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 antinomians are worried about, and vice versa.
“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, 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).
Summary of the Text
We see that for the apostle Paul, obedience is not a bad word. It does not have negative connotations for him. The Philippians were beloved by him, and he commends them for their obedience (v. 12). This was not just when Paul was present, but also when he was not with them. In particular, he tells them (in his absence) to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (v. 12). How would it be possible for them to do this? God is the one who is at work within them, willing and doing in accordance with His good pleasure (v. 13). This means that the Philippians were to work out what God was working in. The labors of both parties, added up, did not come to 100%. The relationship between God’s work in us and our work for Him is not a zero-sum game. God did everything in them. They did everything that was the result of what God did in them. Salvation is all of grace—even the work.
But 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? But not all conditions are meritorious.
Spurgeon once said, when asked how he reconciled divine sovereignty with human responsibility, 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.
And what is merit? An act would be considered meritorious if it met two conditions—one, that it was genuinely good, and two, it was autonomous. The thing that annihilates all notions of merit is the fact that God is the giver of all grace. And if we pursue our own merit, we will land in one of two places—self-loathing over our failures, or insufferable conceit over our pretended successes. And the only alternative to those two disastrous outcomes is the grace of God in Christ, received by faith alone.
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.
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 the meaning of our text—“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.” 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.
All Grace, All the Time
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 find your pitiful 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?
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.
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.
Originally preached in 2012