he has offered his advocacy to “the whole world,” anyone who wants it. This Jesus Christ is not just generous, he’s patient, thorough, savvy, in charge, and–beyond a shadow of a doubt–He’s got our backs.
Sometimes, this can cause us to wonder, “does sin not matter, then?” After all, “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Perhaps I could get some advocacy on his calendar following the night or weekend I have planned. However, if we read these verses in context, there’s so much to the contrary–so much saying that sin does matter–that this kind of sin-enabling response would suggest we’ve misunderstand what Jesus’s grace is all about. Notice the verses before and after:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
-1 John 2:1-5
Yes, if (i.e., when) we sin “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Yet, that does not diminish our calling to “not sin,” “keep his commandments,” “keep his word,” “perfect the love of God,” “abide in him,” attempting to “walk in the same way in which he walked.”
Is this grace with strings attached? No, this is grace with God attached. While we might respond, “Oh, great, if I want grace then I have to have someone (perfect) looking over my shoulder?” the fact of the matter is, we get someone putting us up on his shoulders, drawing us up into a new kind of life. Far from enabling sin, God’s grace enables godliness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained this well. He said:
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p.45