GRACE ALONE, WORKS ALONE, OR GRACE WITH WORKS?
What do we mean – or what should we mean – when we say that we are saved by grace and grace alone? We mean that none of our human efforts, works, intentions, resolutions, or strivings can ever put us in a right standing before a holy God. None of these things can justify us. We mean that we are saved – from beginning to end – by the sheer kindness and unmerited favor of Almighty God. Our works, our “good” deeds, and our religious performances – none of these things contribute to our salvation.
The apostle Paul said,
And to the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… (Romans 4:5)
Elsewhere he said the same thing three different ways in the same breath:
…we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
And then there’s the classic passage in Ephesians 2:
…by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
The Pharisee in the temple boasted of his works – his fasting and his tithing – and he went home condemned rather than justified, whereas the repentant, self-proclaimed “sinner” whose hope was in God’s mercy alone – and not in his works – went home justified and forgiven rather than condemned (Luke 18:12-14).
For grace to truly be grace, it cannot be mixed with our works:
But if [election] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6)
Paul makes it very clear that if we seek to earn salvation by our attempts to keep the law of God, we place ourselves under the dreadful curse of God:
All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10)
A common hope that many people cling to today is that they are “trying to keep the 10 Commandments,” not realizing that by doing so, and by holding to this mindset, they are placing themselves under the curse of God.
NULLIFYING THE GRACE OF GOD
The second we believe that we can be saved by our “good works” we nullify the grace of God, and if we nullify the grace of God we forfeit our only hope of being saved by God. Paul wrote,
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Galatians 2:21)
In other words, Paul comes to two logical (and Biblical) conclusions: If sinners can earn a right standing with God by their obedience to the law, 1) they have no need of God’s grace, and 2) they have no need for Christ’s death. What Paul is saying is that grace would be nullified and the cross would be meaningless if he were to live as though he could earn a right standing before God by his obedience to the law.
The idea of nullifying or setting aside the grace of God ought to terrify us. Why? Because if we set aside God’s grace, mercy, kindness, and patience, all we’re left with is His holy justice that demands our punishment. Yet, this is exactly what happens whenever someone seeks to add his or her good works to the pure spring of God’s grace.
This is one of the many heresies linked with Mormonism. Instead of boasting and basking in the grace of God as man’s only hope of being saved, the Book of Mormon affirms that
it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. (2 Nephi 25:23).
After all we can do? Grace is not a cherry to top the ice cream of man’s works. Grace and works are a deadly mixture. Yet, this mixture is found elsewhere in the Book of Mormon, where Moroni declares that God’s grace is enough for man only after man has sought to love God by living a life of self-denial (Moroni 10:32). The Mormon scholar, Bruce McConkie, went as far as claiming that the New Testament epistles were written
to exhort the saints to that personal righteousness which leads to salvation. (Mormon Doctrine, p. 168)
He goes on to twist the Biblical concept of God’s grace by saying,
Grace is granted to men proportionately as they conform to the standards of personal righteousness that are part of the gospel plan. (Mormon Doctrine, p. 241)
In stark contrast to the Book of Mormon, the clear teaching of the Bible is that man’s salvation depends entirely upon God’s grace, apart from our works and our supposed “personal righteousness” that many believe they have.
If you add your works,
you nullify His grace,
and if you nullify His grace,
you incite His wrath.
If I loaned you a car to drive from New York to Los Angeles and promised you a successful journey as long as you filled the car with gasoline every time you needed to refuel, you wouldn’t think twice about filling the tank with gasoline. However, if for some reason you decided to fill the gas tank with Cherry Slurpees from 7-Eleven at your first stop, you would completely forfeit your chance of making it to Los Angeles in that car. It wouldn’t happen. The engine would be ruined. Why? Because the engine was meant to run on gasoline, not Slurpees.
In the same way, God saves sinners solely on the basis of His grace, but when someone seeks to be saved on the basis of his or her works and their religious performance, they forfeit their only hope of being saved. Such a person can be likened to the fool stuck at the gas station in a puddle of red slush.
DOES GOD OWE US FOR OUR LABORS?
Salvation cannot be earned. The very meaning of the word earn has to do with obtaining something in return for labor and/or services. But here’s the thing: who among our fallen race can offer any kind of labor or service to the Most High God in exchange for the forgiveness of sin? Who among us can stand before God in all of His resplendent holiness and claim to have something worthy to offer Him? To even think that God can be appeased and impressed by our human performance only proves one’s ignorance of the true and living God. Paul asks in Romans 11:35,
Who has given a gift to [God] that he might be repaid?
The obvious answer is, “No one!” because there isn’t a single son or daughter of Adam who can offer anything of any value or worth to God. Man is defiled within and without. Jesus likened fallen man to a bad, diseased tree that cannot bear good or healthy fruit (Matthew 7:18; Luke 6:43). Until the diseased tree is cured, it will always and only produce bad fruit. In the same way, until God regenerates and renews a sinner, nothing good will ever flow from the sinner’s life. He or she may display honorable characteristics, but this is owing entirely to God’s image in them. At the end of the day, the one thing we’ve earned, the one thing we’re entitled to, and the one thing God owes us is eternal punishment for the way we’ve spurned His greatness, resisted His rule, and exchanged His glory.
HOW THEN CAN WE BE SAVED?
Since we can’t earn forgiveness, work for our salvation, or purchase a right standing in God’s kingdom, what must we do to be saved? First of all, we must look away from ourselves and ensure that we’re not placing any “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). To have confidence in the flesh means to trust in your works and in your own ability to impress God, as Paul would go on to reveal (Philippians 3:5-6). We must realize that our best deeds, our most impressive performance, and our most righteous acts amount to nothing more than filthy menstrual rags before the holiness of God (Isaiah 64:6). If we’re to be saved, we must abandon all confidence in any supposed “righteousness” that we claim to have and shut our proud mouths before the undeniable verdict of our Maker:
None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands; no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.
FAITH IN THE LORD JESUS CHRIST
We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). To have faith, or to believe, means that you cease from boasting in yourself and trusting in your performance, and shift your hope and trust to Jesus Christ. It means you stop boasting in yourself and begin to boast exclusively in Jesus Christ and Him crucified (Philippians 3:3; Galatians 6:14). True faith looks outside of self and onto Christ. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9). God saves sinners when they cease from trying to impress Him and simply cast themselves on His mercy (Luke 18:13), knowing that they deserve His anger and punishment. True faith is an empty hand that receives the free gift of eternal life that was earned for us through the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. To believe in Jesus is to rest in who He is and what He’s done. Timothy Brindle defines faith as
just an empty hand that receives the grace of the precious Lamb.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon offers a helpful illustration to describe the nature of true faith:
Do let me put this very plainly. Faith which receives Christ is as simple an act as when your child receives an apple from you, because you hold it out and promise to give him the apple if he comes for it. The belief and the receiving relate only to an apple; but they make up precisely the same act as the faith which deals with eternal salvation. What the child’s hand is to the apple, that your faith is to the perfect salvation of Christ. The child’s hand does not make the apple, nor improve the apple, nor deserve the apple; it only takes it; and faith is chosen by God to be the receiver of salvation, because it does not pretend to create salvation, nor to help in it, but it is content humbly to receive it. (All of Grace)
He goes on to say,
Faith is the tongue that begs pardon, the hand which receives it, and the eye which sees it; but it is not the price which buys it. Faith never makes herself her own plea, she rests all her argument upon the blood of Christ. She becomes a good servant to bring the riches of the Lord Jesus to the soul, because she acknowledges whence she drew them, and owns that grace alone entrusted her with them. (All of Grace)
REPENTANCE TOWARD GOD
Not only are we commanded to believe in Christ, but we’re commanded to repent (Mark 1:15; Acts 17:30). True faith is always accompanied by true repentance. Repentance, simply put, is turning from sin to God. True repentance is seen when idol worshippers turn from their idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Repentance is a change of mind that always results in a change of behavior and direction. In Acts 9, Paul’s mind changed from thinking that Jesus Christ was a deceitful blasphemer to being convinced that He’s the Lord of glory, and this change of Paul’s mind affected his behavior and the overall direction of his life. He went from trying to destroy the church of Jesus Christ to proclaiming boldly that Jesus Christ was the Son of God (Acts 9:20). His repentance was real. His faith in the Lord Jesus proved to be genuine.
The Shorter Catechism refers to repentance as
a saving grace, by which a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it to God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.
REPENTANCE AND FAITH: THE WAY TO EARN GOD’S FAVOR?
At this point, I should point out that God does not regard our repentance toward Him or our faith in Christ as offerings that make us acceptable to Him? There are many who have sadly gone astray at this point. They find themselves reading the Bible, serving in local churches, and yet they have no assurance, no peace, no joy, and no victory over sin. When a concerned Christian digs deep and begins to ask what they’re clinging to and hoping in, the answer slowly makes it’s way to the surface: they’re looking to their repentance, not to the Redeemer. They’re looking to their faith, not to the Founder and Perfecter of faith – Jesus Christ. They’re trusting in their trust, not in the Savior. Faith in Jesus is what saves, not faith in faith. Repentance toward God is what saves. Any supposed “repentance” that falls short of actually turning to God and resting in His grace is not real repentance. Repentance is real when, like the prodigal, we actually land in the Father’s arms. Faith is real when, like prodigal, we actually come to the Father. The prodigal didn’t fall short of coming back to his father. Yet there are so many who, like the prodigal, have abandoned the pigpen and have begun to make their way to the Father, but have contented themselves in the fact that they’ve left the pigpen. They foolishly rest in the fact that they’re on the road back to the Father, and they even have the audacity to call this “repentance and faith.” This is a sad and dangerous place to be! The only place where we can and should find rest is when we’re united again to the Father. Don’t linger on the road that leads to the Father’s house and call that repentance. It’s not.
It doesn’t matter what filthy, polluted pigpen you’ve abandoned. If you don’t end up like the prodigal in the Father’s arms, you’re lost.
Don’t place your faith in your faith, and don’t look to your repentance. They’re not works or offerings by which we earn God’s favor. Trust in Jesus Christ and look to Him! When we repent and believe in the gospel, we are not performing a work by which we earn God’s favor or forgiveness. On the contrary, we’re simply turning away from every false hope in order to cling to Jesus Christ alone as our only hope of being saved. We’re simply abandoning all earthly confidences, and placing the entirety of our confidence in Jesus Christ. As Paul said, it’s only through Jesus that we’ve “obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). To be crystal clear:
Jesus alone makes us acceptable to God!
However, for the sake of the argument, let’s pretend as though God did regard our repentance toward Him and our faith in Christ as works or offerings by which we could earn His favor and forgiveness. First of all, we would no longer have a gospel worth proclaiming. There would be no good news or glad tidings to spread! In fact, if God forgave us on the basis of how passionately and perfectly we repented and believed in His Son, this would be dreadful, terrible news! Our repentance would have to be absolutely perfect, and our faith would have to be flawless, because we’d be trying to earn the favor of an absolutely perfect God.
If God regarded repentance and faith as offerings by which sinners could earn His favor, no one could ever be saved, because as one old saint put it, even “our best repentance needs to be repented of.”
The point he was trying to make was that no repentance is a perfect repentance. Who among us, at the moment of conversion, turned fully and completely away from every sin and every idol with the purest motives, the greatest love for God, and the most passionate zeal for His glory and greatness? No, the common confession of so many faithful Christians is,
I wish I knew then what I know now. I turned from certain sins, and I abandoned certain idols, but there were other idols that God, in time, shattered in my life by His loving discipline. I didn’t repent of every sin immediately, because I was involved in things I didn’t realize we’re sinful. I continued in them for a season until the Spirit of God, through the Word of God, exposed these sins and helped me to turn from them. It was only after His hand had been heavy upon me that I realized that there were things in my life as a young Christian that were very displeasing to Him. But by His grace and faithfulness, He is slowly and surely cleansing me from all my idols (Ezekiel 36:25).
God isn’t looking for a worthy offering from us. He isn’t demanding that we offer Him a perfect repentance or a perfect faith, the same way that someone offered a perfect lamb as an offering in the Old Testament. No, the perfect, spotless Lamb has already been offered once for all time to bear the sins of His people. This is the only offering – resulting in forgiveness – that ever was and ever will be truly acceptable to God. The vocal expression of true repentance and faith, when found in the heart of a sinner, says,
God, the offering of Your Son on the cross is the only thing that can satisfy Your justice and effectively put away my sin and my guilt. It’s the only thing that can cancel the endless record of debt that I owe You for having violated Your holy law. It’s the only means by which I can stand before Your throne, gaze upon Your face, and not be damned to eternal punishment. It’s my only hope of being forgiven, saved, justified, and reconciled to You.
By our repentance toward God and our faith in the Lord Jesus, we are abandoning all other hopes of being saved, and we are saying to God,
I cannot save myself. I’m done trying to earn Your favor. Apart from Your grace and mercy, there’s nothing in heaven or on earth into which I can place my hope and confidence. I have no reason in myself as to why You should forgive me and save me. I’ve taken all the ‘good’ things I’ve done and all the bad things I’ve done, and I’ve thrown them all into a pile before the cross, and I’ve fled from that pile of dung to cling only to Jesus. Have mercy on me, the sinner. If there’s no grace in You, there’s no hope for me.
SALVATION IS BY GOD’S GRACE ALONE
With Peter, we confess without apology or shame that
we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 15:11)
We now know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for our sake He became poor, so that we by His poverty might become rich with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (2 Corinthians 8:9; Ephesians 1:3).
We confess that God’s grace alone is the basis for which He
chose us (Romans 11:5),
predestined us for adoption into His family (Ephesians 1:5-6),
called us (2 Timothy 1:9),
regenerated us (Ephesians 2:5),
caused us to believe in Him (Acts 18:27; Philippians 1:29),
caused us to repent (Acts 11:19; 2 Timothy 2:25),
justified us (Romans 3:24),
forgave us (Ephesians 1:7),
and saved us (2 Timothy 1:9).
We boast not in ourselves, but in the grace that our God lavished upon us before the ages began:
[He] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began… (2 Timothy 1:9)
Before they were born, and before God had formed the earth, God’s elect had already been given grace, and it would be this grace (or unmerited favor) that would serve as the sole basis for which every salvation blessing would be lavished upon them.
To say that we are saved by grace and grace alone is to say that our salvation – from beginning to end – has nothing to do with our good performance or our ability to impress the living God. On the contrary, it has everything to do with the glorious grace of God that leaves no room for those who receive it to boast or brag about themselves before His holy presence.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)