This past Sunday, I briefly mentioned near the end of the lesson that we ought not to think about earning any merit or grace with God. I stressed that we need to get out of this cycle of thinking that as Christians we need to strive to “be good” as a way to earn something in heaven. For all of our reward has been purchased by Christ, and given by grace. Now, I realize, and as humans we sometimes have difficulty balancing the role of grace and merit, and understanding the purpose of Christian works here on earth.
Though we are prone to either excessive legalism, or sinful liberty, what I want to stress is that the principles of living holy lives, and understanding God’s grace in our lives are not mutually exclusive. We need to be seeking holiness while also seeking to please God and love others through our actions. In order to do this, we must understand why we are to love others, and where our “merit” in heaven ultimately comes from. Our motivation for loving others and doing good works is gratitude and enjoyment of God. Likewise, any merit we have before God, ultimately, has already been won by Christ.
Let me explore these two co-existing principles further with some perspective from those who are wiser than myself.
First, we are called to holiness. JC Ryle said this about seeking holiness as it relates to our relationship to reward and closeness with Chrirst:
Above all, grieve not the Spirit. Quench not the Spirit. Vex not the Spirit. . . . Little jarrings between husbands and wives make unhappy homes; and petty inconsistencies, known and allowed, will bring in strangeness between you and the Spirit. . . . The man who walks with God in Christ most closely, will generally be kept in the greatest peace. The believer who follows the Lord most fully and aims at the highest degree of holiness will ordinarily enjoy the most assured hope, and have the clearest persuasion of his own salvation
And commenting on this passage from Ryle, John Piper says:
Can you really “drive [God] to a distance, by tampering with small bad habits”? Do “petty inconsistencies bring strangeness between you and the Spirit”? Is the greatest peace really enjoyed by those who “walk with God most closely”? Is the greatest assurance known by those who “aim at the highest degree of holiness”? Yes. This is clearly taught in Scripture. “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).
This means that there is a precious experience of peace and assurance and harmony and intimacy that is not unconditional. It depends on our not grieving the Spirit. It depends on our putting away bad habits. It depends on forsaking the petty inconsistencies of our Christian lives. It depends on our walking closely with God and aiming at the highest degree of holiness. If this is true, I fear that the unguarded reassurances today that God’s love is unconditional may stop people from doing the very things the Bible says they need to do in order to have the peace that they so desperately crave. In trying to give peace through “unconditionality” we may be cutting people off from the very remedy the Bible prescribes. Let us declare untiringly the good news that our justification is based on the worth of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, not ours (Romans 5:19, “as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous”).
But let us also declare the biblical truth that the enjoyment of that justification in its effect on our joy and confidence and power to grow in likeness to Jesus is conditioned on our actively forsaking sins and forsaking bad habits and mortifying lusts and pursuing intimacy with Christ, and not grieving the Spirit.
To give an even fuller perspective on the merit of Christ in all of this, Jerry Bridges labors how it is by God’s grace that we are what we are. In his book ‘Transforming Grace’, Bridges has some great remarks on the matter. Here are a few of them:
- We believe God’s blessings are at least partially earned by our obedience and our spiritual disciplines. We know we are saved by grace, but we think we must live by our spiritual “sweat.”
- If you are trusting to any degree in your own morality or religious attainments, or if you believe God will somehow recognize any of your good works as merit toward your salvation, you need to seriously consider if you are truly a Christian.
- The generosity and the magnanimity of God are so great that he accepts nothing from us without rewarding it beyond all computation…. The vast disproportion existing between our work and God’s reward of it already displays his boundless grace, to say nothing of the gift of salvation which made before we have even begun to do any work.’
- That is what Peter experienced. His failures and his sins abounded. There is no question about that. But however much his sin increased, God’s grace increased all the more. It superabounded. God blessed Peter, not in spite of his sins, but without regard to his sins. That’s the way His grace operates. It looks not to our sins or even to our good deeds but only to the merit of Christ.
In conclusion, let us strive toward holiness and intimacy with Christ, drawing near the throne of grace with confidence, while also realizing that we deserve not this grace, nor do our feeble works merit further blessing. The blessings we received were already purchased for us by Jesus Christ. His merit has earned our blessings, and even in our state of continual sin He is anxious to restore us, to bless us, and to conform us to His image – by His own power, not ours. What a relief this is! How comforting! Let me close with the words of Paul in Romans 6:
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!  Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?  But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed,  and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:15-18 ESV)
Soli Deo Gloria