Wouldn’t you love to know how to say no to sin instead of yes? Isn’t there at least one area of struggle where you know that you aren’t where you ought to be and wish to God that you could make more spiritual progress?
According to Scripture, there is something that teaches us to say no to sin—something that trains us to renounce ungodliness and teaches us instead to live righteous and godly lives. In a moment, I will tell you what it is. But first I want to tell you what it’s not, because you might be surprised to see what the Bible says has the power to teach us to say no to ungodliness.
It’s not what most people think. It’s not the fear of getting caught, for example. We might think that one of the best motivations for saying no to sin is that we will get in trouble if we do. The problem is that sometimes we go ahead and sin anyway. A close friend once asked me to pray for him because he was going on a trip and knew that when he went to the airport he would be tempted to buy gay pornography. I said, “Aren’t you afraid that someone will see you?” “That’s part of the excitement,” he said. Instead of producing holiness in the heart, sometimes the fear of getting caught actually adds to the enticement of sin.
Here is something else that won’t teach us to say no to ungodliness: the law of God. This claim would surprise many people. They would expect to read a Bible verse that goes something like this: “The law of God trains us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live upright, and godly lives.” After all, isn’t that what the law of God is for? Isn’t it supposed to teach us to be godly? Yet the law cannot change the human heart. As Paul explained to the Romans, the law cannot bring salvation because it is made powerless by our sinful nature (Romans 8:3).
Living in a Christian community won’t do it for us, either—even a community that is bound together by a covenant with God. Wheaton College is blessed to have a community covenant. In signing this covenant, every member of the campus community makes an annual promise to live according to biblical standards. The community covenant is a helpful description of what God requires in the Christian life and also of some things that may or may not be required—moral and spiritual judgment calls that we believe are wise for our community, even if they are not mandatory for all Christians. But in and of itself, no creed or covenant can train us to say no to ungodliness, because even if we want to keep it, there are times when our hearts will lead us far astray.
What Grace Can Do
So I ask the question again: What has the power to teach us to say no to sin? Not the law of God, or the fear of getting caught, or living in the right community. All of these things have their place in the process of sanctification. To a certain extent they may help us in our struggle against sin. But the Bible says there is something else that we need.
We see the answer in Titus, which is a letter Paul wrote to the pastor of the first church on the island of Crete. There the apostle writes: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11-12).
It is grace—only grace—that has the power to teach us to say no to ungodliness and to renounce the sinful desires of this world, and to live instead a life that is pleasing to God. This is the sanctifying power of the grace of God.
When Paul says that this grace “has appeared,” he is talking about the manifestation of salvation in the person and the work of Jesus Christ. The Greek word for appearance (epephane) means “to reveal or to make known.” Paul is talking about an epiphany—something that has suddenly come to light.
The biblical word for appearance reminds of the way that a college sophomore rescued me one summer up at leadership camp. We were staying in the Northwoods of Wisconsin at a camp where I have been going since childhood. I know my around there pretty well, even in the dark, so I don’t always carry a flashlight. But as I was walking back to my cabin on a black and moonless light, a college student with a headlamp rode by on a bicycle, skidded to a stop, and said, “Is that you, President Ryken?” Then he asked me if I needed any help and I said, “Actually, I do.” The student had suddenly appeared to lead me home.
This is similar to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. When the Son of God left behind the glories of heaven to become a man, his grace appeared like a bright and shining light to lead us out of spiritual darkness and bring us home to God. This has already happened. It “has appeared,” Paul says, referring to a real event in human history. When Paul says this, he is talking not only about the incarnation but also about the totality of Christ’s saving work. He is talking about everything that Jesus has done for our salvation: his birth in Bethlehem, his exile to Egypt, his upbringing in Galilee, his teaching and miracle working in Israel, and his going up to Jerusalem to be crucified, buried, and raised again before ascending to heaven.
The grace of God has appeared in the divine person and in the saving work of Jesus Christ. It has appeared for everyone—for all the kinds of people that Paul was writing to in this letter: free people and slaves, Jews and Gentiles.
God’s grace is for everyone. So I want to ask you: Has this grace appeared in your life? For me it appeared when I was a little boy. As soon as I was old enough to know anything, people were telling me that Jesus died for my sins on the cross. Maybe God’s grace appeared to you a little later, when you were in high school and weren’t even interested in spiritual things, or after college, when you were going the wrong way in life. Maybe God is showing himself to you right now. What I know for sure is that his grace has appeared to bring salvation to anyone and everyone who receives it by faith in Jesus Christ.
Why Grace Can Do It
When God’s grace does appear, it will change your entire life. This was true for the people who first received these words from the apostle Paul. As I mentioned, Titus was the first pastor on the island of Crete. The Cretans were known for their ungodliness. In fact, the poet Epimenides famously said “All Cretans are liars” (see Titus 1:12). Epimenides came from the island himself, so he should know. The Cretans weren’t just liars, either. Based on what Paul says to them in this letter, we infer that they were lazy, gluttonous, rebellious, loveless, argumentative sinners. In other words, they were more like us than we want to admit.
Yet the grace of Jesus Christ was doing something amazing in the lives of the Christians on Crete. It was teaching them to renounce ungodliness. Formerly they were practical atheists, living as if God did not even exist. They had been consumed by worldly desires and fleshly passions. But now they were starting to live righteously. Right now, in this present age, with all its evil temptations, they were learning to exercise self-control. Here Paul speaks about an ongoing work of grace—not just a once-and-for-all decision to follow Christ, but the continuing power to say no to sin.
How is grace is able to have this sanctifying influence? What is it about God’s grace that has the power to do what knowing God’s law and living in Christian community do not have the power to do? These are deep questions that will repay further reflection, but here a few answers to get us started.
Grace teaches us to say no to sin because it always gives us another chance. If there were no grace, then as soon as we sinned we would be condemned. But grace is the favor of an undeserved mercy that comes to us again and again. Sometimes we are tempted to think that every time we sin—especially if it’s something we’ve done before—God gets a little bit more disappointed with us, until finally he gives up on us altogether. We forget that God has enough grace to forgive us again by the power of the blood that Jesus shed on the cross. So when we sin, we do not need to give up. God will give us another chance to grow in godliness.
Perhaps there is an area of morality where we have really messed up in recent days. Or maybe we sinned in some major way a while ago, and deep down we know that we’re still not where we ought to be spiritually. Sometimes when we sin it’s all we can do to drag ourselves back to the cross. What we really ought to do instead is run to the cross for mercy and then get busy serving the Lord again. One of the ways that grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness is by giving us a place to go with our sin and then offering us another chance to grow.
Here is another reason why grace has the power to sanctify: it makes us grateful, which is the best motivator for godliness. If we go through life trying to earn something from God, it will wear us out. If somehow we manage to succeed in measuring up to what we think are God’s standards, we will be proud of what we accomplish spiritually and look down on other people. If we fail, we will fall into despair. But if we know what God has done for us in Jesus Christ—the grace that forgives all our sin—then we will live for him out of gratitude for his grace. Holiness is not a prerequisite for salvation, as if God only planned to save people who were good enough for him already. Rather, it is the grateful response of people who have been forgiven.
Shortly after becoming president of Wheaton College, I told the Chicago Tribune that I wanted the school to be a “community of grace.” Immediately the interviewer wanted to know if I planned to get rid of Wheaton’s grading system. They assumed that if you’re living by grace, then there aren’t any standards. In fact, just the opposite is true, at least when it comes to sanctification. The more we know the grace that God has for us in Jesus Christ, the more we want to serve him. Grace makes us grateful in a way that leads to godliness.
Finally, grace teaches us to say no to sin because it brings us into a personal relationship with a living Savior. When Paul talks about the appearance of grace, he is talking about Jesus, the Sanctifier. Sanctification does not come by trying a little harder to do a little better in the Christian life. It comes by having more of Jesus in your life. In your struggle with sin, stop depending on what you can do and start depending on what only Jesus can do. By the truth of his Word, by the power of answered prayer, by the nourishment of the sacraments, through the work of his Spirit—in short, by his sanctifying grace—he will enable you to live a godly and righteous life.
Helping us to understand that we are not defined by what we do, but rather by who Jesus is and what he has done, Grace Transforming powerfully addresses the transforming power of grace that is essential for every Christian.