The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Calvin, Hobbes and Cheap Grace

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When our oldest child turned eight, I had been trying to spend more time teaching, reading, and thinking with him alone, separate from the other kids. Having not grown up in a Christian home, I often find it difficult to be the spiritual head—it doesn’t come easily, and it seems awkward and forced at times. Other times, though, a spiritual truth gets dropped in my lap and my son and I both are immensely blessed by it. One such rare occasion happened several nights ago…

Having recently moved, many of my books still lie scattered about the house in various places—in boxes, in cupboards, in stacks of precarious heights—much to my patient wife’s chagrin. In one of these aforementioned places, my son had located a few of my old Calvin and Hobbes collections and started reading them. Since these timeless classics are something that all young men should read, I had no objections. As we were talking a few nights later, I was attempting to show my son the difference between mercy and grace. “Mercy,” I pontificated, “is not getting what we deserve, but grace is getting what we don’t deserve.” (Blank stares from eight-year-old.) I tried a different route. “God’s mercy is what relieves us of the punishment for our sin, but His grace is what put Jesus on the cross to bear that punishment for us.” (A few lights come on in eight-year-old’s brain.) The mercy part seems to click and it reminds him of one of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons that he read earlier that day. When he brought me the book with the cartoon in it, I sat amazed at the simple object lesson before me. [1]

Here’s the scenario in a nutshell: Calvin is granted the great privilege of being allowed to use his Dad’s binoculars. He is told to be “extra careful.” Of course, he breaks them and is in agony all day, feeling terrible and wondering how much Dad is going to punish him. In an unprecedented turn of mercy, Dad forgives Calvin (no punishment) and actually buys him his very own set of binoculars (grace.) This simple cartoon gave my son an illustration of what I was talking about, and it further helped him understand God’s mercy and grace to us through His Son. It also showed me how I often tend to “over-engineer” the Bible with my kids. More times than not, I overwhelm my kids with too much information, instead of being content with making one or two points. Forgetting that Jesus Himself taught adults using parables, I attempt to teach my children ten-point lessons in theology and end up frustrating them and me. As if this wasn’t enough, Calvin and Hobbes had yet one more thing to show my son and me.

In the last panel of the cartoon, after Calvin receives Dad’s grace, his sinful mind immediately conceives how to take full advantage of the situation. In Romans 5:20, Paul writes: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” Calvin certainly understood this: If breaking Dad’s binoculars got him a set of his own, then maybe he should break some of Dad’s power tools too! But Paul continues his line of thought in Romans 6:1–2 “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Calvin’s rapid amnesia regarding his sin and cavalier attitude towards his Dad’s grace is nothing new. It was prevalent in the early church—hence Paul’s words in Romans 5 and 6—and is no less an issue in our own day. John MacArthur writes:

The gospel in vogue today holds forth a false hope to sinners. It promises them they can have eternal life yet continue to live in rebellion against God. Indeed, it encourages people to claim Jesus as Savior yet defer until later the commitment to obey him as Lord. It promises salvation from hell but not necessarily freedom from iniquity. It offers false security to people who revel in the sins of the flesh and spurn the way of holiness. By separating faith from faithfulness, it teaches that intellectual assent is as valid as wholehearted obedience to the truth… Romans 6 is Paul’s rebuttal to antinomianism. He argues that our union with Christ guarantees we shall no longer be slaves of sin… Those who argue against lordship salvation often base their theology on the faulty assumption that the work of God in salvation stops with justification. The rest, many believe, is purely the believer’s own effort. Sanctification, obedience, surrender, and all aspects of discipleship are left up to believers to do or not do as they choose. [2]

Just as Calvin’s “cheap grace” caused him to look for other ways to gain from the system, our churches are filled with men and women who are forsaking the future of the church for a quick fix of temporary grace. Discipleship is a non-existent practice in our American churches. I was told at one church that I attended that they had “tried a discipleship program a few years back, but it was too hard to keep up with.” If that’s not a sad commentary then I don’t know what is. The current obsession with church size and growth is pointless if we’re not discipling the members that we already have. Our older, “seasoned” members need to be condemning this antinomian spirit of the age and helping to sanctify the younger men and women of our congregations:

Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us (Titus 2:2–8)

We are witnessing an interesting time in church history. People are beginning to take the Bible seriously again. Homeschooling is getting more popular every year. Christian schools are overflowing. Families are having more children. But all this could be for naught if our older men and women don’t counsel and train our younger men and women with sound teaching. Just because your kids are grown doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Find a young mom or dad in your congregation and help them to grow in grace. Don’t tempt God’s grace hoping for power tools, get out there and use your binoculars (but not to go to the beach and look at babes).

  1. Bill Watterson, Weirdos From Another Planet! (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1990), 46.[]
  2. John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), xxi, 201–202.[]

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