Our Doctrinal and Liturgical Bramble Bushes

I am fond of saying that grace has a backbone, but I think it is time to explain what I mean by that. The context of these remarks is the general and current ongoing discussion about the worrisome trajectories of all those incipient legalists and antinomians out there. The incipient legalists are the ones the incipient antinominans are worried about, and vice versa.

Of course, as things stand right now in the Reformed world things are generally copacetic, at least as far as this topic goes. If we lived in a truly confessional age, with great preaching, theological geniuses writing their tomes, and so on, then we would have to worry about the naked Quakers running through Safeway again, and legalistic Anglican bishops cutting off people’s thumbs for having broken some stupid rule. But as it is, we are too anemic to get into serious trouble with legalism or antinomianism. We are the bland leading the bland, which provides us with some small measure of imagined safety, at least for a time.

So what is the relationship of the grace of God to the (seemingly unrelated) world of hard moral effort? If the grace of God is in all and through all, and beneath us all, then why do we still have to sweat bullets? Are those who sweat bullets abandoning the grace of God? Are those who rejoice in free forgiveness forsaking the demands of discipleship?

I recently finished another book by my favorite Puritan writer, Thomas Watson, and the book was Heaven Taken by Storm, his exposition of Matthew 11:12. Throughout the book Watson seems to regard the whole grace/works thing with a serene and admirable above-it-all-ness. He will say, on the one hand, that while Christ bled, you must sweat. But on the other hand, he says, “Though we shall not obtain the kingdom without violence, yet it shall also not be obtained for our violence.”

I am reminded of comment that Spurgeon made once when asked how he reconciled divine sovereignty with human responsibility. He replied that he did not even try — he never sought to reconcile friends. If we think about it rightly, from the vantage of those jealous for moral probity, we will never try to reconcile grace with works — that would be like trying to reconcile an apple tree with its apples. And, if we think about it rightly, from the vantage of those jealous for the wildness of grace, we will never try to reconcile grace with merit, for the two are mortal enemies and cannot be reconciled.

But those who insist that apple trees must always produce apples will make the friends of free grace nervous, not because they have anything against apples, but rather because they know the human propensity for manufacturing shiny plastic apples, with the little hooks that make it easy to hang them, like so many Christmas tree ornaments, on our doctrinal and liturgical bramble bushes. But on the other hand, those who insist that true grace always messes up the categories of the ecclesiastical fussers make the friends of true moral order nervous — because there are, after all, numerous warnings (from people like Jesus and Paul, who should have a place in these particular discussions, after all) about those who “live this way” not inheriting the kingdom. Kind of cold, according to some people, but the wedding banquet is the kind of event you can get thrown out of.

So what is the relationship of grace to hard, moral effort? Well, hard, moral effort is a grace. It is not every grace, but it is a true grace. It is a gift of God, lest any should boast. We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, and this is a description of someone being saved by grace through faith, and not by works (Eph. 2:8-10).

This is all summed up in another glorious passage as well — “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). We are called to work out what God works in, and absolutely nothing else. If we don’t work out that salvation (as evidenced by the fruit of it), then that is clear evidence that God is not working anything in.

If we work out some pressboard imitation (a salvation that has the look of real wood!), then that shows that God is not working anything in there either. Moralism is just a three-dollar flashlight to light the pathway to Hell with. And of course, if we are guilty of the opposite error, if our lives are manifesting a lineup of dirty deeds done dirt cheap, the only real sin we are avoiding is that of hypocrisy. Overt immorality is the fifty-dollar flashlight.

This is why we need a little more of “in Him we live and move and have our being.” Actually, we need a lot more of it. The answer to the grace/works dilemma is high octane Calvinism, and by this, I don’t mean the formulaic kind. If God is the one Paul preached — the one of whom it can be said “of him, and through him, and to him, are all things” — then where in the universe are you going to hide your damned merit? If He is Almighty God, and He starts to transform your tawdry little life into something resembling Jesus, who are you to tell Him that He is now wavering on the brink of dangerous legalisms?

By the way, my use of damned a few lines up was not frivolous swearing. I meant damned merit. And no, I don’t think I am C.S. Lewis.

The bottom line is that we cannot balance our notions of grace with works or our notions of works with grace. We need to get off that particular teeter totter. We have to balance absolutely everything in our lives with God Himself, who is the font of everlasting grace — real grace. Real grace is the context of everything. If we preach the supremacy of God in Christ, and the absolute lordship of that bleeding Christ, and the efficacious work of the Spirit in us who raised Jesus from the dead, then a number of other things will resolve themselves in a multitude of wonderful ways. Those wonderful ways will be seen by a watching world as something they will call good works. We can call them that too, if we want, as Paul makes free to do in Titus. And when unbelievers ask us where these works come from, we need to chuckle and say, “Where everything does. From Jesus, man.”

In Jesus, we are the new humanity. Is Jesus grace or works? Jesus lives in the garden of God’s everlasting favor, and we are in Him. In Christ, there are no prohibited trees. Outside Him, they are all prohibited. That means there is only one real question to answer, and it does not involve any grace/works ratios. The question is more basic than that, and has to do with the new birth.


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