LIVING BY GRACE means you are free from having to earn God’s blessings by your obedience or practice of spiritual disciplines. If you have trusted in Christ as your Savior, you are loved and accepted by God through the merit of Jesus, and you are blessed by God through the merit of Jesus. Nothing you ever do will cause Him to love you any more or any less. He loves you strictly by His grace given to you through Jesus.
How does this emphasis on God’s free and sovereign grace make you feel? Does it make you a little nervous? Does it seem a bit scary to hear that nothing you do will ever make God love you any more or bless you any more? Do you think, Well, if you take the pressure off like that and tell me all of my effort will never earn me one blessing, then I’m afraid I’ll slack off and stop doing the things I need to do to live a disciplined Christian life?
This type of response is always a possibility. In fact, if our concept of grace does not expose us to that possible misunderstanding, then we do not thoroughly understand grace. I believe it is because we are afraid of this attitude that we often change the doctrine of grace into a doctrine of works.
The apostle Paul recognized that God’s grace can be misunderstood when he wrote, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1). The late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of England, one of the ablest and most respected Bible expositors of the twentieth century, said this in response to that question:
The true preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace.
The grace of salvation is the same grace by which we live the Christian life. We are not saved by grace and blessed by works. Paul said in Romans 5:2, “We have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (emphasis added). We are not only justified by grace through faith, we stand every day in this same grace. And just as the preaching of salvation by grace is open to misunderstanding, so is the teaching of living by grace.
The solution to the problem of misunderstanding and abusing God’s grace is not to add works to grace. Rather, the solution is to be so gripped by the magnificence and boundless generosity of God’s grace that we respond out of gratitude rather than out of a sense of duty. As Stephen Brown said, “The problem [isn’t] that we made the gospel too good. The problem is that we didn’t make it good enough.”
Too often when we think of Christian growth, we load down the gospel of the grace of God with a lot of “oughts.” “If I’m going to grow, I ought to do this,” and “I ought to do that.” “I ought to be more committed, more disciplined, more obedient.” When we think or teach this way, we are in danger of substituting duty and obligation for a loving response to God’s grace.
Let me be very clear at this point. We should seek to practice commitment, discipline, and obedience. We should be thoroughly committed to submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ in every area of life. But we should be committed in these areas out of a grateful response to God’s grace, not to try to earn God’s blessings.
Our motivation for commitment, discipline, and obedience is important to God, perhaps even more so, than our performance. As Ernest F. Kevan wrote, “The Law’s demands are inward, touching motive and desire, and are not concerned solely with outward action.”
David said to Solomon, “And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts” (1 Chronicles 28:9). The apostle Paul echoed the importance of motives when he wrote that, at the Lord’s coming, “He … will expose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
God searches the heart and understands every motive. To be acceptable to Him, our motives must spring from a love for Him and a desire to glorify Him. Our efforts to grow performed from a legalistic motive—that is, a fear of the consequences or to gain favor with God—are not pleasing to God. Thus, our desire to grow and to please God is not truly good unless it is motivated by a love for God and a desire to glorify Him. But we cannot have such a God-ward motivation if we think we must earn God’s favor by our disciplines, or if we fear we may forfeit God’s favor by our lack of them. Such a works-oriented motivation is essentially self-serving; it is prompted more by what we think we can gain or lose from God than by a grateful response to the grace He has already given us through Jesus Christ.
Living under the grace of God instead of under a sense of duty frees us from such a self-serving motivation. It frees us to obey God and serve Him as a loving and thankful response to Him for our salvation and for blessings already guaranteed us by His grace. Consequently, a heartfelt grasp of God’s grace—far from creating an indifferent or careless attitude in us—will actually provide us the only motivation that is pleasing to Him. Only when we are thoroughly convinced that the Christian life is entirely of grace will we be able joyfully to practice the disciplines that help us grow.
Bridges, Jerry. 2004. Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.