My parents were both brought up in an extremely legalistic "Holiness" branch of the church. I have always been grateful that they broke away from most of that when I was very young. Since my family already understood that true holiness wasn't a matter of adhering to a bunch of mostly non-biblical rules and regulations, the question of what holiness or righteousness actually was was a live question to me growing up.
Somehow--I can only attribute it to the action of the Holy Spirit--I gained the insight that righteousness came through faith. I don't recall hearing it from anywhere, although I'm sure that it was present in sermons that I've heard and forgotten. I know that when I was young the Epistles were mostly opaque to me. ("Why should I care about some old letters that people wrote to other people a long time ago?") I was mostly into reading narrative at that time--Bible stories. So I didn't directly get the message from Paul. But somehow the story of Abraham in Genesis caught my imagination, and the line, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" stood out to me. I'm sure I got it from Genesis, and not Romans or Galatians.
Somehow, God had revealed to me the message of his grace--that the main thing about being a Christian wasn't living a perfectly moral life or picking up a certain number of good-deed plot coupons. It was an end to the ceaseless striving for the perfection that we've all already lost. That moment at an altar where you gave it all up and threw yourself on God's mercy--the Christian life didn't just start there; it kept going back there. I developed a pretty much Lutheran view of the Sermon on the Mount--that although it was a great ideal and set a direction for how we should live, it also largely intensified the Law for the purpose of driving us to recognize our need for a savior. It's all about the Savior, it's all about what He did for us. We can't live up to it; Jesus lived up to it for us. All we can do is be grateful.
But somehow, in the religious world, it seems to be almost impossible to hold on to that perspective.
The first thing that happened was that everyone else talking about grace seemed to be using it to justify sin. That might simply have been my perception--I'm sure not really everyone was using it in that way--but it was a serious problem, nonetheless. "I'm under grace, not under law" is right up there with "Only God can judge me" and "That's just your interpretation" as excuses for people who want to make stupid choices.
Of course, the true gospel of grace is liable to abuse: that's the accusation Paul makes reference to in Romans 3:8 and responding to it is what Romans 6 is all about. The fact that some people will use the word "grace" to justify sin doesn't invalidate the insight of real grace, but I think in my case it made me a little defensive about it.
The next thing that happens is that a lot of voices answer with "grace but." "We're under grace, not law, but grace enables us to live up to the law." "God gives us grace, but that's no excuse to sit back and do nothing." That attitude implies that grace is a starting point, but that in order to go further, we need to focus on works. Grace can only get us so far.
Paul responds to this accusation in Galatians 3:3: "After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?" Grace actually accomplishes the work, not only of justification, but also of sanctification. Embracing true grace will change how we actually live our lives. But we must embrace the ongoing work of grace in our lives; taking our eyes off of grace and trusting in anything else--in our own effort, in confession, in accountability, in anything other than God's work in our lives--is completely counterproductive. Not only can't we take credit for our own salvation; we can't even take credit for the ongoing work of God perfecting us. But in most churches, you can't say this. Relying on grace is looked on as a cop-out. So you get sucked into striving with your own effort again.
Then there is the contemporary penchant for focusing on the gospels. The "red letter" approach stresses the ethical commands of Jesus' teaching, in response to a supposedly complacent Pauline approach of simply praying a prayer and being eternally secure ever afterward. After all, we are asked, "What if Jesus actually meant all that stuff he said?" This is a pretty difficult rhetorical statement to oppose, despite the fact that those who say it always apply Jesus' teachings and example selectively, since so much of it is culturally bound or related to his unique mission.
The thing is, the book of Acts and the Epistles are the record of what those who were best in a position to understand what Jesus wanted them to do next. And what you see there is not a commitment to certain types of political social action, or an emphasis on large, showy projects for the poor and needy in their communities, or a neo-rabbinical form of disciple-making. (I don't actually see much of these things in the Gospels, either, but these sorts of things are what some in this movement seem to think what being a Jesus-follower is all about.)
No, what you see in Acts and in the Epistles is the proclamation of Good News. It was the message of what Jesus had already done through His death and resurrection. "Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses." That was Paul in Acts 13:38-39. Some people think Paul hijacked the first-century Jesus movement, but I'm not willing to rip out half the New Testament in order to focus on Jesus as a teacher and a moral example, even if lip service gets paid to Jesus' divinity and resurrection.
So in lots of different ways, the religious world seems hostile to the message of grace that was the hallmark of the early church. You come to Jesus because of this amazing message of forgiveness and life and peace. And then over time it all gets replaced by a bunch of social conventions and rules and obligations. Law replaces grace. It's the religious way.
God in his mercy has brought me back around the circle and back to an appreciation of grace once again. It's the message that God put on my heart when I was young. It's the message that changed my life for the better more than my conscious intentions and striving ever could. It's the message I always wanted to share with others, especially those who grew up in the church like I did, but may have never experienced the freedom and relief of simply falling upon God's mercy.
Events in my life over the past year or so have brought me back to grace once again. I'm deeply grateful to be in a church that proclaims the message of grace clearly and unambiguously. I want, more than anything, never to lose this perspective. I'm convinced that it is the heart of the gospel. It's the heart of God toward us.