Classic Reprint: Does Grace Cancel Holiness?

Okay, this is a re-posting of a classic piece from last High Holiday season. I wrote it in an informal style. It could use a little polishing and could be the basis of a first rate article. But here it is in all of its raw, unfiltered, rhetorical glory. The issue is as important now as ever.

I pray you all have a productive season this High Holidays.


Several things led me to write on this topic. First, I was reading the blog of a well-respected Christian intellectual who holds a high-visibility post in Christian media. He espoused an idea I hear sometimes which troubles me greatly: that grace means we should be realistic and not expect too much holiness in Christendom as a whole. That is, we should not be surprised when we hear surveys showing that Christians are no different than non-Christians in areas like marriage, sexual sin, and so on.

Second, I am writing about this because I think it is something our community, those of us in MJ, struggle with. We are people in between two worlds. On the one side, is our Jewish world in which our people are making long prayers of repentance. Some are seeking to earn a good year by pleasing God with much repentance. On the other side, is our Christian world in which our brothers and sisters emphasize grace sometimes to the exclusion of holiness. I want to clarify some things for my Christian friends and try to help others with me in MJ who wonder: How seriously should I take the High Holidays and repentance?

First, for my Christian friends, let me start with two disclaimers:
1. I believe that we cannot merit God’s love or acceptance by our own goodness.
2. I believe that we cannot grow in godly character merely by willpower or self-determination.

Yes, I believe in grace. I just think many Christians and Messianic Jews are tragically anti-New Testament in their view of grace. Would Paul agree with any of the following statements?
a) I have the righteousness of Christ in me and God does not see my sin.
b) I cannot do anything good except believe in God, and even that is God’s gift and not my choice.
c) I will always be a failure, so I need to revel in grace and accept that I am going to fail God again and again.
d) God never intended that his people would actually become holy and as soon as we think this should be our goal we have left grace.

My answer? No. Paul would not agree with any of these statements. The third one comes close, but even in it there is subtle error: a casual acceptance of sin as though holiness does not matter to God.

If you are a Christian and struggle with the boundaries between grace and holiness, can I recommend Jerry Bridge’s excellent volumes: The Pursuit of Holiness and The Practice of Godliness (both available at

You see, for us Messianics, it is a troubling and vital issue right now: should we sorrow and lament over our sins or should we casually assume that our holiness is in Messiah and not take this repentance thing too seriously?

I’d like to share a little biblical light on things. First, two sayings of Yeshua have bearing on this question:

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Luke 15:7

The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. Luke 18:11

Realize something about Yeshua’s words here.

#1: These are not anti-Jewish, but anti-self-righteousness. And Messianic Jews/Christians are no more immune to this problem than any human being. If you read these verses thinking that as a Messianic Jew or Christian these words of Yeshua do not apply to you, then read #2.

#2: These sayings of Yeshua are a trap intended to capture you and convict you. Luke 15:7 is generally read by people who think, “I am one of the ninety-nine who needs no repentance.” Snap! You just got caught! People who read Luke 18:11 often think, “Thank you, God, that I am not like that Pharisee.” Irony or ironies, man. You just became a brother to that Pharisee even if you are not a Jew.

That is to say, Yeshua fully expected that we, like the tax collector in Luke 18 or the one sinner in Luke 15, would repent. He even expected that we would beat our chests (Luke 18:13). YET I HAVE HEARD MJ’S AND CHRISTIANS CRITICIZE JEWS FOR BEATING THEIR CHEST AND REPENTING GREATLY AT YOM KIPPUR. “Legalism!” people say. I say, “holiness.”

People are teaching, in the name of Paul, something Paul would never agree with. The idea that grace cancels holiness is anathema to Paul. God really expects us to stop hurting, hating, lusting, lying, cheating, abusing, excusing, lazing, and self-promoting.

Read Romans 2:5-10 carefully. Allow me to quote vs. 5 and suggest that MJ’s and Christians do not get an out-clause on this:

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

Also, take a close look at the book of Titus. Paul gave instructions for a congregation there among a people known for lying and cheating. He did not emphasize that grace cancels holiness. Far from it. He called them the CHANGE:

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, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:11-14

Far from canceling holiness, grace calls us to it. What is grace? Is it a pass from judgment? Only in the sense of God’s acceptance, not in the sense of God’s satisfaction with who we are. God, via Paul, says that grace TRAINS us to RENOUNCE ungodliness, not to embrace it and call it the mystery of grace.

To my Messianic friends, don’t let this Yom Kippur be something you casually ignore. Don’t assume you are one of the 99. You are the one who needs repentance. Don’t smugly think to yourself, “I have Messiah’s righteousness and it does not matter if I am a sinner.” You are wrong. You will be judged for every sin. Paul said so, so don’t get mad at me.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Holidays, Judaism, Messianic Jewish, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Classic Reprint: Does Grace Cancel Holiness?

  1. bobcharters says:

    This is the type of blgpost that should be broadcasted from the rooftops, Rabbi.

    IMHO, people mistake grace for mercy. Mercy is what’s been holding back G-d’s hand of judgment on the Western Church for not taking advantage of grace. Grace is there to enable us to become holy. Proper use of mercy is to seek forgiveness when we fail.

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