How can we pursue Christlikeness and, at the same time, avoid working to pay God back for his free grace?
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Paul tells us that there is a big contrast between the way we formerly walked in our sins and the way we should presently walk in the good works God has eternally planned for us to do. It should also give us great joy and confidence toward God, because we are the work of his hands, and we are being molded to be more like Christ day by day, until he completes it—and he certainly will.
What do we want to avoid? Paying back grace. Because paying back grace boasts of works rather than grace. It by mistake suggests that the gospel saves (i.e. justification), but works, without grace, conforms us to the image of Christ (i.e. sanctification)—that works without grace magnify the supremacy of Christ. It mistakenly puts forward that fruit bearing is primary rather than abiding in Christ (cf. Jn. 15:1-5). NO, fruit bearing is only possible with Christ. With that in mind, how can we pursue Christlikeness and, at the same time, avoid working to pay God back for his free grace? It is important to keep in mind that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” but that those works were “prepared beforehand” by God “that we should walk in them.” At any point, any claim that we can do any good on our own apart from Christ, we are missing the point. “For I do not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me . . .” (Rom. 15:18).
Paul, in his letter to Titus, plainly says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age . . .” (Tit. 2:11-12). What does this mean for our pursuit of Christlikeness? Jerry Bridges suggests that “the same grace that brings salvation also disciplines us . . . [that] God never saves people and then leaves them alone to continue in their immaturity and sinful lifestyle” (The Discipline of Grace, 82). Since we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” grace instructs us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires (1 Pet. 2:11; also cf. Rom. 1:18-22 for a list of ungodly/worldly things that sinners indulge in). It teaches us to say NO to these things and YES to godliness (e.g. to live righteously and sensibly . . . cf. 2 Pet. 1:3-10, Eph. 4:22-24). It trains us to live lives that are pleasing to God.
This verse actually reads, “the grace of God . . . instructing/teaching us.” Bridges then suggests that the word translated as ‘teach’ “means much more than the usual idea we assign to it of imparting knowledge” (80).
“Originally it was used as a term for the rearing of children and included not only instruction, but also admonition, reproof, and punishment, all administered in love and for the benefit of the child. The apostle Paul used the same word in Eph. 6:4 when he charged fathers to bring up their children in the training (that is, discipline) and instruction of the Lord” (80).
In the same way, we are also children of God in Christ, and we remain under God’s parental discipline of grace as long as we live. This also means that when we practice godliness, we must keep in mind that God’s smile or frown upon us does not depend on how often we do things for God. NO! Instead it depends on God’s grace for us in Christ, and “all of our responses to God’s dealings with us and all our practice of the spiritual disciplines must be based on the knowledge that God is dealing with us in grace” (81). In view of that, when we teach others about living out the gospel and pursuing Christlikeness, we must teach them that discipline is by grace, not by performance.
What is grace? Grace is the un-merited favor of God toward anyone he chooses to give grace to. There is a sense in which God gives grace to all people, whether they are his children or not (e.g. the rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous). Saving grace is different from common grace. Now, why do I think that saving grace is the same grace that instructs us? Because Paul says it. “For the GRACE of God has appeared BRINGING salvation . . . INSTRUCTING us to DENY ungodliness and worldly desires and TO LIVE sensibly . . .” He says specifically that the grace of God that saves also instructs us to deny ungodly things and to do godly things. So, there shouldn’t be an issue of whether or not grace saves and grace instructs.
Jesus tells us that he disciplines and rebukes those he loves (Rev. 3:19). If he loves them and rebukes and disciplines them, then he is giving them grace. Another way to think about it is how people often say they do things that please God. I sometimes tell people that if there is anything good that I do, it is by God’s grace, and therefore, for his glory. What does the discipline of grace look like? Its product looks like fruit. Can you tell grace is doing it? I don’t doubt that people can fake bearing fruit and pursuing holiness before men, but they can’t before God. He knows the heart. However, there are some ways to tell whether grace is instructing to deny ungodly things and to do godly things. 2 Peter 1:3-10 goes a long way to explain what that looks like. God, by his grace, has given us all things pertaining to live and godliness. That is why saved sinners can now do things that honor and glorify God as they should.
Can it be resisted? Apparently. Peter then tells us that if we don’t supplement our faith with fruits of the Spirit (love, virtue, brotherly kindness, etc), then either we have forgotten the gospel or never believed it in the first place (v. 9). That goes back to John 15. Christians are the branches and should bear fruit (it is natural for branches to bear fruit when they are connected to the vine . . . who provides what is necessary to bear that fruit? Not us. Christ does).
We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. So, Christians should walk in the good works that God has already prepared for us to walk in. How can we do that apart from God’s grace? We can’t. When we struggle to put off the old self, to put sin to death, should we expect no discipline to help us throw those things off? Of course not. That help is grace. It is grace given to sinners that also gives us the Holy Spirit, which enables us to do good works. It is grace given to sinners that makes it possible for us to also put sin to death. We certainly could never put sin to death on our own, apart from God’s grace. Therefore, in view of that also, it would be a mistake to say that we can also accomplish sanctification on our own apart from the grace that saves which also instructs us to deny ungodly things and to do godly things. Yes, we are responsible to put off the old self and to put sin to death, but that doesn’t mean that we could do it apart from the continuing work of grace in our lives and the Holy Spirit that enables us to conquer those things. Most importantly, who gets the glory for it? God does, not to mention that when we are disciplined by grace, our good works are, in no way, a means of paying back grace.
Primarily, the issue comes down to the heart of dependence. Unbelievers live and think independently of God, seeking their own will and exaltation. Christians don’t live that way. We are to “be imitators of God” (Eph. 5:1) walking “in love, as Christ loved us.” So then the paths that we take are not ones of self-exalting independence but of God-exalting dependence. As we are conformed to image of Christ (Eph. 4:23-24) we are putting off the old self (v. 22), first by the discipline of grace. This makes it utterly incongruous to depend upon or boast in our own works as if they are valuable in themselves for the very motive and means of these works is to be the expression of dependence upon God. The point here is, YES we are commanded “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly,” but this is something that we cannot do apart from the grace of God that brings salvation and instructs us to do the good works we were created in Christ to do.
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