There seems to often be a lot of confusion when it comes to God’s grace. Does God’s grace mean that since I am saved I can kind of coast the rest of my life and not really do anything? But then why does the Bible also talk so much about good works and commands? Apparently, this confusion hasn’t changed much since the first century, because Paul addressed the issue several times in scripture. If we aren’t careful, we too can easily fall into the same trap of perverting God’s grace.
In a letter Paul writes to the Galatians, he is addressing false teachers who have come into the church. They have caused the Galatians to start living by what we would call “works”. They are trying to earn God’s grace, when Paul taught them that salvation is a gift of grace from God that can’t be earned.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.” -Galatians 1:6-7 (NIV)
He continues to remind them that they are not saved by works or by following the law, but that they are saved by faith. They can’t do anything to deserve or earn the gift of salvation. This is where we have to be careful. It would be easy to read this and conclude that, since we can’t do anything to earn God’s grace, then works don’t really matter at all and we shouldn’t even bother to try and change. We could run with that idea, disregard commands in the Bible, and continue to live however we want. But Paul also addresses that idea in a different book of the Bible. Again he calls it perverting God’s grace.
“For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” -Jude 4 (NIV)
In this letter he says that using God’s grace and forgiveness as an excuse, or license, for sin is perverting God’s grace. So the same person, Paul, says that trying to earn God’s grace by works and the law is perverting God’s grace but that ignoring works and the law is perverting God’s grace. He touches on this again in another letter he writes, saying we shouldn’t continue in sin just because of God’s grace.
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” -Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)
So this is where I think people often get confused. Is Paul contradicting himself? No, both sides of the spectrum are perverting God’s grace. Think of them as polar opposites (although they both come from the same shallow view of God). One side produces self-righteous people who try to earn God’s grace, and the other side produces people who don’t see how costly their sin is (what Bonhoeffer would call ‘cheap grace‘). You have to balance all of scripture, not just isolate one certain passage.
So am I supposed to live by faith or by works? Yes and yes. What I mean is that they go together. While we are indeed saved by faith (can’t be earned, worked for, deserved, etc.), true faith will cause you to live differently. Just because we can’t earn salvation, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t even bother trying to change. I love how Dallas Willard says it so perfectly, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”
“We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith which remains alone. True salvation is always followed by good works and a changed life.” -Tim Keller
In Romans 2, Paul says God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance. Because of God’s grace and kindness, we can’t help but change and turn from our sin. And in Titus 2, again Paul explains that, “It [God’s grace] teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.” And that we should be “eager to do what is good” (v. 14).
This is why James says that “faith without works is dead” (James 2). He isn’t saying that you are saved by works, but that if your faith isn’t followed by works it’s not real faith. You are saved by faith, not works. But if there aren’t works, you’re probably not saved.
“Grace and works go together, but it’s grace that ought to motivate our works.” -Francis Chan
You can’t have one without the other. Grace without works is a “license for immorality” and works without grace “is really no gospel at all.” Jesus died in our place and offers us salvation through him. That news is so good that when it is truly grasped we can’t help but change. Faith and works go together, taking one without the other is perverting God’s grace.