We Christians are a funny bunch. We love to talk about how we are saved by grace, only grace, by faith alone, not by works. We passionately belt out the words to “Amazing Grace”, joining our voices to proclaim that grace has brought us thus far, and grace will lead us home. When we share the gospel with Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Muslims, we use various tactics and strategies to pin them down on whether salvation is by works or grace.
But when it comes to actually living the Christian life, we tend to muddy the clear waters of grace.
I see this most clearly in the way many Christians respond to teaching that places a heavy emphasis on God’s grace and less emphasis on our efforts. Without fail, some people will cry “foul”, complaining that proclaiming grace without equally talking about effort leads to spiritual laziness. They protest that a message of pure grace does not lead to sanctification.
For example, in a review of Barbara Duguid’s book Extravagant Grace, one reader wrote:
…her view in the book of sanctification is sadly lacking in understanding. There is no way to divorce biblical forgiveness (God’s gift through faith in Christ giving us the POSITION of right-standing before God – i.e. justification) and the process of sanctification which comes through the Spirit, the Word of God, prayer, focus on the eternal, not the fleshly, living carefully in the biblical fear of God, continually submitting to His authority and rightful rule over us.
I understand where that objection comes from. After all, in Romans 6, Paul makes it clear that receiving God’s grace doesn’t mean we get to throw a sin party, and James says that faith without works is no faith at all (James 2:17).
But the longer I’m a Christian, the more I’m convinced that a true understanding of grace always leads to deeper sanctification.
I’ve tried doing the holiness by focusing on holiness thing. You know what I mean. I think that if I can focus enough on my sin and stir up enough resolve in my heart, I can change. I can become more patient, more loving, more committed to Christ. If I can read my Bible enough and pray enough, the number of sins in my life will be less. If I put forth the effort, sin will by necessity go down.
But it doesn’t work this way in God’s kingdom.
Sanctification is not an equation. More prayer does not equal less lust. More Bible doesn’t mean less pride. Fellowship doesn’t automatically create forgiveness. Though I am born again, I am still completely dependent on Jesus to change me. I can’t be the change I want to see. Jesus must work that change in me.
That’s why Jesus said in John 15:5, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Here is where grace comes into the mix. The more I understand the depths of God’s grace, the more I want to press into Jesus. The more I comprehend the astounding forgiveness I have in Christ, the more time I want to spend with Christ. The more I feel God’s gospel pleasure in me, the more I want to spend time with Jesus. Condemnation drives me away from Christ; grace draws me to Christ.
And here’s the kicker: the more I’m with Jesus, the more I change. Apart from Christ I can’t change, but when I’m near to Christ, he works divine change in me.
Paul touched on this divine equation when he said:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The gospel of grace allows me to behold the Lord without fear or dread. Grace allows me to see and savor the glory of Christ without the terror of being consumed by the holiness of Christ. Isaiah called prophetic curses on himself when he beheld the glory of Christ (Isaiah 6). I behold the glory of Christ, and the more I see Christ, the more I become like Christ.
I’m not saying that we should stop calling people to put forth spiritual effort. Scripture makes it clear that we should pursue holiness with all our strength. But we can’t preach too much grace. Grace is the lifeblood of the Christian. It is the greatest motivator for the Christian, the greatest producer of change.
As Charles Spurgeon said: