by Preston Foster
Near the end of most American presidencies, comes a spate of pardons. The president, for reasons rational and not, grants pardons to several people. Most have been convicted of crimes; some are charged with a crime or are likely to be (see “Ford pardons Nixon, Richard M.”). Some of those who have been convicted have already paid the penalty for their crimes. Others are in the process of serving their time. Others may be out of jail, pending appeal. No matter. Once the pardon is granted, they are free, legally forgiven of their crime.
Everyday, convicts across the country are placed on parole, as a normal function of state and local judicial systems. These parolees are still “in the system,” but free to move within a designated jurisdiction, as long as they stay out of trouble and periodically report to their parole officer. They are not entirely free, but compared to jail, parole is a major upgrade.
The difference between pardon and parole occurred to me as I pressed to understand the working notion of grace among my Adventist friends. Many Adventists are aware of the most obvious benefit of grace (salvation), but they do not feel free or trust their freedom. They are very careful to qualify their freedom as not permitting sin (Romans 6:1-2, 15). Acting as their own attorneys, they define their freedom, not by what it is intended to produce, (the fruit of the Spirit) but by what is forbidden (the law).
Many of these Adventist friends think like parolees. Both the parolee and the pardoned are grateful for their new status (assuming they were guilty, of course). However, the parolee is less confident about his or her status, somewhat hyper-vigilant about what is allowed (John 9:16, John 5:10), and respectful, yet somewhat resentful of their parole officer (Luke 15:29-30). They operate under the assumption that one wrong move and they might, again, be held accountable for their former crimes. Their goals are to fulfill the expectations of the parole officer for as long as they remain in the system, and to avoid re-incarceration.
This should not be what drives our life in Christ.
It seems to me that the “good news” is that Christ paid the price for our sins at the Cross. If we claim Christ as our Savior and “confess our sins, He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) — and we are saved (Colossians 1:22). Christ’s death on the cross provides us with pardon (grace). Like those whom the president pardons (only more so), we should be so grateful for what has been forgiven that we have no desire to repeat the crime. Our gratitude, not the threat of the law, is the motivation to live free of past entanglements (John 1:17, John 8:32).
So, what is the source of this parolee mindset among believers?
From my observations (and personal experience), the lack of confidence in our salvation is due the fact that we have not truly accepted grace. Because we believe that 1) we are still in the system (under the law), and 2) our freedom is dependent on our works (Titus 3:5, Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 5:4, Galatians 3:16, Romans 3:28), we view Christ more as our parole officer rather than He who pardoned us — our Savior. We work to maintain our freedom from a consciousness of penalty. We are not confident about our status and think that any, non-deliberate or careless infraction may land us back in jail (Hebrews 12:20). The consciousness of our guilt, combined a lack of faith (belief that the pardon is merely parole), leads to legalistic behavior (1 Timothy 1:7-9, Galatians 4:29), rather than freedom and full citizenship (Galatians 4:31).
Spiritual parolees often fear that those who have accepted pardon also believe they have, somehow, acquired diplomatic immunity — freedom to sin without consequence (a.k.a. “cheap grace’). Although immunity was not stipulated in the pardon nor requested by the pardoned, somehow this claim works its way into virtually every conversation about grace. The parolee clings to the law, protecting it, believing it is the determinant of his freedom (Galatians 4:21).
The gospel is a writ of pardon (Isaiah 40:2, Romans 4:7-8). Christ, on the cross, paid the price for sin, making our pardon possible. If we accept the grace-given pardon, we are free to walk in the Spirit, not under the law (2 Corinthians 3:17, Galatians 5:18). Those acting as their own attorneys have misinterpreted the intentions of the Court (John 3:17).