The great American theologian Al Pacino once said, “I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.” Pacino’s statement taps into a tension that we all sense intuitively but maybe have not expressed explicitly. If God is forgiving, then why strive for a holy life? If the penalty has been paid, then why must progress be made?

I believe the tension felt here ultimately comes from a confused view of grace.

What Is Grace?

I used to think of grace as a spiritual substance that God stores in piles behind his heavenly throne and dispenses to his people below. In other words, grace is stuff that God gives apart from himself.

How wrong I was! Grace is not a thing. Grace is not stuff that God gives us apart from himself. He doesn’t run out of it. God gives us himself when we don’t deserve it; that is grace. The oft-repeated definition of grace as an undeserved gift is right but does not go far enough when referring to the grace of God. Grace is a gift, but God is not only the giver, he himself is the gift. God graces us with himself.

But if that’s what grace is, then what does grace do? How does grace work? I’ll tell you this much—grace is not a flowery bow that you wrap around your already tidy religious system. It’s not the cherry on top of your morality pie.

Grace changes everything.

Grace saves and sanctifies. At least that’s the way it is supposed to be. But so often grace is something we look back to rather than move forward by. Confusion results because we don’t get grace; meaning, we receive it but we’re not transformed by it because we don’t understand it. In order to move forward in grace, we need to debunk five misconceptions of grace and defeat three enemies of grace.

Five Misconceptions about Grace

Grace is permission to sin. If God graciously forgives sin, then why struggle for a sin-free life? “I’m good at sinning, God is good at forgiving; it’s a match made in heaven, right?” This common mindset presumes that it’s God’s job to forgive our sin. He’s God—that’s just what he does. But the minute we presume upon grace, it is no longer grace. Grace is not permission to sin, it is the power to overcome sin. By grace God forgives sin and transforms sinners into saints. Holiness is not a prerequisite for grace; it is a product of grace.

Grace fills the gaps. “Do your best and God will do the rest.” According to this understanding, we do most of the heavy lifting on our own, and then God spots us on the last few reps when we’re tired. How nice of God to finish off what we start. The problem with the “grace fills the gaps” thinking is that it vastly underestimates the extent of sin. The Bible does not say we are people who need help crossing the finish line. It says we are spiritual corpses who need to be given life. When you align with the biblical teaching that sin touches every aspect of our being, then you also realize that grace isn’t just needed to polish off your moral achievements; grace is the beginning, middle, and end of the Christian life. The more honest you are about sin, the more your heart will rejoice in grace.

Grace is God letting up on his standards. Most people think that in the Old Testament God was obsessed with holiness and upheld an almost unrealistic standard for his people. “Keep the rules” was the banner of heaven. But then in the New Testament, God must have woken up on the right side of the cloud and finally decided to lower his standards and just love people for who they are. Right? Wrong. Grace is not God letting up on his law but sending his Son to fulfill it. Jesus lived a perfect life, keeping the covenant and fulfilling the law where God’s people had previously failed. By the renewing effects of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit the Christian can live a life of love that begins to align with the holy standards of God’s law.

Grace opposes effort. If it’s “all about grace” then clearly it’s not about effort. Or so it seems. But, as Dallas Willard once said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Christians therefore, should work hard, strive, and toil—but we do so not for grace but from grace. Because of the gospel we are motivated not by guilt but by gratitude. And the gospel is the greatest motivating power in the world, propelling followers of Christ to love their neighbor, do justice, and share the gospel. Philippians 2:12-13 describes this type of grace-driven effort: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Grace is for godly people. As much as people may not say this explicitly, many believe it deep down. It results from the simple misconception that God loves good people rather than that God’s love makes people good. But the Bible is not a story of God looking for good people, but one of God redeeming sinful people. And that should come as good news. Grace is for ungodly people, but it transforms them into godly people. We must understand this, because a decision for Christ apart from devotion to Christ is more about fleeting emotions than lifelong commitment.

Three Enemies of Grace

Pride. Why would anyone turn down a free gift? Because if I don’t earn it, then I can’t take credit for it. This is why grace is a difficult concept for accomplishment-driven people. But the greatest enemy of grace is the idea that I don’t need it. This is apparent in the notion that religion is a “crutch” for weak people. But grace is not a crutch for the weak, it is a foundation for the honest. And if I am honest with myself, I know I need far more than a crutch, I need a new heart. Grace doesn’t prop me up, it transforms me from the inside out. We resist grace because we want the glory.

Entitlement. Entitlement is a three-step process: (1) receive a gift with gratefulness, (2) get used to a gift with routine, and (3) demand a gift as a right. This is a blind spot for many American Christians, and one with dangerous consequences. The minute you think you deserve grace you dissolve its power. Grace makes people grateful, but entitlement strangles out grace.

Self-Pity. If pride says “I don’t need grace” and entitlement claims “I deserve grace,” then this last view is the self-pitying plea that “I’m not good enough for grace.” This sentiment is often expressed by saying something like, “I know God can forgive me, but I just can’t forgive myself.” This sounds humble and self-effacing, but it’s actually quite pretentious. Either (a) you have a higher moral standard than God, or (b) you doubt the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death. God is a greater savior than you are a sinner. Trust that his grace is sufficient.

A Kingdom Full of Prostitutes

Okay, myths debunked and enemies defeated, how does this play out in life? Let’s take the example of prostitutes. In Matthew 21:31, Jesus tells the religious leaders that “prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” How is this possible? How can a holy God have a kingdom full of unholy prostitutes? There are two ways: either God overlooks sin or God transforms sinners.

God could have a kingdom full of prostitutes by simply changing his standards and allowing prostitution. This, of course, means that God would then be okay with sexual sin, injustice, the strong oppressing the weak, and so on. But the God of the gospel remains holy, and so he doesn’t merely dismiss sin, he deals with it through sacrifice. The idea of letting everyone into the kingdom without changing them may sound appealing at first, but when you really think it through, this type of kingdom turns out not to be heaven, but hell.

God will have a kingdom full of prostitutes not because he overlooks sin but because he forgives and transforms sinners. Yes, God’s love meets us where we are, but it refuses to let us stay there. This is because when the grace of God takes root in your heart then it produces fruit in your life. God’s grace is not a matter of lowering his standards, it’s a matter of transforming his people.