A reader from Kansas City, Missouri wrote me recently with the following appeal -- "Greetings my beloved brother. You really need to do a thorough Reflections on 'Law and Grace.' This is a serious area that we in the church misunderstand. We act as if we are under the Law of Moses; we have a 'law mentality,' and souls could be lost because of this. So, please Al, the brotherhood needs you to write on this in a big way. You have the ability to really share with our brotherhood the difference between both."
First, let me sincerely thank this brother in Christ for his kind words and his confidence in my feeble efforts at effecting responsible reformation of many of our perceptions and practices. If each of us can touch the hearts and lives of even a few precious disciples within our own sphere of influence, then imagine the impact we can have upon the direction and focus of the Body of Christ today when we work together. I pray God will help each of us do our part as we have opportunity and ability in this godly quest for reform.
From the earliest moments of our existence as a called out people of God seekers have asked the question, "What must I do to be saved?" The question reflects a deep awareness that one's relationship with God is severed and one's eternal prospect dim. "Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God" (Isaiah 59:2). The apostle Paul, in reflecting back on this, characterizes it as a time when we were "separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12). What made this condition even worse was the fact that we ourselves could do nothing to bring about our own redemption. "No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him that he should live on forever and not see decay, for the redemption of his soul is costly, no payment is ever enough" (Psalm 49:7-9). Lost and helpless, the distraught soul cries out, "What must I do to be saved?"
The reality is: there is nothing you can do to effect your own salvation. If we had the ability to save ourselves, then salvation would be of man rather than of God. Scripture clearly informs us that man is incapable of accomplishing redemption from out of death unto life. Unless God initiates the redemptive process, redemption is not to be found! Thus, in a very real sense, our salvation from sin and death is a divine gift. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23-24). "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
God took the initiative while we were powerless to save ourselves. "For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). "For while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son" (Romans 5:10). Paul goes on to inform us that this "free gift" was a demonstration of the "grace of God" which overflows and abounds "to the many" (Romans 5:15). "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) .... in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:4-5, 7).
What must one DO in order to effect his own salvation? There is nothing he can do! Redemption is too costly to be secured by the efforts of man. It is a gift! "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). Thus, there is nothing one can do in order to bring about redemption and the reunion of relationship with the Father. However, man is obliged to respond to this freely offered gift of salvation. Redemption is not poured out indiscriminately upon all men, but is rather reserved for those willing to receive it. It is offered to all, but experienced only by those who are willing to accept it.
How is this gift of salvation received? The answer is: by faith. "For by grace you have been saved through faith" (Ephesians 2:8). The apostle Peter states that those of you who are believers obtain "as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:9). In the very next statement we read, "As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating" (1 Peter 1:10-11). We today know that it was Jesus, and His sacrifice in our place, that was the focus of their prophecy. Peter declares it was the coming of grace and the outcome of faith that, in combination, effected our salvation. Thus, we are redeemed "by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace" (Romans 4:16), and "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand" (Romans 5:1-2).
I believe it is important to note that with the coming of the Messiah, and upon the completion of His work of redemption on our behalf, we entered the age of a new covenant. No longer are we under a covenant characterized by LAW, but rather one characterized by GRACE. "For you are not under law, but under grace" (Romans 6:14). Law served a purpose, but it was never intended to be redemptive. It showed the need for redemption, but was not the source of it. It merely pointed to it. "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" (Romans 3:21-22).
The concept of salvation by grace through faith is a difficult one for some disciples of Christ. As the reader from Missouri correctly observed, too many within the church do indeed have a "law mentality." Such persons believe that they must, to some degree, "work out" their own salvation, with God's grace filling in the gaps in their effort. In a real sense this is a "works based" salvation. I believe this is a dangerous and deadly false doctrine. Indeed, the apostle Paul warns that those "who are seeking to be justified by law" have not only "fallen from grace," but they are also "severed from Christ" (Galatians 5:4). Compliance with a legal code is not redemptive; union with Christ is.
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). God "has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace" (2 Timothy 1:9). "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Romans 3:28). To assume that man can perform any good work that would in any way prove redemptive is fallacious. Thus, our justification, redemption and salvation are Grace/Faith based, not Law/Works based, and those who preach the latter rather than the former are preaching "a different gospel." Paul says of such a person, "let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:6-9).
Those who are enslaved to legalism, however, will quickly turn to James, who wrote, "A man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). Indeed, "faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself" (James 2:17). "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). Some (like the reformer Martin Luther) believe Paul and James are in theological conflict here. That is not the case, however. Paul also urges believers to be active, working disciples. For example, he urged Titus to instruct the people in such a manner that "those who have believed God may be careful to engage in good works" (Titus 3:8). Indeed, in Titus 3:1 we are commanded, "Be ready for every good work."
The solution to this apparent contradiction lies in the type of "works" in view, and the purpose for engaging in such deeds. God expects His children to be active, involved, and working. But these are manifestations of one's faith. They are works performed in gratitude for our salvation, not works performed in order to acquire our salvation. Big difference! When we accept the free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus we demonstrate our gratitude, and indeed show the reality of our faith, through our actions (works). A faith that refuses to visibly show itself is a faith that is dead, says James. Immediately after declaring we are saved by grace through faith, "not as a result of works," Paul goes on to write that these saved ones are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10).
A person who declares he has faith, but never demonstrates it, makes a false declaration of faith. James, on the other hand, states, "I will show you my faith by my works" (James 2:18). Faith, to be valid, must be demonstrated. Such works, however, are not for the purpose of achieving this state of grace, but rather for the purpose of demonstrating the reality of our stand within it. We are not saved by good works, we are saved for good works!!
At this point in the discussion, typically, those who have a "law mentality" will bring up baptism. "Is this not a work one must perform in order to be saved?" My response is: No! It is not. Immersion is a response of faith, not a work of law. The Churches of Christ have long been criticized by those of other faith-heritages for proclaiming a "works based salvation." Some even characterize our teaching as being "water based." By promoting baptism as a "work" to be performed so as to gain salvation, one in effect promotes a "Law/Works" basis of redemption.
Baptism is the demonstration of the devotion of our hearts. After all, Jesus said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). We therefore show our faith, devotion and love to/for Him in our immersion. Baptism, therefore, is simply a response of faith and love. It "earns" or "merits" nothing, but instead reflects a deep inner faith that is willing to respond to the "free gift" of God's gracious salvation in Jesus Christ. One does not earn a gift, one receives it. "Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness" (Romans 4:4-5). If justification, redemption and salvation can be acquired by works, then these marvelous realities are wages due. Scripture says, however, they are GIFTS. One does not "work" for a gift; a gift is not "wages due." A gift is merely humbly and gratefully received.
Baptism is no more a "work" than belief, repentance or confession. All of these are simply responses to the gospel proclaimed and the grace proffered. Paul worried that some might "receive the grace of God in vain" (2 Corinthians 6:1). I think this concern is especially noted in his epistle to the churches of Galatia. Some were seeking to find their salvation through legalistic works. However, "if righteousness comes through law, then Christ died needlessly" (Galatians 2:21). Thus, those turning to works of law for justification are severed from Christ and fallen from grace. This is serious, and, as our reader from Missouri noted, "souls could be lost because of this."
"Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:24-26). There are those disciples even today who seek to surrender their freedom to this "tutor" ... to continue placing themselves under the guidance and direction of LAW. Paul tells such misguided legalists, "This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you" (Galatians 5:8). We are called from out of slavery to law and into the freedom of His grace. "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).
May God help us each to stand firm in His grace and resist the temptation from Satan to return to the bondage of law. In the spirit of James may we show forth our faith in daily deeds of loving service to God and our fellow man, and in the spirit of Paul may we exclaim, "thanks be unto God for His indescribable gift!" (2 Corinthians 9:15).
From a Reader in Michigan:
Al, I am in the middle of a series on Galatians. Your Reflections #36 -- "Against Such There Is No Law" will be very helpful in some of the sermon material. Thanks for being a good student of the Word and presenting it so clearly. Hang in there, brother. The "lightning rods" throughout history have made a difference in people's lives and that is what ministry is all about!
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