Are Good Works Sneaking into Your Understanding of Grace?

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I remember hearing Matthew 11:30 as a kid and wondering how Jesus’ words “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” could be true. Christianity isn’t easy, I thought. There’s believing without seeing and then there’s obeying all of God’s commandments while worrying about whether I was being grateful and thankful enough for salvation (since I was told it was free), not to mention dying to self and being in constant prayer and rejoicing. All these things seemed like a lot of work.

Learning to Recognize Law Lingo

What I did as a child is what many new Christians and seasoned Christians alike can sometimes do. We skip over God’s free grace and salvation and go straight to all the commands to be holy. Sinclair Ferguson hits the nail on the head when he writes,

As believers we can also relapse into a misuse of gospel grammar, falling back into this native tendency to turn the gospel on its head—as though justification is by grace but the Christian life is essentially a biblical form of ‘self-help.’ (Devoted to God, 34)

We can far too quickly slip into a pattern of ‘get in by grace, stay in by works.’ Life then becomes a pattern of works rather than of grace.

Sinclair Ferguson continues,

If we reverse the order of gospel logic it will not be long before we are smuggling our sanctification into the foundations of our justification. Our ongoing status before God will then be seen to be dependent on our performance…. Then holiness begins to take on a metallic character, an external correctness that is lacking graciousness; an obedience that is its own end. Then accomplishment begins to obscure need. It is not that we have no theology of grace; but it now remains in our theology when it has ceased to be a reality in our hearts and lives. (Devoted to God, 37)

All too easily, our lives go from being gospel-centered to being performance-centered. Free grace and the gospel are unnatural to us. Because they are unnatural, we can slip back into our natural hardwiring thinking that if we try our best to be good, God will bless our efforts and give us a nice life, solving our problems, making us rich, and keeping us safe. When it comes to the grace and mercy of God in Christ, we have short-term memory loss.

God’s Unnatural Grace

The only antidote to our problem is hearing again and again that Christ took our sin and the weight of obeying the law to gain God’s favor. To battle this natural inclination of our hearts and minds, we need the gospel, the unnatural grace, regularly and faithfully proclaimed and given to us. We need to hear it, to soak in it, to meditate on it and to tell others about it, both Christian and non-Christian.

We must constantly be reminded of proper gospel grammar. The more we soak in God’s grace and all God has done for us, the more we come to truly understand that God’s promises to us are bigger than we could imagine. Take a moment sometime and read through Romans, paying attention to how much of the book Paul spends talking about the gospel before giving people commands to keep from sinning.

During the Reformation, this is what the reformers were fighting against in the church. A theology of good works had snuck into the preaching and teaching of the Medieval church and was polluting the radical free grace found in scripture. What Luther and the other reformers found in the pages of scripture was that Christ has done it all for us, and even our best efforts at being a good person can succeed only because of the power of God dwelling in us (1 Jn. 4:12-20; 2 Thess. 1:11; Eph. 3:7).

We Need Constant Grammar Checks

Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). We all need constant reminder that Christ has set us free so that we do not (perhaps without realizing it at first) put ourselves under a yoke of slavery to the law of ‘self-help’ and ‘Christian piety’ and therefore forget our utter dependence upon God’s grace in everything we do.

We need to regularly hear what the gospel really is and what God really promises us in his Word. We need to hear of our constant breaking of the law and of Christ’s taking that breakage upon himself at the cross. We need to hear of Christ’s constant intercession for us before the Father and of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts, giving us faith and hope and fruit.

We also need to take opportunities to tell others the gospel so that we help one another avoid the pitfall of bad gospel grammar. This is where a gospel-centered church is vitally important. We hear all these things from God’s Word most importantly during the liturgy, preaching, and practice of the sacraments at church.

In this life, we never outgrow our need for hearing the gospel, God’s free and rich salvation in Christ.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For 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.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:4-10)

 

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