I remember an occasion when a person quoted, “there should be no division in the body” (1 Corinthians 12:25) as evidence that small groups are unbiblical. We recognize, however, that with these words Paul affirmed the need for spiritual cohesiveness, not geographical unity. Accordingly, we rightfully reject the misappropriation of this verse to condemn the practice of groups meeting in various locations.
This realization should also cause us to recognize a general interpretation principle. It is a principle we need to remember when considering what it means for Christians to be saved by grace, as well as what it means to live under grace.
What the text can legitimately mean today must be limited to what it communicated within its context. Without that anchor, phrases and verses can be transformed to serve whatever whim a person desires – including outlawing small groups.
As a reminder, grace is commonly defined as being unmerited favor. Yet, this is ambiguous. What constitutes merit?
Some have suggested that any action as well as intent qualifies as merit. Thus in this view, in order for salvation to be by grace, there can be no human activity nor desire that leads to salvation. Rather, God must give people faith. Otherwise, when people chose to believe they would be meriting their salvation.
Others disagree with this idea that human volition constitutes merit. This perspective embraces merit as encompassing “doing something,” as well as every effort to obediently conform. Accordingly salvation by grace would require that there be no action resulting in salvation.
It is common for proponents of this view to conflate what enables salvation with what is required to live the Christian life in order to conclude there is no need to conform to the New Testament’s teachings. Why? No command or teaching left undone can result in condemnation. Grace covers it.
Still others claim that the unmerited favor received in salvation, means a person receives salvation without needing to earn it based upon the Law. Thus they limit merit to fulfilling the works of the Law. Hence being saved by grace does not preclude the possibility that it might be necessary to do something to obey the gospel.
With these thoughts in mind, how do the various proof texts within Romans for different notions of unmerited favor measure up?
Starting with the most inclusive definition: “… even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling) … So then, it does not depend on human desire or exertion, but on God who shows mercy . . . . at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if it is by grace, it is no longer by works” (Romans 9:11,16; 11:5,6).
Some affirm excerpts such as these reveal merit includes all human volition, morality and activity. Do these verses support labeling all human intention and movement as meritorious and therefore excluded from being a part of salvation by grace? Not at all.
Paul’s focus in Romans 9 and 11 emphasized God’s prerogative to identify, shape and use a people of promise from Abram for himself. He was not discussing saving individuals by grace. Accordingly, to use these statements regarding election to negatively label human desire as meritorious thereby excluding it from being a part of salvation by grace, transforms the text’s message.
What does Romans 8:1-2 teach us about grace? First observation, it isn’t mentioned. Second, in contrast to the Law which condemned since it exposed one’s sin, what Christ brings is different. Christ brings life, not condemnation.
To appropriate these verses to claim that those in Christ are liberated from the need to obey God’s word involves exceeding their contextual meaning. What the text can legitimately mean today must be limited to what it communicated within its context. Without that anchor, phrases and verses can be transformed to serve whatever whim a person desires – including outlawing small groups.
If grace and works stand in opposition to each other, does Romans 4:4 reveal that for something to be unmerited no human action can be involved? What does the context reveal about the flow of Paul’s thought? Paul has just asserted that being right with God comes through faith, not through the works of the Law. The “activity” Paul has in view is that associated with the Law, not the greater logical sphere of all doing.
In Romans 3:24,28 as throughout the flow of Paul’s thought, works / merit is defined as doing the Law. Romans contrasts two paths people might seek to use for being right with God: either earning it by doing the Law or receiving it as a gift, that is by grace. Grace stands opposed to earning a right standing with God.
Paul neither expands merit to embrace all human activity, nor does he denigrate every action as works. Accordingly, he can write about the necessity of obeying the gospel, as well as baptism being an obedience from the heart that frees a person from sin – which I would suggest he understood as being saved on the basis of grace.
Our understanding of grace has a ripple effect impacting many aspects of the Christian message and its practices. Although many things might be given as a gift, such as spiritual gifts, Paul’s predominant usage of grace points to God granting salvation as an unearned gift. As such it does not negate the need for God’s people to pursue paths of obedience in order to live worthy of their calling and fulfill their divinely given purpose.
Thus Peter’s admonition that God’s people should make every effort to make sure of their calling stands firm, not to become saved but to remain saved. People can fall from grace by embracing heresy or unrepentant sinfulness.
The first article in this series was: The Gravity of Grace: Definitions and Results (1)