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One of the most important and beautiful Bible themes is the grace and mercy of God. No one can honestly claim to be familiar with the Bible and yet deny man's need for grace.
* Universalism claims God's grace will save everyone.
* Catholicism says the church hierarchy (clergy) dispenses God's grace through sacraments. Hence, men must confess to the priest to be forgiven, etc.
* Calvinism says God's grace is extended only to a limited, predestined few whom God unconditionally chose, regardless of their will, character, conduct, etc. And once God saves one of these elect, he can never fall from grace and be lost.
* Protestant denominations generally teach salvation by "grace alone" and "faith only," so a man is saved on the basis of his attitude toward God only. Obedience is not necessary.
* Some members of conservative churches teach that obedience is necessary to become a child of God, but after that one will remain in grace so long as he has a "good attitude," regardless of the fact that he continues to disobey God's word. Hence, they conclude we should not rebuke such people, but fellowship them despite their errors.
We will not consider in depth all the alternative views just listed. We will, however, give basic information that can be used to examine those views in more depth.
Consider some basic definitions:
"Grace" - "...good-will, loving-kindness, favor ... kindness which bestows upon one what he has not deserved ... NT writers use (grace) pre-eminently of that kindness by which God bestows favors even upon the ill-deserving, and grants to sinners the pardon of their offences, and bids them accept of eternal salvation through Christ ..." - Grimm-Wilke-Thayer. Hence, grace is "unmerited favor."
"Mercy" - "... kindness or good will towards the miserable and afflicted, joined with a desire to relieve them..." - Grimm-Wilke-Thayer.
So both grace and mercy involve kindness and favor toward those in unfortunate circumstances. Mercy emphasizes the wretched and miserable circumstances of the object of mercy, whereas grace emphasizes that they are unworthy or undeserving of favor.
[Bible passages regarding grace show that all three in the Godhead express mercy: the Father (Rom. 1:7; etc.), the Son (Rom. 16:20; etc.), and the Spirit (Heb. 10:29).]
In this study we will consider the following topics about God's grace:
Why do we need grace? What can it do for us?
Ephesians 1:7 - In Christ we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace. Note the importance of Jesus' blood in grace. Men ought to die eternally for our sins. But God's grace provided a sacrifice to die for us, so we do not have to die.
Ephesians 2:8 - For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. "Save" means to rescue or deliver from harm or danger. Sin endangers our soul by dooming us to eternal punishment, but God offers deliverance. We do not deserve deliverance, so it is not of ourselves, but is a gift of God. Hence it is of grace - unmerited favor.
Titus 3:3-7 - By God's kindness, mercy, and grace, He saved and justified us. "Justify" means to declare one to be right or just - to pronounce one to be what he ought to be. We do not merit or deserve such a right standing before God on the basis of the deeds we have done. On the contrary, we have all sinned (Rom. 3:23), and sin deserves death (Rom. 6:23).
So based on our deeds, we all ought to be punished eternally. But God sent His Son to die for us so we can have eternal life instead - a gift we surely do not deserve. That is supreme grace or "unmerited favor." We ought to fall on our knees every day to thank God for it.
However, none of this proves we can be saved without doing anything. It does mean that nothing we do could ever earn or merit forgiveness.
[Titus 2:11-14; Rom 3:23-26; Luke 1:76-78; 2 Tim. 1:9; Acts 15:11; 20:32; Rom. 5:12-21; 4:2-8; 1 Tim. 1:13-16; 1 Peter 1:3-16]
Sin alienates or separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1,2). Forgiveness by grace reunites us into God's fellowship.
Romans 5:1-2 - Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God ... we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand. We are no longer enemies of God.
Ephesians 2:1-5,11-13,18,19 - Salvation by grace (v5,8) changes us from being dead in our sins (i.e., separated from God - v12), to being made alive (made nigh or reconciled so we have access to Him). This makes us His children, members of His house or family (v19).
Suppose someone repeatedly mistreated you and acted as an enemy. Would you want him in your family? Would you allow your son to die so that one could enter your family? That is what grace led God to do for us. [1 Peter 2:9,10]
2 Thessalonians 2:16,17 - God loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace.
Romans 5:1,2 - We have access to grace, so we rejoice in the hope of glory.
2 Timothy 2:1 - Be strong in the grace in Christ.
2 Corinthians 9:8 - God's grace makes us all-sufficient in all things, so we can abound in all good works. It provides all spiritual blessings we need to serve God.
[Psalm 84:11; 1 Peter 4:10,11; Rom. 12:6; Heb. 4:14-16; 2 Thess. 1:11,12; Acts 20:32]
Titus 3:7 - Having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Acts 20:32 - The word of His grace is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
1 Peter 1:3,4,7 - By God's mercy we are begotten to a living hope reserved in Heaven ... praise, honor, and glory at Jesus' revelation (v7).
Who can search his life and honestly say he deserves such blessings as these? Yet God offers them anyway. That is "unmerited favor."
[1 Peter 5:10; 1 Tim. 1:13-16; Jude 21]
The doctrines of men regarding grace overflow with speculation.
Calvinists claim the Holy Spirit will act directly on man's heart, apart from the gospel, to give him "irresistible grace."
Others say, "Surely the grace of God will cover the sins" of a certain person or group. I ask, "How do you know that? Do you have a passage that says so?" Unable to provide such a passage, people nevertheless speculate endlessly.
How do we know what grace will or will not do? Do we have the right to say God's grace will cover certain sins, when we have no Scripture that says so?
There is no other way to know what grace will or will not do, or whom it will or will not save.
Ephesians 1:5-11 - We become God's sons according to God's will (v5). We have forgiveness according to His grace, which He made to abound to us, having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself (v9). We inherit according to His purpose, and He works all things according to His will (v11).
Note that, in all these things, God's grace works according to His will & purpose. The one who extends favor has the right to decide how and to whom he will extend it.
A major point of Ephesians is that the mystery of God's will is revealed in the Scriptures (3:3-5; 1:9). Scriptures provide us to all good works (2 Tim. 3:16,17). Therefore, the only way to know anything about God's grace is through God's word!
2 Timothy 1:8-10 - God saved and called us according to His purpose and grace, revealed in Christ who brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. God's grace operates according to God's purpose. But the gospel reveals God's purpose. So if we want to understand grace, we must study the gospel!
We have no right to assume (let alone to teach) that God's grace will do anything except what the gospel says it will do. We must not expect it to save any except those whom His word says it will.
Acts 15:11 - Jews are saved by God's grace in the same manner as Gentiles. Note that God's grace saves in a certain manner - there is a way it operates. Further, His grace saves all men in the same manner. How do we know the manner in which Gentiles (and therefore all men) were saved?
V7 - Gentiles heard the word of the gospel and believed.
11:14 - Peter spoke to them words whereby there were saved (cf. 10:33-48). No one will be saved by direct operation of the Spirit apart from the word. Grace saves through the word.
Acts 20:24,32 - Paul's ministry was to testify the gospel of the grace of God. His preaching commended them to the word of God's grace (v32). Note the connection between grace and the word. The only way to understand grace is to learn of it through the word. [vv 20,21,25,26; 14:3]
Galatians 1:6-9 - We are called in Christ's grace. But if we follow another gospel, we remove ourselves from Him who called us in grace. If we preach another gospel, we are accursed. To receive the benefits of God's grace, we must follow the gospel. To follow other teachings removes us from grace. [5:4]
Titus 2:11,12 - The grace of God has appeared teaching us how to live. God's grace teaches! To know about grace, we must be taught. How can we be taught? By God's only revelation, the Scriptures.
[Col. 1:5,6; 1 Peter 5:12; 1:10-12; 2 Peter 1:2; Gal. 6:16; John 1:17; Acts 4:33; Eph. 3:2-8]
This confirms what we just learned. What grace does, it does through the gospel.
2 Timothy 1:9 - We are called according to grace. [Gal. 1:6]
2 Thessalonians 2:14 - We are called by the gospel.
Titus 2:11,12 - The grace of God appeared to all men teaching us.
2 Timothy 3:16,17 - The Scriptures teach & instruct us and provide us to all good works.
Acts 18:27 - Disciples believed through grace.
Romans 10:17 - Faith comes by hearing God's word [John 20:30,31]
Ephesians 2:5,8 - By grace are you saved. [2 Tim. 1:9; Acts 15:11]
Romans 1:16 - The gospel is God's power to save. [James 1:21; Acts 11:14]
2 Timothy 2:1 - Be strong in the grace of Christ. [2 Thess. 2:16,17]
Colossians 1:9-11 - Be filled with knowledge of God's will that we may be strengthened with all might. [Acts 20:32; Rom. 16:25,26]
Giving eternal life
Titus 3:7 - Being justified by grace, we are heirs of the hope of eternal life.
John 6:63,68 - Jesus' words are the words of eternal life.
When we teach that people who practice sin must repent and obey God to be saved, some people say we are "playing God," "putting ourselves in the place of God," or "limiting the grace of God." Yet those people sometimes say, "I just believe the grace of God will cover those people."
The issue is: What does the Bible say? The only way to learn what God's grace will or will not do is to know what the word says.
If the Scriptures say that people who practice sin need to repent to please God, then we are not playing God when we preach that. We are simply teaching the word of God's grace: we are telling them what God says they must do to receive His grace!
If people say that God will save people who are practicing sin, but they cannot find a Scripture that so teaches, then why aren't they are the ones who have put themselves in the place of God? Why is it that only those who rebuke sin seem to be accused of "playing God"?
John 1:17 - Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. There is no conflict between grace and truth; they work together.
John 17:17 - But God's word is truth. So grace works according to God's word.
Only God can say what His grace will cover, and the only way to know is by what He says in the Bible. Whether we extend God's grace where His word does not extend, or whether we limit His grace where the word does not limit it, either way is equally "playing God." What we need is less speculation about grace and more "Thus saith the Lord."
Religious folks disagree about whether grace is received conditionally or unconditionally.
Conditional grace means that, in order to receive forgiveness and in order to continue to receive the blessings that result from it, there are certain things a person must do. Whether or not one receives grace depends on his individual choice, how he acts, thinks, speaks, etc.
Unconditional grace means that forgiveness and resulting blessings are granted to individuals regardless of their choice or conduct. God grants them grace entirely on His own determination without consideration of their will, desires, or actions.
Here are a few of the many Scriptures to be considered. For other Scriptures please see our study of election and predestination at our Bible Instruction web site at /instruct/.
People often confuse conditional blessings with merited blessings. Since we cannot earn forgiveness, they conclude there can be no conditions. They say it is a denial of grace to say one must do anything to receive forgiveness.
But the Bible contains many examples of people who received God's blessings by grace, yet they had to meet conditions. Those who met the conditions received the blessings. Had they failed to meet the conditions, they would not receive the blessings. Nevertheless, meeting the conditions did not earn the blessing, so it was still a matter of grace.
V2 - God said He had given Jericho to Israel. Some say salvation is a gift, so we can do nothing to receive it (Eph. 2:8,9). But Jericho was also a gift. Did they have to do anything to receive it?
Vv 3-5 - To receive the gift, the people had to march around the city once each day for six days and seven times on the seventh day, blow horns, and shout. When they did so, the walls fell.
Consider some questions:
* Was this a favor from God? Yes, it was His gift (v2).
* Did marching, etc. earn the gift? No, marching does not merit the destruction of a walled city. This was unmerited favor - a blessing they did not earn - hence, they received it by grace.
* But were there conditions the people had to meet to receive the gift? Yes. Would they have received it if they had not met the conditions? No. Hence, conditional grace!
Hebrews 11:30 - This very example illustrates the kind of faith we need to please God and be saved under the gospel system of grace (cf. 10:39; 11:6). Just as Israel's faith required obedience in order to receive God's gift by grace, so our faith requires obedience in order to receive the gift of salvation by grace. But it is still grace, because the conditions do not earn the gift.
Elisha told Naaman to dip 7 times in Jordan and his leprosy would be cured (v10). Naaman eventually did as he was told and was cured (v14). Questions:
* Was this a favor from God? Yes.
* Did dipping earn the gift? No, dipping 7 times in any river would not deserve the removal of leprosy. This was unmerited favor, hence grace.
* But were there conditions Naaman had to meet to receive the gift? Yes. Would he have received it if he had not met the conditions? No. Hence, conditional grace!
Grace can be conditional! The fact a person must do something does not necessarily contradict the concept of grace. Specifically, if dipping in water can be a condition for removing leprosy, yet it is still a gift by grace, then why can't dipping in water (baptism) likewise be a condition for removing of sin, yet it is still a gift by grace?
With only 300 men, Gideon defeated an innumerable host of Midianites. Questions:
* Was this a favor from God? Yes. God said He saved Israel (vv 7,9).
* Did Israel earn the blessing? No, They held torches, blew trumpets, and shouted, but this would not deserve the defeat of such an army. This was unmerited favor, hence grace.
* But were there conditions Israel had to meet to receive the gift? Yes, they had to surround the enemy, hold torches, blow trumpets, and shout. Would they have received it if they had not met the conditions? No. Hence, conditional grace!
Note v2: God deliberately arranged this so the people could not claim glory for themselves saying their own hand had saved them. Yet there were still conditions they had to meet.
Note the parallel to Ephesians 2:8,9, a passage which teaches that salvation is a gift by grace, not of ourselves or of works. Many say this means there is nothing for us to do to receive salvation. But note:
|Israel & Gideon (Judges 7)||Our salvation (Eph. 2:8,9)|
|saved from Midian||saved from sin|
|a gift from God||a gift from God|
|by grace||by grace|
|not earned by human hands||not earned by human works|
|man cannot glory||man cannot boast|
|conditions (obedience) required||conditions (obedience) required|
Vv 7,8 - Was Noah saved by grace? Yes, he found grace in the eyes of the Lord - unmerited favor. [Note: Prov. 3:24 uses the same word for "grace," but that verse is quoted in James 4:6, where the New Testament word for "grace" is used to translate it.]
Vv 13-15,22; 7:5 - Did Noah have to do anything to be saved by grace? Yes, he built the ark and did all that God commanded. Would he have been saved if he had not built the ark? No. Hence, conditional grace.
Hebrews 11:7 - Again, this very example is cited to teach us how we are saved from sin by faith (10:39; 11:6). The Old Testament example illustrates New Testament salvation by grace through faith, and both require meeting conditions. [1 Peter 3:20,21; Rom 15:4]
[Other Bible examples of conditional grace: Exodus 17:1-6; Numbers 21:6ff; Genesis 19:19; Hebrews 11]
* A radio announcer offers a valuable prize to the seventh person to call in. This is a favor (gift) not earned, but conditions must be met to receive it.
* A person's will grants one million dollars to an heir provided he is married, lives in a certain place, or meets some other requirement.
* A donor gives a million dollars to a college if it names a building after him.
Grace can be conditional. The fact one must do something to receive a gift does not mean he earns it and does not disprove it is a gift by grace.
We have proved that grace can be conditional. The existence of conditions does not eliminate grace. Consider now New Testament grace and specifically the grace by which God saves or forgives men of their sins. Is that grace conditional or not? Note first the universal nature of grace.
Titus 2:11 - For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.
Romans 11:32 - God has mercy on all, just as many as were in bondage to sin.
Hebrews 2:9 - By the grace of God Jesus tasted death for everyone. God wants all to be saved, so Jesus died for all (1 Tim. 2:4,6; John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9; Mark 16:15,16).
Romans 2:11 - God is no respecter of persons.
[Acts 10:34,35; 15:11 Rom. 5:15-21]
This fact destroys Calvinistic unconditional election and limited atonement.
Strict Calvinism denies that God's grace is truly available to all or that Jesus truly died for all. It says Jesus' death offers saving grace only to those whom God unconditionally chose before the world began. All others are lost and cannot receive grace.
But the above passages contradict this view by proving that God's grace is extended to all and Jesus died for all. The Calvinistic view of grace makes God a respecter of persons by saying that grace and the benefits of Jesus' death are extended only to a few regardless of their choice or conduct.
Further, these verses leave only two choices:
(1) If God's grace is unconditional, then all people will be saved, since His grace extends to all. This is universalism, but it contradicts passages showing many will be lost (Matt. 7:13,14,21-23; 25:31-46; 2 Thess. 1:6-9; etc.).
(2) The only other alternative is that salvation by grace is received conditionally. It is offered to all, but each individual must choose whether or not he will meet the conditions. Hence, God is no respecter of persons for He offers salvation to all. Yet many will be lost, because they refuse to meet the conditions.
The only way to harmonize the Bible teaching that God's grace is for all and that God is not a respecter or persons with the fact that many will be lost is to recognize that grace is conditional. Now consider Bible examples that confirm this.
Were people who were saved by grace under the gospel required to meet conditions? In particular, was baptism a necessary condition to their forgiveness of sins?
Acts 15:7-11 - Jews ("we") are saved through grace "in the same manner" (NKJV & ASV, "even as" - KJV) Gentiles ("they"). Grace saves in a certain manner or way. That manner is the same for all, Jew or Gentile. What is that manner? Is it conditional or not?
Note first the Jewish converts in Acts 2:36-41.
Acts 2:14,38 - Peter spoke to them. They had to be told what to do. Grace works according to God's revealed word, not in some mystical speculative way.
V36 - They had to know assuredly (believe) in Jesus.
V38 - They had to repent and be baptized for remission of sins. 3000 did so (v41).
Did these Jews earn salvation? No more so than did Naaman, Gideon, Noah, etc. The work done did not earn the gift received. But was obedience necessary to receive the gift? Absolutely. Hence, conditional grace.
Acts 15:11 says Jews and Gentiles would be saved in the same manner. So consider the conversion of Cornelius, the first recorded Gentile convert.
Acts 11:14; 10:33ff - Cornelius was required to hear words whereby he could be saved. He gathered with his friends to hear what Peter would say. [15:7]
10:43 - Peter said people must believe to receive remission. Later, he retold the event saying they heard the word of the gospel and believed (15:7). So their hearts were cleansed by faith (15:9).
11:18 - God granted the Gentiles repentance unto life.
10:34,35 - Those who work righteousness are accepted by God.
10:47,48 - In telling them words whereby they could be saved, Peter commanded them to be baptized in water.
Jew and Gentile are saved by the grace of God in the same manner. It is conditional, and the conditions are always the same! And those conditions include baptism.
1 Timothy 1:13-16 - Paul was saved by the grace of God, and he was a pattern for others who believe for eternal life. Further, he is the apostle who emphasized the doctrine of salvation by grace. So was his own salvation a pattern of conditional or unconditional grace?
Acts 9:1-6 - Paul had been a persecutor, but Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus' road. He told him to go into the city to be told what he must do. There were things he must do, and he had to be told them. (Clearly he believed and repented at this point.)
9:18; 22:16 - There he was baptized because the man God sent to tell him what to do said to be baptized and wash away his sins.
Paul, the apostle who taught salvation by grace, himself was saved by conditional grace, including baptism to have his sins washed away.
Romans 5:1,2 - The book of Romans is an essay on salvation by grace through faith under the gospel. Was the salvation of the Romans conditional or unconditional? We are justified by faith because, by faith, we have access to grace. [3:22-26; 4:2-8,14-16; 10:14]
1:16; 10:17 - The gospel is God's power to save all who believe. Faith comes by hearing God's word.
1:5; 16:26 - But, as with all other examples so far, this must be an obedient faith. What specific obedience is required?
2:4-10 - God's goodness leads men to repent. Those who will not repent, will receive wrath at judgment.
10:9,10 - One must have faith in his heart, but it must be obedient faith, for one must confess with the mouth to be saved. If grace was unconditional, then neither faith nor confession would be needed.
6:3,4,17,18 - To be made free from sin one must obey the teaching delivered. This includes baptism, since in baptism we come into Christ and into His death, so we walk in a new life (born again).
Paul's essay on salvation by grace shows that grace is conditional, and the conditions include baptism. Forgiveness is a gift we do not deserve, but one must meet the conditions to receive it.
Ephesians 2:5,8,9 - The Ephesians themselves ("you") are an example of salvation by grace through faith. So let us examine their conversion. Was this conditional grace or unconditional?
1:7,13 - They were forgiven by grace after they heard the word of truth and believed. Paul told the Ephesian elders that in Ephesus he had testified to the gospel of God's grace (Acts 20:24,27,32). We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8,9). But faith is a condition one must meet to be saved. If grace is unconditional, why is faith needed? [Acts 19:8,10]
Acts 20:20,21 - Paul taught, not just faith in Jesus, but also repentance toward God. [19:8,19]
Acts 19:5 - As a result of Paul's preaching, men were baptized.
Noah was saved by grace, but it was conditional. He had to obey, but his obedience did not earn his blessing.
Specifically, water separated Noah (who received grace) from those wicked people who were condemned. This illustrates our salvation by grace because, in our case too, water is essential to our salvation. Baptism saves us.
The power is not in water to save, nor does baptism earn salvation. The power is in Christ's death and resurrection. But when we have obedient faith, as Noah had, so we meet the conditions of salvation, then we are saved by grace through faith, even as Noah was.
[Acts 18:27; 8:22; John 1:12-17; Gal. 5:4-6; Titus 3:3-8; Heb. 12:14,15]
Since God's word is truth (John 17:17), and truth never contradicts itself, we know there are no contradictions in the Bible. However, many people are confused about grace because some passages appear to them to be contradictory.
Consider some examples:
We are saved by grace through faith, not of works (Eph. 2:8,9)
If salvation is of grace, it is not of works (Rom. 11:6)
We are not under law, but under grace (Rom. 6:14)
[See also Titus 3:3-7; 2 Timothy 1:9; Romans 4:5]
One reason people are confused about such matters is that they study only part of what the Bible says and do not put it all together. Another reason is that people ignore passages that seem to teach different from what they have believed and been taught. So they may study certain passages that teach about grace but then ignore other passages. The result is confusion.
If the Bible does not contradict itself, there must be harmony. Let us study Bible teaching about grace, law, and works, taking passages on all these concepts and putting them together.
Studying various passages will show us that the same word can have different meanings in different contexts. One reason people are confused is that they assume a word has one certain meaning, then they try to force that meaning on all contexts.
Examples in this study are:
Grace means unmerited favor - a blessing or gift that one receives, though it is not earned by the one who receives it. But the same word can refer to different kinds of grace.
* Unconditional grace in which one receives a favor but has no choice in the matter. The favor is given regardless of the choice, character, life, or conduct of the receiver.
* Conditional grace in which a gift is offered, but to receive it one must do certain things or act in certain ways. God's grace makes the gift available, but the person has the power to choose to do or not do whatever is required to receive it. Yet what is done does not earn the gift.
Either of these definitions can fit the meaning of grace. Only context tells what is meant in a particular instance. Many people assume grace must be unconditional, but this leads to false conclusions because, as we have already proved, the grace of the gospel is conditional.
Law simply means a command, rule, or precept (or a collection of commands) that a person is expected to obey. But again the New Testament mentions several different kinds of law. [Everyone obeys some law - Rom. 6:16,19.]
* The law of sin - Romans 7:23 [7:25; 8:2]. This is the principle by which one obeys his own will or the will of someone else other than God (actually he is obeying Satan). Note that 7:22,23 says this law is different from the law of God.
* The law of works - Romans 3:27. Note that this is different from the law of faith. The Law of Moses is an example of a law of works. When we study more about this kind of law later, we will see that the gospel is not this kind of law.
* The law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), also called "law of faith" (Rom. 3:27), "law of God" (Rom. 8:7), "law of the Spirit of life" (Rom. 8:2), or "law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12). 1 Cor. 9:20,21 says this is a law, but it is not the (Mosaic) law that the Jews were subject to.
Again, all of these fit the definition of law, but they are different laws. Only the context tells which is meant in a particular case.
Often people become confused because they assume that there can only be one kind of law. They read passages saying we are not saved by a law of works (like the Old Testament), then they assume this means there is no law at all involved in our salvation. When we realize there are different kinds of laws, then we see how we may not be saved by certain kinds of laws, yet there still may be a kind of law that is necessary to our salvation.
Works means deeds, actions, things a person does. But again there are different kinds of deeds mentioned in different contexts in the New Testament.
* Works of the flesh - Galatians 5:19-21. These are acts that violate God's law and are therefore sinful (this is parallel to the law of sin). These works do not save but rather condemn us. [Rom. 13:12-14]
* Works of the law (or works of human righteousness) - Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28 [Titus 3:5]. These are deeds done as part of a "law of works." Again, we will discuss these at length later and will see that these cannot justify and are not the works of the gospel.
* Works of faith or deeds done in obedience to the gospel - 1 Thessalonians 1:3 [Galatians 5:6]. These deeds result from faith as part of a law of faith. These are done, not to earn a gift, but to meet conditions to receive a blessing one does not deserve. [1 Cor. 15:58; John 6:28,29]
Again, all of these fit the definition of works, yet they are different kinds of works. Only context can tell which is meant in a particular case.
But people read passages saying we are not saved by works, then they assume this means that no deeds of any kind are involved in our salvation. But when we realize that the gospel mentions different kinds of works, then we understand that, though there are kinds of works which do not save us, yet other kinds of works may still be essential to salvation.
This is the solution to the problem of apparent contradiction between passages. Some verses say we are not saved by works of law, yet others say we are saved by works and must submit to law to be saved. The only possible solution is that the passages are discussing different kinds of law and different kinds of works.
Many denominations, in order to belittle the importance of obedience (especially baptism), have denied that the New Testament is a law. They deny that obedience in any form is essential to salvation.
Some members of "institutional" and even some "conservative" churches ones are making similar statements. I once heard a preacher say, "The New Testament is not a code of laws. It is a group of love letters."
Like most false doctrines, this contains just enough truth to camouflage the error. The implication is that love is important, but obedience is not essential. So they conclude that, when church members disobey the Bible, if they seem sincere, we should love them so much we will overlook their disobedience and continue to fellowship them. If we insist people must repent, some folks call us "legalists," and accuse us of trusting commandment keeping for salvation.
We agree that the New Testament is not a system of justification by works of law. But is law in any sense an essential ingredient of the gospel?
Galatians 6:2 - We must fulfill the law of Christ. Christ has a law, and we are expected to fulfill it.
1 Corinthians 9:20,21 - Paul was "not without law to God, but under law to Christ." Some people say we are not under law at all. Paul denies this. He was not under the law Jews were subject to (law of Moses), but this did not mean he was without law. He was still under law to Christ.
Isaiah 2:2,3 - When God established His house (the church - 1 Tim. 3:15), God's law would go forth from Jerusalem. [Acts 2; Luke 24:47]
James 2:8 - Love your neighbor is the royal law. If obedience to law is not required under the New Testament, then love is not required, for love is a law! Love and law do not necessarily conflict. To say love eliminates law is to misunderstand both love and law. [Cf. Rom. 13:8; Gal. 5:14]
1 John 3:4 - Sin is transgression of law. If we are not subject to law, then there can be no such thing as sin. If we are not required to obey law, then it would not matter if we commit sin. Those who claim we are without law are in effect defending sin, for the essence of sin is lawlessness (NKJV).
Yet all people commit sin (1 John 1:8,10; Rom. 3:23). And sin is what we need God's grace to forgive (Eph. 1:7). If obedience to law is not necessary, then sin is not a problem, and we would not need grace to forgive our sins. To eliminate law is to eliminate our need for grace!
Folks who say we are not under law, have denied our need for grace. To say obedience is not essential is to belittle our need for grace and for Jesus' death.
[Heb. 8:10; Rom. 3:27; James 1:25; 2:8,12]
Again, we agree that there is a sense in which we are not justified by works of law. But does this mean that no works of any kind are in any way necessary for us to be saved?
Galatians 5:6 - In Christ Jesus what avails is faith working through love.
Acts 10:34,35 - In every nation, he who fears God and works righteousness is accepted.
James 1:22,25 - Be doers of the word, not just hearers. If one is a doer of the work, he is blessed in what he does.
James 2:14-26 - Can one be saved by a faith that does not work (v14)? Such a faith is dead. Works and faith go together, so by works a man is justified and not by faith only.
Romans 2:6-10; 2 Corinthians 5:10 - We will be judged and rewarded in eternity for our works. We receive eternal life for well-doing, working what is good.
[John 6:28,29; Phil. 2:12; John 5:28,29; 1 John 2:17; 1 Thess. 1:3; Acts 9:6]
By definition, a law is a command or collection of commands. Those who belittle law also belittle the importance of keeping commands. But note passages showing how important commands are:
Matthew 22:37-39 - Love for God and man are the greatest commands. To say we must love is to say we must keep commands, for love is a command. To deny the need for obeying commands is to deny the necessity of love. [Note that comparing this passage to James 2:8 shows that law = command.]
John 14:15; 1 John 5:3 - If we love God, we will keep His commands. Love and commandment keeping are not antagonistic. They must go together. To say you do not believe commands are necessary is to admit you do not have a proper love! [John 14:21-24; 2 John 6]
1 John 2:3-6 - To know and abide in God, we must keep His commands. To say that command keeping is not essential is to admit you do not know God!
1 John 3:23 - Faith is a command. Those who say commands are not essential to salvation, are unintentionally saying that faith is not essential, for faith is a command.
Acts 17:30,31 - God commands all men everywhere to repent. To say that commands are not essential is to say that repentance is not essential, for repentance is a command. But God says that without it we will perish (2 Peter 3:9; Luke 13:3,5).
Acts 10:47,48 - Baptism in water is a command. But many passages show that it is essential to salvation (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Rom. 6:3,4).
Most folks willingly accept that faith and repentance are essential, despite the fact they are commands. The main command people insist is unneeded is baptism. But commandment keeping is either essential to salvation, or it is not. If keeping commands is not necessary, then love, faith, and repentance are not necessary. But if we admit keeping commands is necessary, then why oppose the necessity of baptism?
[Matt. 28:18-20; John 12:47-50; 1 Cor. 14:37]
Again by definition, law is simply that which should be obeyed. If law is not necessary under the gospel, then neither is obedience. But if obedience is necessary, then so is the law.
Romans 6:17,18 - Having just said that we are not under law but under grace, Paul says we are made free from sin when we obey the doctrine delivered.
Hebrews 5:9 - Jesus is author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.
Matthew 7:21-27 - To enter the kingdom of heaven, we must do the will of the Father. It is not enough just to learn Jesus' teaching or claim to believe Jesus is Lord.
1 Peter 1:22 - We purify our souls in obeying the truth.
2 Thessalonians 1:8,9 - Those who do not obey the gospel will be punished in flaming fire.
[Rom. 1:5; 16:26]
It is true that the gospel is not a system of justification by works of law, yet it is also true that the gospel is a law in which works and obedience to commands are essential to receive salvation. But remember that words like "law," "works," etc. can mean different things.
Let us study further to determine in what sense the gospel is a law that requires works and in what sense it is not a law of works. We will also see how all this harmonizes with grace.
To understand the relationship between grace, faith, works, and obedience in salvation, let us study the gospel contrast between two systems of justification.
|Works of Law||Grace through Faith|
|Sinlessly perfect lifetime||Sinner can be justified|
|Sins remembered||Lasting forgiveness|
|Must earn justification||Justification unearned|
|Based on man's effort||Based on Jesus' death|
|Man boasts in self||Glory goes to God|
|Man trusts self||Man trusts Jesus|
|No one is saved||All can be saved|
One way "works of law" is used is to refer to a system or fundamental principle of justification: one stands righteous before God simply and entirely because he has properly kept commands. This is basically the kind of law the Old Testament was, and this is the kind of law the New Testament refers to when it says we are not saved by "works of law." The gospel is not a "law of works" in this sense.
Note some characteristics of works of law as a system of justification (many references here are speaking of the Old Testament law, but the principle would apply to any law of the same kind as the Old Testament).
To stand righteous before God at judgment, one would have to live his whole lifetime without ever violating any of God's commands.
Galatians 3:10-12 - One who does not continue in all things written in the law is under a curse. This is quoted from Deut. 27:26 and describes a law system like the Old Testament. Here people are not justified on the basis of forgiveness, but one must do everything the law commands so he never stands guilty. [James 2:10; Rom. 10:5; Lev. 18:5]
The only person who ever lived a sinless life under the law was Jesus (Heb. 4:15). To stand justified under such a law, one would have to live a sinless life like Jesus did.
Hebrews 10:1-4,11 - The law had animal sacrifices which could not permanently remove sin. Sins were remembered every year.
If a person ever sinned under such a system, that law of itself could never give lasting forgiveness. Such sinners could only hope that some other arrangement would come later to justify them. Jesus' death accomplished this - His blood reached back to give lasting forgiveness to those under the Old Testament (Heb. 9:15). But the law itself that those people lived under did not provide lasting forgiveness. Had Jesus not come and died, they would have had no hope.
This is why justification under such a system required a whole lifetime of sinless perfection. If anyone ever sinned, he was under a curse of death (Ezek. 18:20; Rom. 6:23), but the law itself could provide no lasting forgiveness. [Galatians 3:21]
"Works of law," as a system of justification, refers to law alone - without forgiveness. One is justified under such a system entirely and only because he never did anything wrong.
Romans 4:4 - The only way to achieve righteousness under such a system would be to earn it as a matter of debt.
If a person lived a sinless life, he would earn righteousness. He would deserve for God to consider him right, because he never did anything wrong. God could not rightly punish him, because he did not deserve punishment. He is justified, not because his sins have been forgiven, but because he never committed any sins for which he needed forgiveness.
This is how "works" and "law" are used throughout the context of Rom. 4. Remember these words can also have other meanings; but the only meaning that could fit this context is sinless perfection, since this is the only kind of works that would earn righteousness as a matter of debt. Any man who sins deserves punishment (Rom. 6:23), so the only way to earn righteousness would be to never sin.
Romans 4:4 - The person must save himself by his own goodness. If he ever does anything wrong, he can never be righteous; so he must rely on his own strength to live without sin. [Judges 7:2]
Romans 4:2 - If man deserved to be righteous because he never committed any sin, he could brag about his accomplishment [cf. Judges 7:2]. Again note that "works" here must refer to a life of sinlessness, for that is the only kind of works in which a man could boast of his salvation. If he ever sinned and needed forgiveness, he would have nothing to brag about.
If a man saved himself by a sinless life, he would not need forgiveness. Hence, we would not need to trust in Jesus' sacrifice. Obviously God knew men would not be saved on the basis of a sinless life, else why send Jesus to die? [Gal. 2:21; Rom. 4:14]
Romans 3:20,23 - All are guilty of sin, therefore by works of law (a sinless life) no one will be justified. The law provided no means for lasting forgiveness, so the only way to be justified under that system was to live without sin. No one ever did this (but Jesus), so no one could ever be saved under that system.
In the end, what the law did accomplish was to prove to men that they were sinners who did not deserve eternal life (v20).
[Gal. 3:10-12; 2:15,16; Acts 13:38,39]
Passages, like those above, are often used to try to prove that acts of obedience (especially baptism) are unnecessary under the gospel. However, they prove no such thing, because "the law" in these contexts does not refer to the gospel, and "works of law" does not refer to obedience to the gospel conditions of forgiveness. Rather, these terms refer to a sinless life whereby one earns salvation, because he has never sinned. They refer to an entirely different system of justification than the gospel.
We earlier studied examples showing that the gospel is a system of salvation by grace through faith, yet it still requires obedience to conditions in order for a person to receive forgiveness. Hence, it is conditional, yet it is still a system of grace.
Let us now summarize justification by grace through faith as a system of justification, contrasting it to works of law as a system of justification.
Romans 3:23,24 - Under this system, even those who have sinned can be justified. Though we have sinned, yet we can be justified on the basis of forgiveness. That is grace (unmerited favor). [Rom. 5:1,2; Titus 3:3,7]
Ephesians 1:7 - We have redemption and forgiveness through Jesus' blood according to grace. [2:8,9; Rom. 4:5-7]
Hebrews 10:11-14,17 - Animal sacrifices could not completely remove sin. This is why they had to be repeated. But Jesus offered the perfect sacrifice, which removes sins so completely they are never again remembered.
We learned earlier that this forgiveness is offered to all men (Titus 2:11,12). But there are conditions men must meet to receive it. If one is not a child of God, those conditions include hearing, believing, repenting, confessing, and being baptized (Acts 15:7-11; 2:38; 10:34-48; 22:16; Rom. 10:9-17; 6:3-18; etc.). For a child of God who sins, the conditions are repentance and prayer (Acts 8:22; 1 John 1:9).
Romans 4:4-7 - It is a matter of grace, not of debt. Again, "works" in this context must refer to a life of sinless perfection. That would earn justification without grace. [11:6; 6:14f]
But righteousness by grace means salvation for those who "work not" or "apart from works of the law." These "works" are the ones referred to in vv 2,4 (sinless perfection) [cf. 3:21,28]. Hence, justification by faith means, even though people have not lived a sinless life, yet they can be saved by grace.
V7 explains how this happens: it is by forgiveness of sins. If he kept the law without ever sinning, man would earn salvation by works of law. But if he sins and needs forgiveness, that requires grace.
Salvation by grace apart from works does not mean there are no commands to obey to be saved. Multitudes of other passages show we must obey the conditions of forgiveness. What it means is that we are saved by forgiveness, and therefore we have not earned salvation by a sinless life.
Hence, salvation is based, not on human effort, but on Jesus' sacrifice (Eph. 1:7). [Eph. 2:8,9; Titus 3:5; 2 Tim. 1:9; Rom. 3:24,25]
Forgiveness can be obtained only through the blood of Jesus. By the grace of God, Jesus died to offer us salvation. Hence, salvation is a gift, not based on or provided by human effort.
Again, all passages that say salvation is not of works or not of law mean that it is not achieved on the basis of human ability whereby man earns salvation by living a sinless life.
It is not the intent of such passages to deny that man must meet conditions to receive forgiveness. The point is that man is not the source of the power on which righteousness is based. God is the source of the righteousness, because He forgives man's sins on the basis of Jesus' sacrifice.
Ephesians 2:8,9 - If someone had lived a sinless life and thereby earned salvation, then he could boast. But if a man has sinned and ought to be punished, but God by mercy offers him forgiveness, that man has forever forfeited his right to boast about his salvation. Instead, he should praise God for grace. [Rom. 3:27; 1 Cor. 1:29-31]
When passages like these warn against boasting, you know that the works being discussed do not refer to conditions whereby one is forgiven. There can be no boasting in forgiveness. So passages that warn against boasting must be warning against works of law whereby one earns justification by living a sinless life.
Specifically, passages that exclude works of boasting cannot possibly be excluding baptism. If a person is baptized for forgiveness, he cannot possibly have grounds for boasting. The whole point of baptism is to admit that the one being baptized is a sinner and has come with humble heart pleading with God to forgive him, not boasting about his human achievements. This is what Ephesians 2:8,9 and such passages are teaching. [Cf. Judges 7:2]
Ephesians 2:8; John 3:16 - Under a system of justification by works, one who lived a sinless life would not need Jesus' death. He would have saved himself by trusting in human ability. But since no one will be saved that way, then everyone needs faith in Jesus. [Rom. 3:22,26; 4:24; Luke 18:9-14; etc.]
When one admits that he has sinned and needs forgiveness - when He comes pleading with God to forgive Him by Jesus' blood - then he is not trusting his own ability. When He meets the conditions that Jesus requires in order to be forgiven, then he is manifesting faith, not in himself, but in Jesus. That is exactly what salvation by faith requires!
When people today deny that obedience is necessary, they claim that they do this because they believe we are saved by the grace of God and faith in Jesus. Actually, they show that they do not understand what the Bible says about obedience, but neither do they understand what it says about grace and faith.
When people really trust in Jesus, they will do whatever He says to do to receive forgiveness! When Jesus tells us what we must do to be saved but we deny we need to do that, then we show that we don't really believe in Him!
Acts 13:38,39 - Men could not be justified by the law of Moses, because it required a sinless life. Since all men sinned, such a system put salvation out of reach. [Acts 15:10,11]
Under the gospel, men can obtain forgiveness through Jesus in spite of their sins. That makes salvation available to everyone, because Jesus' died for everyone and everyone can meet the conditions.
The difference between justification by a system of works and justification by grace through faith is not that one requires obedience and the other does not. Both require obedience. In a nutshell the difference is that the first lacks lasting forgiveness and therefore makes salvation impossible for all who have sinned, whereas the second makes salvation available by offering real forgiveness of sin.
When we properly understand the gospel teaching about grace, works, and law, we learn that we should not belittle the importance of God's conditions for receiving forgiveness. We should respect those conditions and obey them. Neither should we belittle the importance of living a pure life, since one of the conditions of forgiveness is repentance, which requires us to commit ourselves to living a pure life.
Having met the conditions for forgiveness, however, we must not become self-righteous as though we deserve to receive eternal life or have earned it by our own goodness. Rather, we must recognize we are sinners who deserve to be punished, yet by God's grace we have been forgiven and offered eternal life.
That is grace indeed, and ought to lead us to forever praise God for His grace and Jesus for His death.
Copyright 1997, 2006, David E. Pratte
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and the Gospel
Once Saved, Always Saved (Eternal Security)
Original Sin and Inherited Depravity
Imputation of Jesus' Sinless Life
Individual Responsibility in Salvation
The Importance of Obedience
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
Should Babies Be Baptized?
Things that Are Essential to Salvation
The Purpose of Baptism
Pharisees: Who Were They Really?
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.