the Christian life
An Overview of Grace in the Christian Life
by Carol Berubee; adapted from the book, A Primer on Pauline Doctrine: Revealing the Mystery of the Body of Christ
Grace is a rather large subject and its examination warrants an entire book. It will be necessary, therefore, to pare down the subject to how it directly relates to the application of law in the Christian life.
“Grace is the unmerited, abounding provision of the unrestrained operation of God’s infinite love, through Jesus Christ, on behalf of man, especially those who depend upon Him.”1 But grace is more than unmerited favor; it is favor against merit. All people merited condemnation (death). It’s not that we were “neutral” and have received God’s favor without working for it; it’s that we merited death as sinners by position, nature, and practice, but we’ve received favor against that merit (Romans 5:20).
God is just, holy, and righteous; His wrath against sin is according to those attributes. God is also love and He expressed His love by the grace exhibited at the Cross. Sin demands justice from a holy God. Without love working by grace, all people would perish under eternal torment forever. This sentence of death is in accordance with God’s justice and holiness. God’s infinite love, if it would be expressed, had to work through grace. Christ’s Death and the shedding of His blood propitiated God’s wrath toward sin. Having satisfied His wrath in accordance with His just and holy nature, He is now free to fully exercise His love by grace while maintaining His justice, holiness and righteousness.
God’s grace is a gift; by definition, it is unmerited and freely bestowed. “For by grace have you been saved through faith; and that, not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, that no man should glory” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Therefore, works are excluded as a means of obtaining God’s grace and, in fact, if it is of works, it is no more of grace (Romans 4:4, 11:6).
All believers are saved by grace and are sanctified by that same grace. We are sanctified (set apart) as to position when we are first saved, but there is an ongoing sanctification in the life of the believer and this is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit in His application of grace in our lives. It is thought among one group of Christians that the absence of application of the Law (the Ten Commandments) leads to sinful living because there’s no “rule of life” to guide us and so they rebuke those who teach grace and the absence of the Law. Among another group of Christians, the thought is that since there is no Law and no condemnation, grace allows them to live in sin, giving ample ammunition to those in the former group. The truth is that both groups are wrong.
Grace does not set aside justice by “winking” at, or ignoring, sin. Grace is the positive action, on behalf of man, against sin as seen at the Cross. God took, and still takes, sin seriously. Although the Christian can never come under condemnation, grace is not liberty to sin and “get away with it;” rather, grace results in liberty from sin and is the provision of power to overcome sin.
Grace is not only the expression of God’s love in setting us free from condemnation, it’s also the power necessary to live a godly life. Where the Mosaic Law commanded obedience but lacked the supply of power necessary to obey, grace beseeches obedience but also supplies the power to obey. The Law (all law) is suited to the flesh; it is on a high human plane. Obedience to law does not require faith, but self-effort and diligence; hence, failure results because man is sinful and incapable of meeting all demands. Grace, however, is suited to the spirit of the new creation; it is on a divine plane. Obedience to grace is all of faith, and it is the life of Christ in us by the Spirit that enables compliance. To the extent that we are walking by the Spirit, we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh. The Christian walks by faith, completely dependent on God for all things, even the godly life.
God’s love is the impetus for His grace toward us; His grace as applied by the Spirit is our means of walking in love and living a godly life. What the Law commanded was love of God and love of people, but it gave no power to do so. The new life in grace does what the Law could not do in that “love works no ill toward his neighbor: love therefore is the fulfillment of the Law” (Romans 13:10). The Law is not fulfilled in us or by us; rather, it is the love that God manifests in us by grace that fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law.
The Christian is justified by grace (Romans 3:24, 5:2) and he walks by grace (Titus 2:11-13, 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, 2 Corinthians 1:12, 2 Timothy 2:1-2). Grace is power and, particularly as seen in Paul’s case, it is the source of his apostolic authority (Galatians 2:9; Romans 1:5, 12:3, 15:13-21; 1 Corinthians 3:10; Ephesians 3:7-8). Grace, as power and authority, is far superior in dealing with sin than is law requiring only self-effort. Far from being an encouragement to sin, grace forbids sin in light of God’s mercy and then gives the power to overcome sin. Grace is not license to sin, but is the only means to serve righteousness instead of sin (Romans 6:1-2, 14-15, 18). More is expected of the Christian than any other saved person of other dispensations because the Christian has the indwelling Spirit, working through grace and supplying all our needs (Romans 8). While more is expected of us, we don’t walk in fear of condemnation because the love in which we walk by means of grace casts out fear (Romans 8:1, 1 John 4:18).
Having seen that grace, not law, is the power we need to walk in obedience to God, we shall next examine grace as our teacher.
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, 12instructing us, to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly and righteously and godly in this present world.
Not only does the grace of God secure salvation for all who believe, it also teaches all who believe. The teaching of grace is that we deny ungodliness and earthly desires so that we would live temperately, righteously, and godly. Far from grace being a laxness toward sin, it is, rather, the opposite; grace instructs us in righteousness and godliness.
Ungodliness is a disregard for God; it is the failure to take God into account in all that we think or do. Godliness, therefore, is a complete dependence on God in everything we think and do. Godly living excludes all self-will, self-effort, pride, or boasting. It is not I who live, but Christ living in me (Galatians 2:20). It is Christ by His Spirit Who works in the Christian to will and to do according to His purpose (Philippians 2:13). It is grace that teaches us to deny self and independence from God in the least degree.
It’s not that we do our best through our own efforts, or reasoning, and then God helps us by adding to what we’ve accomplished. Such a walk in Christ is not godliness and none of those works accomplished in such a manner will stand the test; all such endeavors will be lost, not being counted as worthy of the Christian life. Rather, to be pleasing to God, and to walk worthy of the salvation to which the Christian has been called, it must be all of God and by God. Just as salvation is by grace, and grace is all of God (else it is no longer grace), so is the Christian life to be lived out. We were saved by grace through faith; just as we received Him, so must we walk in Him (Colossians 2:6). By grace through faith is the Christian life that manifests in godliness. Apart from Him, we can do nothing (John 15:5). Everything that God has done, and is doing, on our behalf has grace as its basis. The grace of the Cross is the means by which we are brought through to the day of Christ (the Rapture) and forever (Philippians 1:9-10, Ephesians 2:4-10).
Godliness is not the suppression of the flesh (Romans 7). Moral living and “good works” can mark the lives of unbelievers, so this is not the definition of godliness (though all believers should have impeccable morals). Only such lives that are dependent upon Christ by grace are godly; therefore, self-effort in the realm of morality is not godliness, for even the unbeliever can do the same. Rather, by grace, we yield to God, to His will and to His truth; we throw away our own ideas, reasoning, and will, looking only to His Word for our instruction.
Grace not only teaches us to deny ungodliness (a disregard for God), it teaches us to deny earthly desires. The desire for the things of the world is not limited to immoral pursuits, whether of behaviors or attitudes. Even the unsaved can turn away from immorality; however, only the believer can also turn away from all the “goodness” of the world, the pleasant things, the beautiful things, those things that are not “sinful” in and of themselves yet distract us from our calling in holiness. Grace teaches the Christian the goodness of God, Who alone is good. Grace teaches us the love of God, so that all other things are no longer desirable. If we yield to the Spirit Who works in us to give us knowledge and understanding of our former lost condition, and so great a salvation by grace, we will set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:1-4). Grace teaches us to deny the world and everything that is of the world so that there is no room for compromise with anything that is worldly, no matter how innocuous it may seem (1 John 2:15-17; 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
- “All Things Are Lawful”
Some teach that, under grace, there is no more sin; that is, there’s no behavior classified as “sinful” because there is no law that forbids certain behaviors. However, there is a difference between “sin” and “transgression.” A transgression is an act that “breaks” a law, so where there is no law, there can be no transgression. Sin, however, is the broad term that encompasses all acts which are not in accord with the character of God. Paul often identifies sins among Christians (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:18, 8:12; 2 Corinthians 11:29, 12:21; Ephesians 4:26; Galatians 6:1; 1 Timothy 5:24; 2 Timothy 3:6). While the committal of sins among Christians does not condemn us (send us to Hell), there are still consequences, some of which are severe (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:27-31).
Some Christians have taken a Pauline phrase, “all things are lawful,” and turned it into license. Such immature believers must be corrected. They have knowledge of liberty, but they are misusing it.
1 Corinthians 6
12 “All things are lawful for me;” but not all things are expedient. “All things are lawful for me;” but I [Paul] will not be brought under the power of any.
The context of this passage is immorality. These Corinthians seemed to have still been under the influence of Gnosticism because they want to make the case that the body has natural desires like eating, so sexual desires should be no different. Eating is lawful and, therefore, sexual gratification should also be lawful. If there is no law for the Christian, then there’s nothing to forbid immorality. Paul, however, says that he -- perhaps the only person in the world who truly understood liberty under grace – would not be brought under the power of anything other than Christ.
1 Corinthians 10
23 “All things are lawful,” but all things are not expedient. “All things are lawful,” but all things edify not.
The context of this passage is meats sacrificed to idols. The Law had stipulated many dietary rules, including abstinence from meats sacrificed to idols. In Paul’s teaching to the Jews concerning the end of the Law, the Gentile believers rejoiced, as well, prompting them to surmise that they could do anything they wanted and it wouldn’t matter. Paul goes on in this passage, however, to warn that it is sinful to participate in the idol’s temple. Eating the meat is okay, but going to the idol’s temple for the banquets is not okay.
In these two passages, then, we see the limits of liberty under grace. Legalism and immorality are two sides of the same coin of sinful flesh. The legalist underestimates his helplessness against the flesh while the immoral person dismisses the seriousness of indulging the flesh. In both cases, the believer is engaging the flesh for his own desires and, in both cases, Paul calls us to instead flee the old man. He isn’t advocating lawlessness (Gr. anomos) which makes the believer a law unto himself; rather, he is teaching us that we are “enlawed” (Gr. ennomos) to Christ, the place of all enablement to live a godly life.
Grace is more than the end of the Law, or any law-principle; grace is the power and deliverance given by God that enable us to be free from sin and sinful acts. Therefore, the commands given by Paul under grace, and our obedience to those commands, do not constitute “legalism.” Paul’s commands are always addressed to the inward man, not the old man. The inward man is being renewed day by day in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yielding to the Spirit in obedience to the Word of God is never legalism because we are operating in the power of grace toward the new creation where there is no law (cf. Galatians 5:23b). Whereas legalism is a work of the flesh, typically in an effort to appease God, grace-living is the new man yielding to the Spirit in love. Whereas immorality is an indulgence of the flesh, typically to express one’s liberty, grace-living is the new man yielding to the Spirit Who will never lead us into sin.
1. J. F. Strombeck, Disciplined by Grace: Studies in Christian Conduct (Moline, Illinois: Strombeck Agency, Inc., 1946, 1947), p. 13.