by Barry Newton
Repeatedly, I have experienced authors and preachers emphasizing one idea while ignoring another. Either they tend to focus upon Jesus’ insistence that how we live determines if we are prepared for judgment or they gravitate to Paul’s message that we are saved by grace, not works.
Can visiting those in prison make us right with God or can we rely upon grace regardless of our lifestyle ethic?
My guess is that fearing a fundamental conflict, some deliberately ignore either grace or exhortations to be prepared thus impoverishing their teaching and potentially distorting the message.
What happens when we sink our teeth into taking both teachings equally serious? This question must be answered by scripture, not strong feelings nor artificial bully theological definitions ultimately built upon the straw legs of personal opinion.
A two-fold approach recognizing both the state of who is being described in the text as well as the possibility of when Christians can fall from grace, provides one way to proclaim each truth with equal force. It also corrects both the danger of an unbiblical notion of grace, as well as the distortion that we can contribute to saving ourselves by how we live.
Was Jesus speaking to pagans or to God’s covenant people when he warned that if they failed to show love or to be about the Master’s business, that they would be unprepared for the judgment? Jesus spoke this to his disciples and members of Israel whom God had already claimed as his people./1 He was telling God’s people how to serve God, not informing pagans how to become God’s people.
When Paul described individuals being in the state of hopelessness, because sin’s stain had rendered futile any attempt to demonstrate their own righteousness, was he describing the situation of those outside of Christ or God’s covenant people? Paul forcefully decries the irremediable plight of being outside the salvation graciously granted in Christ./2 In these contexts, Paul unveils the role of grace enabling someone to enter salvation. He is not describing the duties and ethics of Christian living.
Secondly, to complete the cut through this seeming Gordian knot, we must also examine grace. Does grace mean that having once received salvation, we can renege on our allegiance to Christ or whole-heartily live for the flesh and still be declared righteous?
The biblical answers are straight-forward. First of all, for a Christian to begin to additionally rely upon another source of confidence, such as the Law, causes him or her to fall from grace./3 Also, to abandon serving Christ causes those whom Jesus’ blood made holy, to fall again under God’s wrath./4
Furthermore, grace does not provide us a license to engage in evil behavior without consequences./5 Whether we like it or not, these establish the principle that there are limits to what grace will cover.
With this being true, the all-important question arises. Are those under grace protected from God’s wrath regardless of whether they pursue fulfilling their divinely-given purposes as God’s children? In other words, because of grace does the Christian have a behavioral carte blanche license to fail to be salt or to bury his talent in the ground?
A complete review of the relevant verses are beyond the purview of this article. Nevertheless, what do the footnoted verses suggest, if not that the Christian does need to strive to live up to the calling received in Christ?/6
It would appear that Christians are expected to fulfill their role as children of God, in order to avoid becoming an unworthy servant. Stated differently, they need to *preserve* the complete salvation Christ has provided.
We may not like the conclusions. But if the foregoing is true, to what understandings are we driven?
> Because we have sinned, no amount of deeds performed in kindness or love to our fellow human beings can make us right before God. We are totally dependent upon God’s grace to save us. Paul’s letters often depict that our being God’s people is dependent upon Christ.
> Once someone belongs to God, both Jesus and Paul warned them against failing to live properly for God, thus making themselves unprepared for judgment. While they might have become God’s servants by grace, living as unworthy servants can remove them from grace.
To deny either the complete sufficiency of grace or the necessity of living out our calling, would seem to convict us of textual cherry picking. To the detriment of our understanding, will we either focus solely upon our favorite grace verses or on the need to live a life devoted to God.
1/ Deuteronomy 29:12-15; Matthew 24:3,42-51;25:1-46
2/ Titus 3:3-7; Ephesians 2:11-13,19-20; Romans 3:22-30
3/ Galatians 1:2; 5:2-4; 3:10-13
4/ Hebrews 10:29-31; Colossians 1:21-23
5/ Jude 4-6,12-13; Titus 2:11-14; Galatians 6:7-9
6/ Matthew 5:13; 25:24-30; James 2:1-26; Philippians 1:27; 2:12-16; Hebrews 6:10-11; 2 Peter 1:9-11