Max Lucado has been preaching for decades and has written more than 50 books, so you'd think by now he would have gotten everything off his chest. But, he tells CT, when it comes to grace, one can never quite do that. Thus the reason for his latest volume, due out Tuesday, September 11: Grace: More than We Deserve, Greater that We Can Imagine (Thomas Nelson). Lucado, renowned author and preacher at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, unpacked some fresh dimensions of grace with Mark Galli, CT's senior managing editor.

Why another book on grace when there are many good ones already out there?

The apostle Paul never seemed to exhaust the topic of grace—what makes us think we can? He just kept coming at it and coming at it from another angle. That's the thing about grace. It's like springtime. You can't put it in a single sentence definition, and you can't exhaust it. No other philosophy or religion has anything quite like this idea that God takes the initiative and comes after us—not just to save us, but also to sustain us.

In this book, I tried to emphasize what's becoming more special to me—the indwelling presence of God. It's a wonderful thing that he saved me from my sins and adopted me into his family, but he didn't only do that. He did even more: he moved inside me, and he's changing me. Two hundred and sixteen times in his epistles, Paul talks about Jesus or God living inside us. The indwelling presence of Christ in the believer is such an astounding thought. To me, this was the next layer of grace to explore

Understanding the indwelling presence of Christ is a trend in theological circles, as well.

In the Old Testament prophecy, God says, "I'll remove your heart of stone and replace it with a new heart." The idea of a spiritual heart transplant is a vivid image to me; once you have the heart of somebody else inside you, then that heart is there. Jesus' heart is inside me, and my heart is gone. So if God were to place a stethoscope against my chest, he would hear the heart of Jesus Christ beating. I'm still getting used to the transplant, and transplants take time. But the security of that gift of God's heart inside of me opens up all kinds of possibilities as to what he can do with me.

When did grace first become a reality in your life?

When I was about a 21-year-old college student. I was a heavy drinker in college. I was going to church on a regular basis, mainly because my roommate was a strong Christian, and he would just roust me out of bed. The pastor was taking the church through a study of the Gospel of John, and he brought the story of Jesus to life in such a fashion that it finally began to dawn on me that God had a place for people like me. The love of Jesus came through the stories the pastor was telling, especially the Crucifixion. I can remember wrestling with, Can God forgive me? I never wrestled with, Could Jesus come back from the grave? That seemed to make sense that God could do that. But could he forgive me? That was the tough question.

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But in some of your earlier experiences of church, you said, you heard more law than gospel.

My first encounters with faith came about the time I was a Boy Scout, at about 14 or 15. I made the logical deduction that they operate the same way; I treated my faith like earning a merit badge, and everything about Christianity was about earning merit badges.

That's a common mistake. I think that's the reason Paul wrote the book of Galatians. There are merit badge earners in the church where I pastor. There's some of that still in me. It's a constant battle to say, You know what? I will never add one iota to the finished work of Christ on the cross. My best work will not make me more saved than I was. But we default to legalism. It makes such sense to us.

So, as a kid, I thought, Okay. I'll do my part and God will do his part, and we'll all be happy. Then I found out, number one, I don't have a rule book; number two, the rules I do see I can't even keep. I remember as a kid the preacher saying that if you even look at a woman with adultery in your heart, it's a sin. I remember thinking, How in the world am I never going to look at a woman with adultery in my heart? That's the weight that comes on the legalist, and it was starting to suffocate me even as a kid. It suffocates people still.

The Bible teaches that grace is received by faith, and yet sometimes, we talk about even faith as though it were a new work.

We're very good at that. We can turn anything into a work. And that just raises questions like, You believe, but did you believe enough? Those types of questions come from the devil, because they stir nothing but doubt and fear.

So faith is the seed of belief. It may be nothing larger than a mustard seed, but it's that tiny part inside of us that however meekly, however timidly, trusts in God's mercy.

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Faith is the thief on the cross who says, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." He didn't call Jesus by name. If he had heard the beatitudes, he didn't say anything about them. But that's faith right there. And God took that life and turned it into the greatest illustration of grace—a dying man crying out to God.

Is there a paradox at the heart of faith, where even the concession that I do not have sufficient faith is a confession of faith?

Exactly. But the minute we start making grace contingent upon my acceptance thereof—I've even wrestled with, Was my confession sincere?—well, of course it's not. I don't have any inkling as to what an affront my sin is to a holy God. No way can I confess it. But grace continually lifts the burden of responsibility off my shoulders and places it on God's.

Where in your own life have you had the most trouble believing and accepting grace?

Early in my ministry, right out of seminary, I went to Brazil, where my wife and I were missionaries. I remember having long conversations with coworkers and other Christians about how secure salvation is. The old phrase is "Once saved always saved." That really tripped me up, I felt it was irreverent. How dare I say, God saved me, and now that I'm saved, I'm forever saved. But now I say, "How dare I say otherwise?"

But I'll freely admit that for the first few years of my ministry, I was teaching a grace that saved us but did not sustain us, in which the miracle happened once but it didn't happen daily. It seems crazy now. Why would God save me one day and then turn salvation over to me? That's not really salvation, is it? But that was something I had to work through, and I'm grateful that I'm very much at peace with the eternal security of the believer.

Many people fear grace, thinking that if you teach it too strongly, people will stop doing good.

Two questions come to mind. First, Can we trust grace to create works? And the answer is, yes, we have to. We don't have a choice. We can't trust works to create works. Works creates burdensome works, but grace creates joyful work.

Take for example Peter before he denied Christ on the night before the crucifixion; Jesus said to Peter, "Satan has asked to sift you like wheat." Then he said to all the disciples, "You're going to stumble and fall away, but I will be waiting for you in Galilee." It's a wonderful word of grace before the Cross. He's saying, "I know you're going to stumble. You're going to fall away. But I'm going to be waiting for you." It's a statement of God's covenant with us. And look what that grace did to those men. Fifty days later Peter is preaching on the Day of Pentecost, and all of the apostles become pictures of what grace can do. So I really do believe that grace creates good works when appropriately received.

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The second question that's often asked is, Will grace create within me a license to sin? And my experience has been, yes, for a time. There will be people who will say, "You know what, God is going to forgive me. I'm going to go get drunk again." Or, "I'm going to be a little loose, because I know God will forgive me." But I find that people do that one or two or three times, and then they say, "Wait, this isn't right." They have the conviction of the Holy Spirit, who prompts them to say, "Grace has trusted me. Grace has loved me." And it motivates them to do well. Grace appropriately received creates a desire for holiness, not godlessness.

So we bumble and fumble a few times. We take advantage of God's grace only to find he has not left us. And that just deepens our appreciation for his grace.

You have a chapter on confession, and you tell a story about the time you began drinking beer on the sly. Why did you feel the need to confess that particular sin to your elders to seek their healing grace?

I've confessed sins like that maybe four times to my elders. This time I was troubled by my hypocrisy. I've wrestled with that all of my ministry. I have this tendency to think I am better than I really am. On one hand, I hate that. When I see it in others, I can be judgmental and critical. And then on the other hand, I can fall into that so quickly—being concerned about how I appear in church and how I appear in public. I take on that pastoral tone of voice so quickly, and I just hate it when I do it.

That drinking was to me a blatant example of that. I was hiding my indulging. I was sitting out there in a parking lot. What kind of person had I become? That particular season, I felt like I was struggling with hypocrisy on several things, and it just manifested itself in this way.

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But in that chapter and by that example, are you saying you believe confession to others is necessary to experience grace afresh?

I really do. Again, we can turn anything into a legal system: "You should have one or two confessions a day to make sure you've confessed everything." The last thing I want to do is turn it into a legal system. But there is deliverance from performance that comes when we confess, when we live an honest lifestyle with our family, with our church, with our staff. I think it really lifts the load.

People assume when they come into a church and see a person up there speaking, "That person must be a good person." My challenge through the years has been believing that: I guess I must be a really good person. I struggle with it. It just helps me to keep that confessional posture.

Protestant churches almost by definition are grounded on the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Yet many of these very same churches fall into legalism or self-righteousness. Why does that happen, especially when grace is such good news?

This is exactly the reason Paul wrote the book of Galatians, and what he was trying to counterbalance in Rome—this tendency we have to fall back into legalism though we have been saved by grace. There are a few reasons for this.

First, everything else in the world is based on legalism. If I have to pay money to buy bread, then surely at some point I have to pay for my eternal bread with some type of work.

Second, down deep within us, we believe grace is too good to be true, and we feel better if we make some kind of contribution.

Third, teachers fear what people will do with grace: "If I really teach grace, is that couple in the fourth pew who are living together—are they really going to get out of that relationship and get married?"

We have several people in our church who practice a homosexual lifestyle. If I get up and say, "God loves you just where you are, and he's going to help you change," will they really get it as quickly as I want them to? I think there's a desire in us to control the time and way in which people grow in God. Grace is like opening a rainbow in the church and letting people see it, trusting that God is going to use all those colors and all that miracle to work out his will as he wants.

What are some signs that a church is really living in grace and not by law?

The spontaneous worship level of the church. Are people genuinely happy when they're there? I have a friend who says, "You can measure a husband by the face of his wife." And I think you can measure the amount of grace by the face of the church, just by their joy level. There's an energy. There's a simple contagious happiness there.

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I think another outgrowth of grace is generosity. Jesus tells the parable of the man who was forgiven much and then demanded that the guy who owed him just a couple hundred bucks pay up. I think that's a picture of when grace did not work. This man thought he had worked the system instead of receiving grace. You counter that with the story of Zacchaeus; Jesus walked in his front door and greed walked out the back door; he wanted to give away half of what he owned. There's a picture of grace. It may be idealistic, but I really think that if we made grace a regular part of the church diet, we'd have happier people who are cheerful givers—and we wouldn't have to have so many campaigns on giving money.

Have you ever seen a church that's gone overboard on grace?

I never have. I've seen churches that have gone overboard on legalism. I think grace has this mystical ability to self correct. The people I know who really walk with Christ, who live a life of grace, who believe they're saved, who believe that God loves them, who believe they've been adopted into the family—they just seem to self correct. They're sensitive to the Holy Spirit. They don't beat themselves up when they fall, and they don't fall on purpose to take advantage of grace. But it's the other folks, the folks who teach salvation by works, who live in fear of death, who seem somewhat limited in their joy.

Some people are concerned that if we emphasize grace too much we're going to end up like liberal mainline churches that seem to have lost a lot of their biblical standards altogether.

Again, grace appropriately received creates a desire for holiness. Like that passage in Titus 2 says, grace teaches us to pursue godliness. And so the liberalism that says yes to everything, a liberalism that sees no right and wrong, and a liberalism that endorses misbehavior—I don't think that mindset has begun where grace begins.

Grace begins with admission of sin. We're sinners, and we all have wandered away, each gone away, each to his own way. And so grace must begin where God begins: we are born with a proclivity to sin. We're inherited the sin of our ancestors, and we need a Savior. When I think of liberalism, it's not that it doesn't teach grace—it doesn't teach sin. No forgiveness is needed if there's no sin.

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As you've noted, all churches live with members and attenders who are sinners. But we're usually more comfortable accepting the cool and quiet sins like pride, lust, and greed than the hot, loud sins like drunkenness, adultery, and homosexuality. How should we approach especially these hot sins in church?

To me the question behind the question is, "How do you hate that sin and love the sinner?" Forgive me for reusing that phrase, but that's the tension. That's what Jesus was accomplishing in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, when he said, "I don't condemn you. Now go and sin no more." Let my choice to forgive you motivate you to lead a better life.

And so as teachers, we should not lead with the sin. We lead with grace. Then we have to spell out to the church what grace looks like as it's unpacked in life. If we always lead with the sin—stop doing this, quit doing that—then we'll lose, and people won't hear the grace. I suggest we lead with grace. We come in just like Jesus, full of grace and truth. We come in with grace and then we present the truth, and we've got to be careful not to elevate one sin over the others.

As a pastor, how do you do this in your church?

I think we do a good job of that at our church, but we have the advantage of being a larger church. In a larger church, people can slip in and slip out. And I think God uses larger churches as a safe place for people who are dealing with very public issues; [they are] able to slip in and receive some truth and then slip out. Sometimes they need that safe place to come for a period of time until they're really ready to receive the message of conviction.

For example, there was this very public political figure in our area who was going through a public divorce. I didn't know he was attending our church, although his name had been in the paper. Some of our members had noticed him, but I never had because he would always sit in the back. I wish I could say that he and his wife had reconciled in their marriage, but they didn't. He still has lots of struggles, but in some ways, he's come a long way. He would say that he needed a safe place to go to know that God would forgive him before he could even think about trying to get his act cleaned up when it comes to women.

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So if there's a rule of thumb that I try to teach our church, it's that there's a broken heart on every pew, and the reason we're here is we need God's grace. So I tell our people to get ready. We're going to attract a lot of folks from a lot of different backgrounds. Let's lead with grace. But let's not be silent. Let's not be shy about sin, and let's entrust sinners to God.

Every church wants to get the balance right between grace and growth in holiness. But if a church had to err on one side or the other, would it be better to err on the side of appearing morally lax in the effort to promote grace, or being accused of legalism because you're making such an effort to promote righteousness?

Number one, erring on the side of appearing morally lax in order to promote grace.

And the reason I feel a conviction about that is Romans 6:1, where Paul says, "Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound?" Apparently he was accused of that, or he wouldn't have had to answer that question. Apparently he had taught so much grace that somebody was saying, "Now hold on a second. You're overdoing it here, and it's going to give people excuse to sin." So if Paul was accused of that, that's not bad. He was inspired by the Holy Spirit. That's why I keep coming back to saying let's give grace a chance. Teach it and just let it work its way out.

Yes, it's going to get messy; grace will be abused. It's going to get difficult. But abused grace is better than abundant legalism every day of the week.

Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine
Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine
Thomas Nelson
240 pp., 16.87
Buy Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine from Amazon