If it’s by grace, why do we work?
The subtle work of reforming
Tim H. Gumm
“What must I do to be saved?”
That’s the question the jailor of Philippi, who was about to take his own life, asked (Acts 16:30). Because God “has . . . set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), the jailor understood that there is an afterlife; his conscience, roused by the near-death experience, told him he wasn’t ready for it. So he asked the question.
All humankind, if not with the lips then in the secret heart, has asked the same question. Praise God that he has not kept the answer a mystery.
DO THIS AND LIVE?
An expert in the law put the question to Jesus like this: “ ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ [Jesus] replied. ‘How do you read it?’ He answered: ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” ’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live’ ” (Luke 10:25-28).
Here is the answer for searching souls hungry for heaven: Obey God’s law. And to avoid any confusion over the necessary degree of obedience, the Lord expounded through his inspired writer: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). Perfect obedience to all of God’s commands: that’s the answer. “Do this and you will live.”
While it is good news to know the answer, the answer is not good news. It only takes a moment of honest self-reflection in the mirror of God’s law to realize that we can’t even come close to meeting his demands. Falling far short of perfection, our lives are an endless record of rebellion and sin. What is more, our nature is so corrupt that we’re incapable of change. All pride and self-confidence is destroyed as the law declares and convinces us that we simply cannot do a thing to earn salvation.
After a lifetime of falling short, one might hope simply to go out of existence. God’s law, however, demands that the lawbreaker be punished in “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Not annihilation, and certainly not life in heaven, but an unending, torturous death in hell. Far from saving us, the law damns us. It creates a despair that leads the lost sinner to beg, “Please, God, have mercy.”
GOD HAS HAD MERCY
That jailor pleaded, “What must I do to be saved?” and there came a different answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31). Why? Because in his boundless and undeserved love for desperate and condemned sinners, God sent his Son in human flesh to be our substitute under his law. That impossible law with its impossible demands no longer hangs over us because our divine Stand-in kept that law perfectly in our place. His perfect record of obedience has become our perfect record. And the condemnation of the law on our sorry lives does not hang over us either. Christ took our offenses and guilt on himself and then died the death of the damned in our place. The demands of the law and the punishment due the lawbreaker have been fully satisfied for us in Christ.
What the law says is true: There is nothing we can do to earn salvation. But the sweet message of the gospel is also true: There is nothing we have to do, for Christ our Savior has done it all. Is it unreasonable that this be done for sinners? Of course it is, but it is truth nonetheless. “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 2:8,9). Blessed, glorious truth!
STILL NOT BY WORKS
It’s hard to imagine, then, that any Christian who already has salvation would still try to earn salvation. Wouldn’t that nullify the gift? And yet, it happens.
You see, even though Jesus has given us complete rest from the law, there is something in each of us that urges us to roll up our sleeves and get to work so God can reward us. It’s the natural religion found in every heart and mind. Sadly it loathes God’s grace; discards it as too easy; and, deeply offended, rejects the absolute need for that grace. Contrary to Scripture, it maintains that something can still be done—in fact, must be done—to win God’s favor.
When this faulty religion makes its way into Christian communities, the one who has already set us free from the law is presented, ironically, not so much as Savior, but as a teacher who has more laws for us. His gospel message of “Done!” is subtly replaced by the old, worn-out “Do!” The assurance of salvation is sought not so much in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ but in the life of the good Christian who obeys the rules. “If you really are saved,” it says, “then you’ll look saved. If you really are a Christian, you’ll reform and change and follow these guidelines and meet this standard for the Christian life.”
That teaching not only destroys the gospel’s sweet proclamation that there is nothing we have to do; it also destroys the law’s proclamation that there is nothing we can do. To maintain that the Christian life somehow completes God grace or makes it more certain undermines the very idea and teaching of grace. In addition, it requires God’s people to ask the question that grace already has made null and void: “What must I do to be saved?”
To those who insist on working but will forever come up short, St. Paul wrote: “Through [Jesus] we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:2). Christians aren’t struggling and striving for a state of grace. They’re not in a long and uncertain process of achieving it. They stand in grace—forgiven, at peace with God, saved eternally through Christ alone—even in those moments when their words and actions may not be perfect.
Yet in this amazing grace of God is a power for the Christian that cannot be found in any law. It’s the power behind the overwhelming desire to live for God, to please him with holy words and loving actions, to freely serve and joyfully work for him, to look for one more way and then another to somehow glorify him by our existence. Grace moves us not because we’re being coerced by the law or because we want to earn something from God, but because we’ve been freed from the law and saved by his grace alone.
And now, to live for him . . . in that grace—there’s no better way to live.
Tim Gumm is pastor at Peace, Loves Park, Illinois.
This is the final article in a four-part series on law and gospel.
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Author: Tim H. Gumm
Volume 101, Number 9
Issue: September 2014
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