There is no doubt that the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ is worth living and dying for. Cutting across any sense of human merit, it is unique, humbling and ennobling. And in our witnessing and preaching we are rightly keen to emphasize that we are saved only by the grace of God to us in Christ. Even the faith we exercise to repent and receive Christ turns out to be the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit who opened our hearts. This truth is encapsulated in Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
But there is much more to be understood about grace if we are to be true to the Bible and faithful to God in our discipleship. Ephesians 2:10 follows 2:8-9: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”.
Yes we are saved from God’s wrath and the consequences of disobedience (2:1-3), but for good works. In Ephesians these works include: works of ministry (4:12); avoiding unfruitful works of darkness (5:11); and serving others in a Christlike manner in family, marriage, work and church (5:15-6:9). God’s grace toward us ought to be evident in how we live.
Dallas Willard’s aphorism “grace is opposed to earning, not to effort” helps us find this balance of Scripture.1 This is seen in the example of the apostle of grace himself in 1 Corinthians 15:10:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Grace ought to beget gratitude to God and hard work from us. A failure in either may be evidence that we have misunderstood the deep cost of grace to God. Paul knew he was saved by grace, but he could never get over the fact that he was totally unworthy of being shown mercy (1 Cor 15:9). He always remembered the great cost to Jesus in making grace possible for sinners. We see this as he exhorts tight-fisted believers to become openhandedly generous: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Jesus laid aside his glory in coming amongst us, and as our sin bearer on the cross his unbroken and unsullied fellowship with his father was severed. Grace may be free to us but it was at great cost to the trinitarian fellowship.
Why is it so hard to get some evangelical Christians to commit to service and teaching opportunities in local churches for more than a few weeks at a time? Why is it that ministers and theologically trained students often feel called only to places in their home city, or to thriving rather than struggling churches? One conclusion is that we may misunderstand why God saves us by grace. Grace is for works, and involved backbreaking toil and effort for Paul. Cherishing his rich teaching on grace ought to be confirmed by cherishing hard work for our Lord. Our teaching will lack integrity and fail to produce disciples capable of enduring hardship or persecution—not to mention the allurements of pleasure and materialism—if we are happy consumers of grace rather than hard workers for the Lord of grace. Cheap grace, being inimical to the gospel, will never produce faithful disciples or servant-hearted churches.
Paul's passion for sin cancelling and sin conquering grace is clear in Titus 2:11-12: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age”. The Father’s grace in election, Christ’s in redemption and the Spirit’s in regeneration must also be allowed to train us to be good and godly, not just to feel good about our new status in Christ (Eph 1:4-14). The rhyme “I will not work my soul to save for that my Lord has done, but I will work like any slave for love of God’s dear son” helps us see why we who love the doctrines of grace must also love the duties of grace. These responsive duties will never improve our standing with God, but will certainly prove that we are disciples and improve our service and usefulness to our master.
In this way we will be continually enriched, since grace begets grace in our times of need (2 Cor 12:9-10; Col 4:6; 2 Tim 2:1; Heb 4:16). We who speak often of God’s grace ought to be the most gracious of people, to friends and enemies alike. Grace will be deepened and experienced in richer ways as we extend and expend ourselves for Christ to others. Grace is similar to God’s love, and increases in us as it overflows through us (1 Thess 2:12; John 7:38). Grace that terminates with us is wasted, whereas grace flowing from us will always glorify God, enriching us and others.
Far from absolving us from effort and work, God’s grace provokes us to rigorous effort, at the same time providing us with resolve and delight. There are five passages worthy of our ongoing reflection as we look for the fruit of grace in our lives: intentional growth that confirms assurance (2 Pet 1:3-11); holiness that keeps us from bitterness and immorality (Heb 12:12-17); selfless exercise of grace given (Luke 8:18); growing gratitude and reverent awe before God (Heb 12:28-29); and generous giving outside of our local churches (2 Cor 8:9, 9:6-11).
1. Dallas Willard, The Great Omission, HarperOne, New York, 2014, p. 34.↩