The Grace Relationship

3 June 2013, 06:00




“The Prodigal Son” by Liz Lemon Swindle

The parables of Jesus are so well-known that we often forget their message. Take, for example, the story of the prodigal son. The primary application is the welcome the father gives to wayward son when he is ready to return home. We rejoice to see the forgiving love of the father.

But there is another message here, I think. There are two sons in this story and, if you read carefully (Luke 15:11-32), you will see that the father divided the inheritance between the two. In other words, both are gifted and set free.

One of the sons takes his inheritance and lives wickedly. He rejoices to be free of the father’s rules and expectations. With no limitations, he squanders his inheritance until it is all gone and he finds himself destitute and alone.

The other brother does not believe that he is free. He does not celebrate. He remains faithful to the rules and expectations of his father even though his anger builds. He tries hard to do his duty. He becomes resentful and seems to hate his brother who left.

But neither brother is under grace.

There are believers who do not seem to believe they are under grace. They continue to live according to the law. Their lives are built around standards and rules and principles and they struggle to feel good enough. Their hearts are often filled with work and resentment.

There are other believers who use the idea of grace to celebrate rebellion. They let themselves experience things that were forbidden under law and rejoice to feel no guilt. They push boundaries and standards to the side as they enjoy their new life apart from the law. But they sometimes find themselves in bondage to masters more cruel than the law ever was. Alcohol still forms physical habits. Promiscuity still has a price. The sins the law warns us about still hurt us.

You see, neither of these believers walk in grace. To walk in grace is to walk with Jesus. Grace is a relationship through which good things come to us. Under law and standards, the relationship is secondary and the privileges of grace cannot be enjoyed. Under rebellion and immorality, the relationship is still secondary. But the relationship with Jesus is what saves us and gives us victory.

Suppose the two brothers had received their inheritance and, in humility and love, had turned back to their father. Suppose they had said, “Thank you, Father, for your kindness and generosity. Teach us how to use what you have given in ways that will make our lives as rich and joyful as yours.” Had they done that, they would have experienced the laughter and joy of their father and a wonderful relationship with each other.

For some, grace is a high church word that means little for daily life.

To others, grace means anti-law, freedom from rules and expectations.

But in Christ, grace is a relationship.

Dr. David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years and is now the Executive Director of "Grace for the Heart," a ministry dedicated to proclaiming the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for all aspects of the Christian life. Dave has served in the Evangelical Free Church and in the United Presbyterian Church, and he holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity Seminary. Dave has unique insights into the struggles of what he calls “performance spirituality,” as he has worked extensively with people who are unsure of their relationship with Jesus because of the burden of legalism and the hopelessness of a “works-based Christian walk.” David has lived in Loveland, CO for 25 years and is happily married to Alice. They have eight sons. David blogs on a regular basis at

All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.


  1. Andrew June 3, 2013 Reply

    I wouldn't agree. Grace is unmerited favour from God. In the story of the prodical Son grace was offered to both sons. The prodigal was overwhelmed with grace after he came to his senses about what he had done. The other son rejected grace even though he was to inherit what remained of his fathers wealth. The reason the other son rejected grace is because he was trying so hard to obey his father and rules.

    Remember this, the other son represented Pharaisees who had a zeal for living by law. The prodigal represents folks like the prostitutes, financial cheats, the thief on the cross, etc.

    Yes I agree Grace does not give a licence to sin but there are just too many preachers wanting to put us under bondage to the law again to which we are dead.

    • "Hannah" June 11, 2013 Reply

      I think this story speaks of the prodigal, prior to coming to his senses and returning to his father. Of course, he was under grace upon repentance and reconciliation. I agree with some theologians, who would say this parable is more about the righteous son, than the prodigal, and how he still struggled in absence of a real relationship. That's just imo.

  2. Alfred Corduan June 4, 2013 Reply

    A really balanced perspective. The "bad" side of "grace":

    Jude 1:4
    For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

    "lasciviousness" is "life without moral rules".

    To cite extreme examples, When one group insists that God's grace means "consume alcohol like water", like certain offshoots of the general church movement we are associated with, or "prostitution for Jesus", like another at one point significant "Jesus" group, others pull in and decide that life by laws is much more godly. Neither perspective is "grace".

    Thanks for putting a key problem into focus.

    • BeverlyB June 4, 2013 Reply

      Which church group or movement believes that grace is "consuming alcohol like water," or "prostitution for Jesus"? I'm genuinely asking, because your comment surprised me. I'm not aware of any church movement that teaches drunkenness and prostitution as acceptable under the grace of God.

      • Andrew June 4, 2013 Reply

        There is a controversial Christian ministry call JC Girls that is trying to evangelize folks in adult entertainment. They will go to strip clubs to make contact with the dancers for example. While folks may not agree with the tactic, that is where the lost are that we are to evangelize.

        To keep things in perspective, the gospels record that Christ sat and ate with the prostitutes and other sinners and was critizied for doing so.

        • BeverlyB June 4, 2013

          I do get that and appreciate it. Our church has a ministry to those who are being trafficked (and a lot of girls in prostitution and legal strip clubs have been trafficked into that profession). But I got the impression Alfred was talking about Christians thinking prostitution was okay to pursue under grace, and that the act itself wasn't wrong. There might in fact be people who believe this, but do they really understand the gospel or grace? I guess that would be my question, if that's what they truly believe. Eating with tax collectors and sinners is not at all the same thing, as Jesus so aptly pointed out. ;-)

      • Alfred Corduan June 4, 2013 Reply

        I did not misspeak.

        1) Check out "Taylor" branch of the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren (also called the "Tayolorites" or "Jims"). Alcohol consumption is seen as an almost compulsive sign of "freedom in Christ", of "grace". Those who refrain are considered to be proud, legalistic.

        2) Check out "Children of God", commune group that was fairly visible in the 1960s/1970s on street corners, preaching, handing out "Mo papers" (tracks written by the leader, "Moses David"), soliciting donations. "Flirty Fishing", they call it.

        I would include links, but I hate to dignify this.

        • MatthewS June 4, 2013

          fwiw, from what little I know about the "Taylorites" they are hardly marked by a consistent message of the gospel of grace. I remember reading about them some years back. My impression is that of an authority-heavy group with a strong leader who doesn't follow the same rules that are laid on everyone else, and a group that separates from everyone else, making it that much easier for the leadership to control the members.

        • grateful June 4, 2013

          Although not so blatant as the above examples, the Emerging church has philosophies of "outreach" crossing lines, such as beer brewing night, R rated movie nights and the such. At what point is the light so dim that it is ineffective? Or is there really light there at all?

        • "Hannah" June 11, 2013

          I think the answer to that question, would depend on what you believe the "light" is. Is it a pristine, unblemished life? Or is it a very real message of grace, that reaches people where they really are? If one wishes to complain of beer brewing parties, I believe that certainly our Master was guilty... except he was more into winemaking. Friend of publicans and sinners, labeled as a drunkard and glutton, a man who strove against the religious elite of his day... That is the sort of "light" I aspire to be: a real person sharing a real Savior for a real world.

        • "Hannah" June 11, 2013

          And to my understanding, Children of God were never Christians. It was a self-styled cult from the beginning, in which one man claimed to be prophet and messiah... If it's the one I'm thinking of.

        • Will Hunsucker June 12, 2013

          Alfred, I went to Bible School with a Brethren girl from rural Ontario who refused to attend any Brethren church in the States, because "they all have bars in the back room." ;)

    • MatthewS June 4, 2013 Reply

      of course, it's not grace that is bad but the false thing that people twist it into, and there were people then, as now, who would twist grace into a license to sin. 1 John speaks clearly about walking in the light vs. walking in the darkness, Jude speaks in the strongest terms about God's judgement of sin and not using grace as a license to sin. But the abuse of grace is not the fault of God's grace itself nor evidence against it.

      The famous quote from Martin Lloyd-Jones:

      First of all, let me make a comment, to me a very important and vital comment. The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel. Let me show you what I mean.

      If a man preaches justification by works, no one would ever raise this question. If a man’s preaching is, “If you want to be Christians, and if you want to go to heaven, you must stop committing sins, you must take up good works, and if you do so regularly and constantly, and do not fail to keep on at it, you will make yourselves. So that misunderstanding could never arise . . . . . .

      • dreamer June 4, 2013 Reply

        I think the amazing thing about God's grace is that, even knowing some will abuse it and use it as a license to sin, He still freely offers that grace to all.

  3. MatthewS June 4, 2013 Reply

    I really like this image of the contrast of the two brothers. The father desires to have that grace-relationship with both of them. In his heart, he is ever holding out the invitation to them. In the story, we see both sons reject him, and eventually we see one of them turn back to him.

    That's a powerful image, love it.

    • David Pigg June 4, 2013 Reply

      Matt,Your comments are great with a great article;,so much emotion,longing;until finally the wayward son presents an open door to release the blessed heart of the father.This will come eventually to a question not often asked in these words...What are the consequences of refusing grace?A smokescreen is offered by those attacking Paul and accusing him of lasciviousness.Your comment addressed this.Behind the smokescreen are the demands for what?Going back to the law?Redefining grace to suite the agenda of another gospel, a Jesus at first and a supplemental catalyst?Behind this article is a God of grace with a longing heart,but the conclusion is left in the air about the older boy ever coming to the father,at least with a contrite heart.Sad.Consquences?

      • MatthewS June 4, 2013 Reply

        Good questions, searching questions.

        First John says that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. Life is found in relationship to Jesus Christ. Somewhat like when Joseph had big reserves of food in Egypt when all the rest of the world was starving, so Jesus is the source of food and we are starving. If we come to him, we have life. If we refuse him, we are cutting ourselves off from the life he wants us to have. To extrapolate about the brother: the father in the story did not hate the older brother but it would seem that the older brother was the one barring the relationship desired by the father, even though it had been the older brother who had kept up appearances and followed all the rules.

        First John and Jude, and many other places in the NT, make it clear that sin does matter and that God judges sin. Grace doesn't mean that any concept of sin has been obliterated. But at the same time, when I try earn something with God in the realm of good works, outside the realm of faith, I place myself squarely in the older brother's shoes.

        And it could be that you are getting at the ultimate end: is there an eternal conscious Hell? That's one of my top ten most difficult issues to deal with and I can't fully wrap my brain around it all. I do trust that the judge of all the earth will do the right thing. It's popular for people to pick on the word "fair", but I do not believe anyone will point a finger at God to reasonably say, "You were not fair with me." A lot more could be said about that.

        Those are some thoughts I have. What do you think?

  4. eren June 11, 2013 Reply


    Lots of Christians drink beer and watch R-rated movies. This includes Christians from a wide variety of denominations, not just emerging churches.

    And we don't do it for outreach, either. We do it for fun. :-)

    • grateful June 12, 2013 Reply

      Oh, of course, there is no doubt. Very sad, really.

      • eren June 12, 2013 Reply

        Actually, grateful, I'm very happy. :-)

        • grateful June 12, 2013

          sin is always fun for a season

  5. Wendy Blake June 12, 2013 Reply

    Just to through in my opinion, even though it has been said, Jesus taught us that alcohol consumption IS freedom in Christ.

    • "Hannah" June 12, 2013 Reply


    • grateful June 12, 2013 Reply

      I've seen nothing but destruction come from alcohol. Enjoy your so-called "freedom" for someday your servant may become your master.

      • "Hannah" June 12, 2013 Reply

        I can have respect for your personal experience and your personal decisions, but I am quite curious what you do with Jesus' example on this...

        • grateful June 12, 2013

          I would do nothing with Jesus' example but simply say be careful that your servant does not become your master. We can deceive ourselves very easily. For me, I won't touch the stuff ever again; again, I have seen nothing but destruction come from alcohol. How about you? Ask a police officer friend or perhaps a marriage counselor - or how about a woman's shelter ...

  6. "Hannah" June 12, 2013 Reply

    Sorry, we are hijacking now. I just think there is a misunderstanding here, of what it means to walk in grace and relationship, and how the external rules are really secondary to all that. One Christian does not feel right about drinking, or about using beer brewing as a medium through which to practice lifestyle evangelism. Another has no problem with it. As Scripture does not forbid the brewing of beer, one way or the other, every man may do as his conscience dictates.

    But if one believes that drinking or not drinking beer is an example of or absence of the "light" that is in him... Well, the "light" is not an arbitrary list of rules that we do or don't keep. I could stop eating sugar, and that would not mean that I was walking in more grace than I previously had. Because it isn't about the rules, or even the lifestyle.

    Maybe read the article, again, more slowly, see whether the second time through, you start to glimpse what this grace and relationship is, and how neither the hard partier nor the rulekeeper, had it? I mean that, as gently as possible.

    • "Hannah" June 12, 2013 Reply

      (Replace "beer-brewing" in the conversation, with any other question of "standards" that Christians like to quibble over... Whichever one fits the best and makes the most sense to you)

  7. grateful June 12, 2013 Reply

    I understand grace, believe you me. Frankly, I should be dead or in prison, and instead I am married to a beautiful, Godly woman who loves me and we are raising a Godly seed. I'm simply stating that the mere fact that anyone would consider having a beer brewing party as part of a "lifestyle evangelism" event is indicative of the extremely weak state of the American Church.

    Sorry if this is hijacking, there are just a few things I get pretty fired up about. Alcohol as we know it today in American culture is deceiving and destructive. My advice: stay away!

    • "Hannah" June 12, 2013 Reply

      I am sorry, I don't mean to accuse you. And I can certainly agree to disagree about alcohol, I respect your choices on the matter, and I don't wish to talk you out of it.

      I am, however, baffled by the allegations on this thread. First by Alfred, that there is any such thing as "bad" grace, secondly, that there are mainstream Christian churches which preach both a Biblically accurate definition of grace, yet encourage blatant immorality.

      And thirdly from grateful, by the attack on a specific church movement, as well as the insinuation that beer and R-rated movies fall into the category of blatant immorality.

      And if I could boldface the following, I would: beer-brewing parties and R-rated movies are not a sign of a weak church movement. A misunderstanding of, suppression of, or outright denial of grace as God's unmerited favor, is. Made more so, if that movement also feels the need for numerous extra-biblical rules with which to control its members.

      • Heather June 12, 2013 Reply

        I don't drink alcohol in any form, I feel no need for it. I would never assume that it's blatant immorality though. It's only a sin if you are disobeying a conviction that God has given you specifically, I think. (also probably if you do not use moderation.)

        Movies are rated R for many reasons, in these politically correct days often some Christian (or faith based/redemption) films are often rated R. I'm not just talking about The Passion of the Christ either. It wouldn't be a good idea to blanket ban them (and by doing so, condemn your brothers and sister who watch them, even if that wasn't your intention.)

  8. eren June 13, 2013 Reply

    @grateful: It sounds like some very negative things in your own life that are related to alcohol. f you or your loved ones have struggled with addiction, I am truly sorry for the pain you have experienced, and I respect your decision to abstain. But that does not mean you can judge everyone who has a different experience. Not drinking may be the best and wisest choice for you, and I respect your ability to make that choice for yourself.

    However, what is best for you is not necessarily what is best for everyone. Your choices/convictions are different than mine. I respect that. But given your comments about "sin" above, it seems you are unable to offer me the same respect.

    I am surprised to find that you consider all alcohol consumption to be a sin. I think it's worth noting that Jesus turned water into wine as his first miracle. Jesus also used wine at the Last Supper, when he instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion. Many churches continue to use wine when they celebrate the Eucharist.

    I experience the presence of God when I receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion--not because the small sip of wine is intoxicating, but because I experience God's presence through the sacrament. I also celebrate the good gifts of God when I drink a glass of wine with my dinner, or share a pint of beer with friends. Alcohol, in itself, is neither good nor bad. What matters is what you do with it.

  9. […] to make you feel bad about who you are in Christ.  Salvation in Christ is freedom from guilt.  It is grace, not shame.  It is acceptance of who you are, not hatred of what you have not yet become.  It is peace, not […]

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