“Three Free Sins” and the Scandal of Grace

My friend Caleb recently recommended a book he’d just read. Since Caleb spoke so passionately about it, I borrowed a copy of Steve Brown’s “Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad At You.” Since I first heard the title, I felt a mixture of agreement and skepticism. But, regardless of how much I do or do not agree with any of the books I read, I think it’s important to be open-minded and at least entertain ideas that challenge what I know and believe.

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The book’s cover phrase states: “The reason we’re so bad is that we’re trying so hard to be good.” This clues me in on the kind of approach Brown employs with his writing. He very adamantly celebrates the grace of God manifest in Jesus. I love the focus of forgiveness, authenticity in admitting our own failures, and trusting God with the task of changing our inner beings.

Here are some of the biggest moments of the book, the ideas that really got to the heart of what Brown wanted to communicate about sin, forgiveness, and God’s love. Because I see the Bible as God-inspired, absolute truth, I will compare and contrast Steve Brown’s theological portraits to God’s truth as revealed in Scripture.

Highlights from “Three Free Sins”

Club Requirements

“…The very fact that we are Christians (properly understood) is a statement to the world that we are extremely needy, terribly sinful, and really weak. We are part of a club that requires nothing of its members except that they recognize they are a part of a club that requires nothing from its members. And that’s because we can’t meet any other requirement.”
This is a strong display of Christian humility, which I think is one of the boons of Brown’s writings. As we realize the imperfections of who we are juxtaposed against the perfection of God, we should submit ourselves willingly under His authority. This quote from the book also reminds us of how the Church should be open and welcoming of people from all walks of life, because Jesus welcomed all people, especially the needy and unlovely.

Beggars

“This book is a witness. It’s a witness to the eternal verities of the Christian faith, to the surprising discovery that God isn’t angry at his people and to the incredible wholeness that comes when one encounters the real God…not the one “they” told us about. This book is simply the words of one needy, fearful, sinful, confused, and joyous beggar telling other beggars where he found bread.”
This analogy of beggars and bread is a succinct, visual way to describe how those who follow Jesus should tell others about Him. There’s nothing about Christians themselves that connects them to God; God has simply reached out to them and transformed their lives. Christians: don’t talk down to non-Christians. Love and serve them like Jesus did, and be living proof that God changes people for the better.

Change

“Repentance isn’t changing; it’s God’s way of changing us if that is what he wants. Changing, though, isn’t even the issue. If the Bible is right in that all our sins are covered by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and Christ gives us his righteousness in place of our sinfulness, change may happen, but it isn’t what this whole thing is about.”
Actually, it could be argued that change is what Jesus is all about. Repentance is admitting your failures and sins before God, turning away from them, and walking toward Him in humility. Repentance is absolutely about change, which God always wants to bring to our stubborn, foolish hearts and minds (Isaiah 30:15; Matthew 3:8; Luke 5:32). Saint Ignatius said of repentance: “It is impossible for a man to be freed from the habit of sin before he hates it, just as it is impossible to receive forgiveness before confessing his trespasses.”
God’s whole mission is to change the world by rescuing people from the evil and meaninglessness of sin, and redeeming us to a life of purpose and goodness as we work with Him to love and serve people. A case study of this is the entire Old Testament narrative in which God forgives the bumbling, foolish, sinning, Israelites, and He calls them to live as holy (set apart to reflect God’s goodness). By living as a holy people, Israel was a picture of what God was like to the world; full of love, goodness, justice, and truth.

Sin Boldly

“You get three free sins! So go and “sin boldly.” Steve, I’m shocked! How could you? I don’t know why you’re shocked. When you joined the church (if you’re a Christian), you announced to the world that you were sinful and seriously screwed up. The church, someone has said, is the only club in the world where the only qualification for joining it and staying in it is that one be unqualified.”
I like Brown’s phrase about being unqualified to be in the church, which is true of all of us. No one is worthy. God makes us worthy. It’s only by God’s grace that He brings us into His family. However, this is one of the sections of the book which frustrated me. I understand that the author is using the “three free sins” phrase as an attention-grabbing, shock-value moniker to explain a deeper reality of God’s forgiveness. God absolutely forgives our sins, as many as we commit. His grace and forgiveness  are endless. But I find it troubling that Brown seems to care little about what Jesus declares about sin: “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus doesn’t condemn, but invites us to live a life free of the things that ensnare us. We must intentionally reject sin. Paul even says, “put to death what is earthly in you.” Brown’s encouragement to “use” “three free sins” is misleading if he’s attempting to paint an accurate picture of the whole life God calls us to; embrace both forgiveness of our sins and walk with Jesus in a renewed, Spirit-led life.

Preachers

Preachers are supposed to keep people from sinning. I haven’t been very successful so far. And I’ve been trying for forty years.”
This is a miscalculation. According to parts of Scripture like the Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus), preachers are meant to equip and train Jesus-followers to live in connection with God, empowered by the Spirit. Individuals are ultimately responsible to God for their own sins. Preachers, pastors, or any Christian leaders are not responsible to keep people from sinning, but lead in humility while reminding others of the godly vision of joining God in restoring the world, by personally living out the transformation each has experienced in relationship with Jesus.

Secrets

“Frederick Buechner (the American writer and theologian), among others, has said that when we tell our secrets to someone else or even to ourselves, those secrets lose their power.
 This is one of the sections of the book I really enjoyed because of its emphasis on the power of community. We are meant to experience life in meaningful, authentic relationships. Especially when bearing the weight of secretive things that only hinder us from living an abundant life with Jesus, we must confess before God and admit our sins to others (James 5:16; 1 John 1:9).

Covering Sins

“I spent a lot of space in this book talking about the irrelevance of our obedience, but let me say it again, and try to listen this time. If Jesus covered all your sins on the cross, you don’t have to cover them. They are already covered. Okay? If God has put the incredible goodness and obedience of Jesus Christ into your account, there’s enough, and you don’t have to add to it. When you try to cover your own sins (by being obedient or denying they’re there) and be more righteous than God’s own Son…you’re like a man who wears a bra. You’re weird, you may like it, but it doesn’t do you any good and has no practical purpose.”
So much of what Brown writes is Scripturally founded and derived from God’s forgiving, loving character. However, some of his conclusions are a bit misplaced in light of the full context of Scripture. It’s true that God despises human effort to earn salvation (i.e. works-based religion); Jesus did cover all of humanity’s sins on the cross by putting them to death and raising again to give us new life. Brown overlooks loads of Scripture and God’s passionate desire for people to live holy, transformed, morally upright lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s only by the Spirit’s enabling that we’re able to walk with Jesus in holiness (Ephesians 2).
We don’t live a good life so that we earn God’s love. It is because He’s already freely given us His love that we respond in gratitude by living a good life, following Him in obedience.
Brown argues that by living in obedience to God and living morally, people are trying to usurp Jesus’ sacrificial penal substitutionary atonement (to get theologically precise). This is not an accurate, scriptural delineation. Christians who attempt to live a pure, holy life (in the Spirit’s power and direction, not to achieve God’s approval) are merely obeying God’s call to “walk in the light” (John 8:12, 1 John 1:7).
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What do you think about the message of “Three Free Sins”?
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6 responses to ““Three Free Sins” and the Scandal of Grace

  1. John, here are some rambling thoughts.

    Salvation is free and the only “qualification” is repentant belief in God and Jesus. But, the Bible does talk a lot about sanctification and holy living. Paul wrote “put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”

    So, we as mature Christians must focus on holy living. We live and offer our bodies as a holy sacrifice to God, right? Seems like the title and some of the comments you posted would diminish the call to holy living and just focus on the initial act of salvation. Was the purpose of the book to write to convince non-Christians to follow Christ or was it to encourage believers to deeper levels of faith and practice?

    Holy living is important because God is holy and to assume a license to sin (even in jest) really ignores the power and purpose of the cross. Jesus died to save us from our past sins and free us from the power of sin and death, enabling us to pursue holiness. I think if we stop at “I’m saved and my sins are covered” then it’s like the cross has only a momentary impact on our lives whereas I think Paul makes the case the cross and Jesus continue and will always impact our lives.

    Just a few thoughts.

  2. My biggest concern, or point of skepticism, is that a new Christian might take away the message of “I get ‘three free sins'”, rather than the true depth of Grace we have all received. While we don’t have to prove or do anything to receive God’s forgiveness or grace, our works are to be evidence of God’s love in our lives.

    Thank you for your thoughts! I heard a lot about this book.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. That’s why I believe it’s so important to remain Gospel centered in youth ministry. Love the challenge to “preachers”. 1 Cor 11:1

    • Spencer, are you agreeing that it’s a preacher’s job to keep people from sinning? Or to lead people in experiencing Jesus and teaching them to apply righteous living from the inside out?

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