The Grace of God
by Nigel Day-Lewis
The following text is the continuation of the series The Grace of God or Some thoughts on Grace, Part 3:
Two Things Grace is Not
- A denial of discipline or effort in Christian life and service
“For it is by grace you have been saved…not by works” (Ep 2/8f). We cannot be righteous by our own efforts, we cannot justify ourselves by keeping the whole law. It is only by grace – God graciously applying to us the finished work of Christ on the cross – that we can be made/declared righteous and so be justified and saved. So grace rightly brings an end to all our striving and straining to be justified (declared righteous) and accepted by God.
However, when this truth is not held together with all the other truth about salvation, when it is emphasized and pursued at the cost of (or even to the exclusion of) other truth, distortions and exaggerations creep in (half-truths and untruths) which are devastating to the health, growth and effectiveness of the Christian and the church.
To some adherents of ‘grace teaching’, words like “work”, “effort”, “strive” and “strain” are four-letter words. Because of ‘grace’ there is no place for any of these in the Christian life: if we are doing any of these it shows we are still in works (trying to justify ourselves, to earn God’s approval) and haven’t yet found grace; once we have found grace we can just ‘chill’ in God’s favour and pleasure and not have to work in any way. (And if anyone tells us that we should be or do anything then we don’t have to because ‘we’re not under law but under grace’.)
The problem with this is that the NT uses all four of these words in a positive sense of Christian life and service. There is clearly a work/effort that ceases with grace and salvation, but there is another work/effort that begins.
For example, let’s take the words “effort”/“efforts”. These words occur 15 times in the NIV NT. One of these is about the Jews’ efforts to keep Paul from speaking to the Gentiles (1 Th 2/16). Of the remaining 14, 2 are negative:
Ro 9/16: It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
Ga 3/3: Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort
Respectively, these verses are about election and justification – as we would expect, these are both sovereign and gracious works of God and do not involve us (our effort or anything else). So far, so good.
But the other 12 times the word is used (85% – note where the emphasis lies!), it is used positively: there are things that we should be making an effort in. 8 of these are about Christian living (holiness):
Lk 13/24: Make every effort to enter through the narrow door because many will try to enter and will not be able to
(This first occurrence indicates there may be effort involved even in seeking salvation, although salvation itself is a work of God.)
Jn 5/44: You accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God.
Ro 14/19: Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
Ep 4/3: Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
He 4/11: Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall by following their example…
He 12/14: Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no-one will see the Lord
2 Pe 1/5: For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge… [7x] 2 Pe 3/14: Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.
The other 4 are about Christian service (ministry):
Ga 4/11: I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.
1 Th 2/17: out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.
1 Th 3/5: I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless
2 Pe 1/15: And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things
So Peter and Paul (not a bad duo!) made, and expected us to ‘make, every effort’ in life (to be holy, to grow spiritually, etc) and ministry (to get to places, to establish believers and churches in the truth, etc).
The same is true of our other ‘dirty’ words – strain, strive, work, labour:
Pp 3/13: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on [life] Ac 24/16: So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man [life] 1 Ti 4/10: and for this we labour and strive [ministry]
That there are works for us to do as believers is too much to accept for some ‘grace’ adherents. But in the very next sentence after Paul has insisted we are saved by God’s grace not our works, he says we are saved to do works:
Ep 2/8ff: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works…
Clearly there are works before salvation that are not acceptable and works after salvation that are.
In addition, there are 10 references to Christian “labour” in the NT letters: 1 Co 3/8, 15/58, 16/16; 2 Co 11/27; Pp 1/22, 2/16; Co 1/29; 1 Th 1/3; 2 Th 3/8; 1 Ti 4/10.
When it comes to Christian service (ministry) it may not surprise us unduly that there is work and effort involved.
But how is it that despite grace, and even once we are in grace, there is work and effort even in the Christian life?
Here Philippians 2/12f is key: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” First, we see that there is a work involved in salvation, but (and here is the crux) it is not a working for a salvation we hope still to achieve but a working out of a salvation we have already received. There is a huge difference; the first would certainly be a denial of grace, the second is not. Even though God has graced us with salvation (salvation past, “you have been saved”, justification), there is a working and living out of our salvation that follows in both our life and service (salvation present, “you are being saved”, sanctification) and lasts all our days. This “work out” has to do with all those 600 admonitions that we referenced earlier – indeed, the whole body of Bible teaching: learning it, understanding it and putting it into practice. Second (and even more crucially for correcting wrong understandings of grace), we do this and we only do this (it only makes sense to do it, it’s only possible to do it) because “God works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose”. That is, God is working in us (through the indwelling Spirit) so that we both want to do (“to will”) and have the power to do (“to act”) what he wants. He gives us both the motivation and the means; he makes us both willing and able. If it wasn’t for this there would be no point trying. It’s precisely because we’re in grace that we can and we should! If we weren’t in grace, if we were still in the OC, with an old heart and no indwelling Spirit, what would be the point of trying to live holy: it would be impossible and so not worth trying. But because we are in grace, in the NC, and thus regenerated with a new heart and indwelt by God’s Spirit, holiness is possible and it is worth making every effort to be holy (because that’s what God wants – it will glorify him and make us happy and free). This is the crux: we work out our salvation, we make every effort, we strain towards what is ahead, we labour and strive, not despite grace but because of grace. (The relationship between grace and work/effort in sanctification is not, as if often supposed, and as it would be with justification, one of opposition but one of consequence, not mutually exclusive but cause-and-effect). Third, while God moves and enables us, he doesn’t overwhelm or overpower us: it is possible to resist him. We have to co-operate with his working in us if it is going to result in the holiness and obedience he desires. That’s why we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling”: with a holy reverence for the God who is working in us and because we don’t want to frustrate or resist his work.
Another text which makes it clear that grace opposes pre-salvation effort but presupposes post-salvation effort is 2 Peter 1/3-9. V3-4 tell us that God’s power has given us everything we need for life and godliness; indeed, that through our knowledge of him we can participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. If ever there was a text to suggest grace has done it all and we don’t need to do a thing (that any such effort would be not only unnecessary but ‘works’, that God just drops perfection into us), this is it. But Peter goes on: “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness knowledge” and so on (v5ff). Precisely because God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, precisely because he’s made it possible for us to participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world, we can and should make every effort to realize this in our lives, to make the possible actual. Again we make this effort not despite grace but because of it. Notice the telling phrase: “For this very reason”! Because grace – therefore effort. And so we make every effort, by working with the God who works in us, to add to the faith we exercised in salvation (in turns) goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love. When we have these qualities we are on the road to maturity, and growing continually in them will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of Christ (v8). Conversely, if we don’t have them (if we make no effort and think God will do it all automatically, apart from us), then our salvation will issue in nothing and it will almost be like we’ve forgotten we were even cleansed from our sins (v9).
What these texts are beginning to make clear is that while justification is a work of God alone (our only part is to believe – and even faith is a gift from him), sanctification is a partnership between God and us – more specifically, between the Spirit and us, for the Holy Spirit is the Person of the Triune Godhead who is responsible for taking the believer from converted sinner to presented saint. In this partnership he is the senior partner (he initiates, sustains, teaches, guides and completes) but we are involved (in our decision, co-operation and effort). So we are not talking about working out our salvation on our own or in our own strength. Without him we can’t do it. But without us he doesn’t do it. Note the partnership (1+2): “if by the Spirit  you  put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Ro 8/13). My problem with ‘grace’ teaching is that it makes so many believers passive, lazy and presumptuous about their spiritual health and growth – and both they and the church are weakened from what they could and should be. We will look at sanctification in more detail in a later chapter; but even a quick glance at Colossians 3/1-17 (just one of several passages about working out our salvation) shows you how involved, active, decisive, even violent, a believer should be about his spiritual growth: “set your hearts on things above…set your minds on these above…put to death [mortify, kill!] whatever belongs to your earthly nature…you must rid yourself of all such things…you have taken off your old self and put on your new self…clothe yourselves… put on”. It is just not true that we don’t do anything in sanctification (in living saved, in working out our salvation, in growing in righteousness). And it is equally not true that, if we do, this somehow steals God’s glory: God tells us to do it so it can’t be stealing his glory; in fact, it gives God glory because, when we do it, it is his grace motivating and enabling us; and when, as a result of doing it, we increasingly reflect him, we glorify him.
Another phrase adherents of ‘grace teaching’ like to use is ‘the finished work of the cross’. If any believer says anything that remotely smacks of work, effort, striving, straining, of wanting to be more holy or grow in anything, out comes the phrase, ‘Oh brother, you need a revelation of the finished work of the cross.’ Such people are failing (or not wanting) to recognize a salient truth: the work of Christ on the cross is finished but the work of Christ in the believer is not! What Jesus had to do on the cross – to provide atonement for the sin of man, and so enable God to be both just (in punishing sin) and the one who justifies (those who believe) – he has certainly finished (and no-one can or needs to ever again provide atonement). But when we put our faith in Jesus, his work in our life has just begun – and for the rest of our earthly lives he will be continuing that work, making us more and more like him and fitting us for heaven. And in that work, as we have seen, we are involved, working out our salvation in partnership with the God who works in us. Unfortunately, the phrase ‘the finished work of the cross’ is often the refuge of the deceived or lazy Christian who wants to curb the hunger and zeal of his brothers to resemble his own lack thereof.
A key Scripture which further underlines the points made in the previous paragraphs is Hebrews 10/14: “by one sacrifice he has made perfect [holy: v10] forever those who are being made holy.” This tells us that our status in Christ is perfect (justification) but our state in the here and now is that we are still being made holy (sanctification).
Such ‘grace Christians’ are also likely to deride any discipline or spiritual disciplines in the life of a believer (e.g. devotions, fasting, or anything we may do to aid our life or ministry) as works, a denial of grace and unnecessary in the light of the finished work of the cross. But again, we don’t observe this discipline (or do any of the disciplines) despite grace but because of grace. If there was no enabling grace from God, why bother? But if there is grace available, I’m going to be as disciplined as possible to access grace as often and as best I can. “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (He 4/16) Grace is available – but you’ve got to go to the throne to get it; the more often you do this, and the more practised you are at it, the more you get. This isn’t legalism (you’re not trying to be justified through it); it’s discipline (and it’s stupid not to do it). A swimmer doesn’t think ‘this breathing in air all the time is legalism – I think I’ll stop it’ (he’ll slow then sink); air is the ‘grace’ that enables him to keep moving and to do so well, and the more regularly and expertly he can take in air, the better and faster he can swim. He exercises discipline precisely because the air is there and available: we exercise discipline (or should) in our Christian lives, and practise the disciplines, precisely because we are in grace – God’s grace is available and we want to avail ourselves of it as often and as best we can. Christians, don’t let your discipline or your disciplines be undermined by false charges of legalism; don’t become flabby in the name of grace! There is effort and discipline in the truly spiritual life – just look at all the great saints of the Bible and church history. I may exercise discipline and extend effort in my life out of conviction and desire, and/or love and gratitude, and not at all out of legalism. (Someone has well said that in the NT ‘doctrine is grace and ethics is gratitude,’ i.e. all NT teaching is summarized by grace and all Christian living is prompted by gratitude.)
We can take this even further if we are willing to hear it. There is the beating yourself up that is certainly ended by grace: the mental, emotional and (supposedly) spiritual exercises in which one agonizes over one’s condition, does penance for one’s past sin, and tries to make one’s thoughts and desires pure and acceptable to God; or the literal beating of one’s body that many in church history have endured or inflicted upon themselves (flagellation, scratchy clothing, extreme fasts and vigils in uncomfortable positions and strange places) in an effort to make themselves holy and righteous before God. But there is the beating of your body which grace begins: “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training…I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” (1 Co 9/24-27)
Why has false teaching on grace become so popular and widespread? Firstly, because like nearly all error, it contains much truth. It starts as I did with the sincere celebration of true grace. But without sound interpretation and mature theology to keep it within biblical parameters, it moves increasingly into one-sided statements not checked by other biblical truth. But there is another reason. Human nature (especially fallen human nature) likes to be indulged, to be told it’s OK and loved and prized; it’s also lazy and self-justifying. There is that in some extreme ‘grace’ teaching which is exactly what Isaiah and Paul wrote about: “These are a rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the Lord’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!’” (Is 30/9ff); “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Ti 4/3f)
False teaching on grace can have (and has had) serious consequences not only for Christians but for churches. If one takes the teaching to its logical conclusion, then you don’t ever have to do anything (including in the church) because it’s all grace and I’ve been set free from any rules, expectations or obligations that anyone (including church leaders) ‘impose’ on me. (‘Grace’ becomes a cloak for selfishness, laziness, lack of submission and unaccountability.) So I don’t have to go to meetings, I don’t have to serve, I don’t have to give, I don’t need fellowship, I don’t need teaching; everything is grace and God’s already done it all (or will just down-load it for me). This is not extreme: in this way Christians I know of have dropped out of church (and inevitably in time out of the faith) and whole churches have closed because all their members have been set free by ‘grace’ and the pastor (if he himself hasn’t also succumbed to the disease) has no-one left to lead or to support him.
Perhaps the most serious long-term consequence of current false teaching on grace will be the sapping of the church’s selflessness, strength and virility in mission. Not only will some Christians be led (legitimately in their understanding) to become soft on sin and weak on holiness, so compromising and weakening both themselves and the local and wider church, but they will think that any kind of self-discipline, hard work, sustained effort and ‘for this I labour and strive’ in life or ministry is fleshly legalism, and so slide into an undisciplined, indulgent and lazy spiritual life that avoids (or at least underplays) discipline, work and effort – let alone hardship, cost and suffering (there is little room in hyper-grace for these). No more the lean and mean, rigorous and disciplined ‘muscular Christianity’ of the 19C and early 20C with its incredible achievements on the home front and on the mission field. We will be an inward-turned, self-absorbed, weak and flabby church that achieves very little – but we will congratulate ourselves on having (unlike previous generations of the church) finally discovered the true meaning of grace!
We have reached the end of our exploration of the grace of God. It will be noticed that the two things grace is not correspond to the two things that grace is: in each case the ‘is not’ protects us from taking the ‘is’ beyond acceptable, sensible and (most importantly) biblical parameters (or emphasis).
Grace is God not treating us as our sins deserve – but that does not mean it is soft on sin and weak on holiness. And grace is God enabling us to be and do everything he wants us to be and do – but that does not mean there is no discipline or effort in Christian life or service.
I have taken more time to show what grace is not because of the errant teaching so prevalent today and its serious consequences; some of this teaching is only very subtly and slightly off-line and has needed careful correction. But I want to end on the positive: as long as we stop short of unbiblical extensions and exaggerations of grace, we can celebrate and live in God’s incredible, indescribable, ‘unreasonable’ and utterly amazing grace.
Books on grace tend to say more than the Bible says about it. (This is inevitable if you are always focussing on grace and so having to come up with new things to say.)Get your theology on grace from the Bible, not books.
Let your elders pastor and teach you (on grace and everything else), not the bookshop, TV or internet.
Even the healthiest foodstuff cannot be your sole diet: it needs to be balanced by other foods or you get ill. Exclusive focus in your reading or your church’s preaching on grace (or any other subject) for too long will lead to imbalance/distortion, a bubble on the roundedness of God’s truth, which can only lead to a blowout. When a church has only heard one thing from one angle for too long, it becomes incapable of receiving any balancing truth.
Not everything about God (his person and work) is grace: get a grip on all the other attributes too (cf. Ro 11/22) or the subtitle to one of RT Kendall’s books will become true of you: ‘Your God is too nice’. I’m not interested in a ‘grace revolution’; the only revolution we should desire is a God (all of God) revolution, a Jesus revolution.
You judge any teaching by its fruit. Many ardent adherents of ‘grace teaching’ become critical, exclusive, divisive – criticising leaders and churches, and rejecting everyone who doesn’t see it as they do. Some of those who talk the most about grace live it the least. Don’t split your church into camps about (of all things) grace.
In its most extreme form, ‘grace teaching’ (or hyper-grace) becomes a form of Gnosticism – in two ways: (1) only really spiritual Christians have the secret knowledge/revelation (about grace) that we have, a superior form of faith; (2) because of grace, it doesn’t really matter how I live. My spirit (my righteousness in Christ) is saved so what I do in my body (my righteousness on earth) is not of too much consequence.