I know, I know. The horse is already dead, so stop beating it.
As far I know my own heart, I’m not trying to pile on, dig in my heels, or even win an argument. I would like, however, to be clear.
I believe with all my heart in justification by faith alone. It is the “main hinge on which religion turns,” as I explain here and here. I cherish beyond words that because “it is finished” (John 19:30), I can know true comfort, trusting that Jesus Christ “has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil” (HC Q/A 1). I gladly affirm the scandalous nature of free grace. I need it every day. As God gives me strength, I will preach, and pray, and sing, and shout of the wonderful, matchless grace of Jesus as long as I live.
I am also compelled by Paul’s example and by Holy Scripture to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
Which doesn’t mean we move past the gospel or leave grace behind. The gospel never ceases to be relevant. We are never not dependent on grace.
In fact, grace is so amazing that there is more than one thing to say about it. By grace we do wonders (Acts 6:8), by grace we are justified (Rom. 3:24), by grace we exhort (Rom. 12:3), by grace we build (1 Cor. 3:10), by grace we work hard (1 Cor. 15:10), by grace we give generously (2 Cor. 8:7), by grace we use our gifts (Eph. 4:7); by grace we are strengthened (Heb. 13:9), and by grace we are saved (Eph. 2:8). Every good thing we do, every true thing we believe, every bit of resting, every bit of striving, every mercy and every effort is by grace (James 1:17).
If there is one central area of confusion surrounding progressive sanctification, I think it has to do with the role of exertion in the Christian life. Is there any place for God-infused effort as we “grow in grace” (2 Pet. 3:18)? When we meet people whose hands and feet cause them to sin, can we only tell them of justification by faith, or can we also implore them to cut it out and “cut it off” (Mark 9:43-47)? Might that word of warning and exhortation be a grace to them?
If we are faithful parents, faithful mentors, and faithful preachers, we will gladly teach with all our might that Christ made propitiation for the sins of his people (Heb. 2:17), that we can with confidence draw near to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16), that Christ is the mediator of a new and better covenant (Heb. 9:15), that Christ offered up his body once to bear the sins of many (Heb. 9:28), and that we should not be sluggish (Heb. 6:12), that we must not go on sinning deliberately (Heb. 10:26), that we must run with endurance the race set before us (Heb. 12:1), and that we should strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
Legalism, self-righteousness, glorying in our own strength—these are dangers we must always guard against and constantly preach against. The greatest grace champions can be graceless in real life. The strongest proponents of holiness can be worldly to the core. We are all leopards whose spots do not change as easily as we would like or as noticeably as we think. We need to hear of grace to the day we die.
And we need grace to enable us—as regenerated, saved, justified, adopted, beloved children—to beat our bodies (1 Cor. 9:27), run the race, and fight the good fight (2 Tim. 4:7).
There is no plausible way to read the Bible and conclude that God working in us absolves us from working hard, no responsible way to think that exhortation and exertion are anything other than essential to a life of discipleship.
- 1 Corinthians 15:10 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
- Philippians 2:12-13 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
- Colossians 1:29 “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
- 2 Peter 1:5 “For this reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge…”
The Bible clearly teaches that God works in us so that we might work out. This is taught by Calvin:
As it is an arduous work and of immense labour, to put off the corruption which is in us, he bids us to strive and make every effort for this purpose. He intimates that no place is to be given in this case to sloth, and that we ought to obey God calling us, not slowly or carelessly, but that there is need of alacrity; as though he had said, “Put forth every effort, and make your exertions manifest to all.” (Commentary on 2 Peter)
And by the Westminster Confession of Faith:
Their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ. And that they may be enabled thereunto, beside the graces they have already received, there is required an actual influence of the same Holy Spirit, to work in them to will and to do, of His good pleasure: yet are they not hereupon to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty unless upon a special motion of the Spirit; but they ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them. (16.3)
This effort is not by our own strength, and it merits nothing. But as Christ works in us by his Spirit through the gospel, we are called to striving and effort. To make this effort is not a return to Moses, and to call others to this striving is not antithetical to the gospel. In an attempt to safeguard what is true, let us not proscribe a bevy of doctrines that are not false. Nuance is not the enemy of faith. Saying everything Scripture says does not have to weaken any one thing that Scripture does say.
If as a preacher I tell you that you can be justified by works of the law, I should be damned (Gal. 1:8,9; 2:16). And if I never tell you to flee from sin (1 Cor. 6:18), never warn you about persisting in sin (1 John 3:4-10), never implore you to no longer keep on sinning (Heb. 10:26), never plead with you to pluck out your eye (Mark 9:47), never let you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9), never urge you to lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees (Heb. 12:12-17), then you may be damned.
God uses a multitude of indicatives and a host of imperatives to save us and sustain us. It’s all of grace, of course, but grace does not always look or sound the same. There is grace to run and grace to rest. And we need both.