This post was first written on the 8th of August 2016 for the Local Christian Articles – Peel blog that I contribute towards. I have adapted it slightly for use here.
To focus entirely on a theology of grace can lead to an abuse of grace, a place where none of us want to go. To focus overly on works in a Protestant context is to suggest works and grace work together for our salvation, when this is certainly not the case. When it comes to our many church traditions, there may tend to be those of us who emphasise grace or emphasise works oftentimes at the expense of the other, even if we don’t recognise it.
I would suggest that emphasising one at the expense of the other loses an invaluable expression and facet of our Christian faith and is the reason why I have the idea to write on this topic now. In what follows I would hope to provide a middle ground, an expression of grace and works which I believe captures what scripture tells us about the two. In particular I’ll focus on seemingly clashing scriptures, these being Paul’s writings on grace and the writings of James on faith and works. Let’s dig into these scriptures and see what they say for ourselves shall we?
“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“. ~ Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
We know that our salvation has been given by the gifted grace of God through faith, not a result of our works. We know that there is absolutely nothing on this earth that we can do to earn our own forgiveness or earn our way to God. It is only by His grace and His grace alone that our salvation is even possible – so that not one of us can boast. Paul too in the book of Romans warns us on the overemphasis of grace.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” ~ Romans 6:1-2 (ESV)
When we overemphasise grace, we will often emphasise to the extent where grace may abound and sin goes by unnoticed and unrepentant in us and in others (myself included). We all know that this is dangerous ground to be standing on as Christians. On the opposite end of the spectrum, James the younger brother of Jesus has something to say about our works as followers of Christ.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food and one of you says to them “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, it it does not have works, is dead.” ~ James 2:14-17 (ESV)
Faith without works is dead. That is, a faith that is without works, a faith in Christ which is not outwardly evidenced by an outworking of good for others is a faith which is dead. We know from Paul that works are not our way to salvation nor do they allow us to earn our way to God. I don’t think James is saying that they are – but what he is saying is that our works are the authenticating expression of our salvation to the world around us.
When we overemphasise a doctrine on works, we often become legalistic, thinking we can earn our way to God. We miss the beautiful truth of the gospel and the undeserved love and salvation God has for us. We produce a roadblock for anyone looking to enter a relationship with Jesus Christ.
By the grace of God we are saved through faith, and we authenticate our faith by our works. A single verse later in Ephesians 2, Paul writes that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). Not only do we authenticate our faith by our actions, but our actions as Christians are a grace-fuelled result of our salvation and are prepared beforehand for us.
When it comes down to it, our expression of faith as Christians in a grace and works context needs to capture the purpose and the beauty of the two in lieu together. It is the beautiful expression of God’s grace to sinners whereby faith in Christ merits our salvation; it is nothing we can do and everything undeserved that Christ has done for us. It is the purposeful expression of our works, the outworking of our salvation and Christian faith that is to be attractive to the world; to put it into the words of Jesus Himself, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 ESV).
Church, we are the light of the world. We are the grace-fuelled Spirit-filled carriers of the gospel whom God has called by His grace to good works for His glory in this city, nation and world. My hope and prayer for each and every one of us is to follow Jesus in deeper authenticity as we go about our lives, modelling ourselves after the Saviour and King who has set in motion His plan and purpose before us and for us, for our good and for His glory.