15th July 2002
When I started writing this sermon, my intention was to use the bulk of it to explore the paradox of grace: that while we don't need to work in order to earn it, we do work as a result of it. I wanted to look carefully at James's passage on works, and reconcile it with the message of grace that permeates the New Testament. But as I've worked on it, I've found myself pulled more and more towards simply expounding grace.
I make no apologies for repetition. Grace is absolutely at the heart of what the gospel is, and if we ever start preaching a gospel than does not have grace at its centre, then we are not merely misguided, but are making ourselves God's enemies. ``If anyone should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!'' - Galatians 1:8.
If grace does not rule our hearts, we will fail in every aspect of our Christian lives that matters. We will fail to please God; we will fail to be happy; we will not be good husbands, wives or parents; and our church will repel non-Christians instead of attracting them. Only by the grace of God can we please him, delight ourselves, live in good relationships and build a powerful, attractive church.
Two weeks ago, Pete's session on ``The Gospel: Now What?'' reminded us of the source of our salvation, and of what qualifies us to be sons and daughters of God:
Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions [...] 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.— Ephesians 2:4-5a, 8-9
When we look closely at this passage, we see that all of this is God's doing: it's his initiative, his power and his will at work: Because of his great love for us, he made us alive [...] by grace, through faith [which is] not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. In fact, the only contribution we make to our salvation is our sin (that is, being ``dead in transgressions.'')
That's why Romans 1:17 says that ``in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.'' The gospel - the Good News - is that righteousness from God is revealed, rather than that we can become righteous through anything that we do ourselves.
When I was in my university's Christian Union, the great thing was always ``balance''. It was always ``We have to find the balance between this and that''. I want to make it absolutely clear that there is no balance between grace and law in our relationship with God. Paul makes it quite clear in Romans 7:7 that law's only role for us is to show us our own sinfulness so that we turn to God's grace.
Digression: Balance in the Bible (shamlessly stolen from my earlier talk on the deity of Christ)
I have the NIV on my computer, which makes it easy to do word-searches with 100% accuracy. The word ``balance'' occurs only four times in the whole of the bible, once in the sense of difference, and three times in the sense of scales:
The ``virtue'' of balance is never promoted in the bible. So let's not, for example, waste our time trying to find a balance between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit; or working out theology that's a balance between sovereignty and free will.
- Leviticus 25:27 - ``He is to refund the balance.''
- Psalm 62:9 - ``If weighed on a balance, they are nothing.''
- Proverbs 16:11 - ``Honest scales and balances are from the Lord.''
- Isaiah 40:12 - ``Who has weighed the hills in a balance?''
In fact, the closest the bible comes to talking about ``balance'' in this sense is in Revelation 3:16 - ``Because you are neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.''
That's why in Zechariah 4:7, when the foundation of the temple is symbolically laid, the shouts are of ``Grace! Grace!'' (KJV, NASB), not ``Law! Law!'', nor ``Grace and law!'' And incidentally, you also don't hear anyone shouting ``Home groups'', ``discipleship'', ``accountability'', ``generosity'' or any of these other fine things: because the foundation is grace pure and simple. Nothing added, nothing taken away. It has to be grace because there's nothing else that can earn God's favour for us: Isaiah 64:6 tells us that ``all our righteous acts are like filthy rags''.
So then, Pete's ``application'' section from a fortnight ago is excellent: while it's healthy for us to be a little introspective, to evaluate and check ourselves, we must avoid becoming self-obsessed when our faith is really all about Jesus. Hence the advice that for every time we look ourselves, we should look at him ten time. Excellent advice.
Another Digression: ``Worship'' Songs
Because God is and must always be the centre of our faith, our worship times are generally better served by songs like ``In Christ Alone'' and ``Jesus, Be The Centre'' (which are about him) than by songs like ``I Lift My Hands'' and ``Here I Am and I Have Come'' (which are essentially about our response to him).
That's certainly not to say that there is no place for response songs - but nine times out of ten, it's better to start worship by reminding ourselves of what we're responding to - God's unilateral love towards us.
Handy rule of thumb for worship leaders: Stuart Townend writes a lot of God songs; the Vineyard churches write a lot of Response songs.
So far, so good. Most good evangelical Christians understand - in their minds, if not necessarily in their hearts - that their salvation is entirely a work of God's grace. Our problem comes when, having accepted the free gift of God's grace for salvation, we then start trying to earn his favour for the rest of our lives - as though grace were only for salvation.
Paul has very harsh words such stupid behaviour (and yes, ``stupid'' is a bible term! ``Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates correction is stupid'' - Proverbs 12:1)
You foolish Galatians! (``You stupid Galatians'' - NEB.) Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? [...] Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?— Galatians 3:1-3, 5
Now we see clearly - if we ever doubted it - that grace is for life, not just for Christmas. It was never God's intention that we who are saved by grace should continue our Christian lives through human effort. If God gives us his Spirit and works miracles in this church, will it be because we observe the law? No, because we believe what we know of him!
And yet there is a constant and powerful tendency that draws us away from continuing to enjoy God's grace. It's as though, deep down, we believe that Christian maturity means learning to cope on our own, without God's help. We're like the older son in the parable of the prodigal son: God says to us ``You are always with me, and everything I have is yours'' (Luke 15:31) but we don't live as though that were true: we keep working as though we believe we need to earn God's favour - although it's already freely given.
(This is why new Christians are often more joyful than their more experienced counterparts: it's because they're still relying on God and believing that he loves them.)
We need to understand that our inability to grasp and believe grace is not merely stupid (bible term, remember!) but also deeply offensive to God. When we try to earn the favour that he has already freely given us, we are in effect saying that his gift is of no value. That's why Paul says that ``if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all'' (Galatians 5:2) - here circumcision stands for all human efforts to make ourselves acceptable to God.
The grace that gave us salvation also sustains us day to day. Although in many ways our salvation has totally transformed us (we are ``new creations'' - 2 Corinthians 5:17), some things stay the same: our rightous acts are still like filthy rags; we still can't earn God's favour. Just as well, then, that we don't need to.
Since we have now been justified by [Jesus'] blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!— Romans 5:9-10
The message here is so important: grace is not just something for non-Christians. It's the engine of our continuing relationship with God, the power of our day-to-day lives, and the source of all our spiritual power. It's for us!
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.— Galatians 5:1
Right then. We seem to have established emphatically that God's grace must be the foundation of our lives - always, not just at the point of salvation. So does that mean that it doesn't matter what we actually do?
Of course not! :-)
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! (``What a ghastly thought'' - J. B. Phillips.) We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? [...] Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.— Romans 6:1-3, 11
So Paul is emphatic that a life of sin is absolutely not an option for Christians. But notice his logic: he is not arguing that if we continue to sin, we will lose God's favour. The argument proceeds in the opposite direction: because of our new identity - because we are included in Jesus' death, and because we are saved by his grace, therefore it is absolutely contrary to our nature to continue sinning. We are to ``count ourselves dead to sin'' (not make ourselves dead to sin) because we are dead to sin: the grace of God has made it so. We are to ``count ourselves [...] alive to God'' (not make ourselves alive to God) because we are alive to God.
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. [...] As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.— James 2:14-17, 26
James is arguing here that faith (that is, the wherewithal to accept grace) is only real if it shows itself in good works. But there sense here is not that the works make the faith real, but that they show that it is real. When James writes that ``faith without deeds is dead'', he is saying that if someone claims to have faith, then you can judge whether or not it's true by their works.
To be absolutely clear: works are not a precondition of faith, but a consequence. Faith comes first; one of its consequences is works. In other words, the behaviour of a Christian does not validate his faith, and therefore earn grace; rather, Christians are freely given grace, and naturally respond with works.
If this seems like a fine point of theology, it isn't! It's crucial to our understanding of what our relationship with God is.
Not only does our work follow from God's love rather than earning it, but even that work is done in part by God: his grace is at work in us. That's why Paul tells the Philippians ``work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you'' (Philippians 2:12-13)
So we have established that God's love comes because it is in his nature to love, rather than because of anything that we do (``The only contribution we make to our salvation is our sin''). So why should we live a Christian life? What motivates us to pray, to study the bible, to be financially generous, to avoid sin, etc?
We have at least three reasons:
We have already said that, first and foremost, we want to please God because we love him - because we're grateful for his love.
It might help to consider a couple of illustrations.
First, consider Danny's relationship with me. It is a given that I love him. It's absolutely fundamental - completely independent of his behaviour. There's nothing he could do to make me love him less, and nothing he could do to make me love him more. But because he knows that, he wants to do what pleases me. He wants to be good, not because he wants to earn my love, but because he knows that I already love him. In exactly the same way, it is a given that God loves us. There's nothing we can do to make him love us less, and nothing we can do to make him love us more. But because we knows that, we want to do what pleases him. We want to be good, not because we want to earn his love, but because we knows that he already loves us.
We see a similar process in the first letter from John:
We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ``I love God,'' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.— 1 John 4:19-21
First he establishes the ground of our relationship with God - we love because he first loved us - then he goes on to the consequences of that unconditional love, namely that we love each other.
Or consider another example: an insecure boyfriend who buys presents for his girlfriend because he wants her to love him. It doesn't work! It's creepy! You can't build a relationship on that. But if the girlfriend loves the boyfriend, then he'll want to buy her presents anyway. (And let's hope that in these enlightened days, she'll buy some for him too.)
We want to do good things because - follow me closely here - they are good. It is rightly said that virtue is its own reward. If we are God's children, and are growing more and more like him, then our priorities will reflect his. For example, we will want to give money to third-world charities because we don't want people to starve. If we are the Father's children, we will reflect the family likeness.
Jesus is embarrassingly frank about offering rewards in heaven:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.— Matthew 6:19-21
With our British characters and Anglican-influenced background, we tend to be a bit coy about this, but the bible isn't! Terry Virgo says that ``when we pray to `labour and not to seek for any reward', we have invented an ethic higher than the bible.''
No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.— 1 Corinthians 3:11-15
So we see that understanding God's grace certainly does not discourage us from right living. On the contrary, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:10, ``By the grace of God [...] I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.'' Paul's work is in response to God's love, not in search of it.
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!— Galatians 2:21
We are considering deep, deep issues here. What foundation is your life built on? What is the shape of your thinking? What direction are you facing? Far too many Christians, having got started through grace, then go through all the rest of of their Christian lives struggling under the law. We must resist this tendency!
We come back to Pete's rule of thumb from a fortnight ago: we need to look at Jesus ten times for every time you look at ourselves.
In the end, it all comes down to whether or not we believe that Christ's sacrifice is sufficient for us. Hebrews 10:12-14 tells us that ``when [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God [...] because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.'' Do we believe that one sacrifice is enough? Then we need to stop making more!
In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song
This cornerstone, this solid ground
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm
What heights of love, what depths of peace
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease
My comforter, my all in all
Here in the love of Christ I stand
In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save
Till on that cross, as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live
There in the ground his body lay
Light of the world by darkness slain
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave he rose again
And as he stands in victory
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me
For I am his, and he is mine
Bought with the precious blood of Christ
No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life's first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of Hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from his hand
Till he returns, or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I stand
If you're reading a paper copy of this document, the soft-copy can be found at www.miketaylor.org.uk/xian/works.html.