In the past few years, God’s been teaching me more about grace. Having grown up as a Christian, I took it for granted that I was saved apart from works, to the point that I didn’t really know what it means to live by grace. And so, entering the last few years of high school, I was still struggling with grace, works, and sin, and frankly, my conscience was still bound to a very legalistic mindset.
Recently, I’ve been reading up on Paul’s theology, specifically as set forth in Galatians. The book of Galatians expresses Paul’s surprise and disappointment that the Galatian Christians would so quickly return to a lifestyle bound by the Law after accepting salvation by grace. Hearing that they are considering supplementing the Gospel with circumcision, Paul asks why they would want to “turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:9, ESV). The Law, marked by the seal of circumcision, is powerless to save. For Paul, works cannot justify man before God, and to return to works as a rule of life is to take a step back in redemptive history.
This return to works is still prevalent in the church today. It certainly was my struggle in high school. Sure, I believed that I was saved by God’s grace, apart from any merit of my own. Christ died for me while I was still a sinner. This, I had accepted years ago when I was still a child; yet, for some reason, going through high school, I continued telling myself that I had to do something to prove my self. My faith had to be supplemented by works, by obedience to the Law, by a strict, moral lifestyle. Morality, the Law, good works—these are doubtless all good, but my motive in pursuing them was completely backwards. I was attempting to use these things to commend myself before God, to prove to myself and to Him that my faith was genuine. I was not “being good” out of a heart of love for God, but I was “being good” out of a heart of compulsion. I was, in fact, making the same mistake as the Galatians by turning to works rather than to God’s grace.
Ironically, it was through works that God once again broke me into returning to his grace. He allowed me to struggle with sin, time and time again. Despite my best efforts, I could not overcome even my smallest problems. I am not now referring to sin as a whole, but only to a very specific set of sins in my life, which I thought I should be able to conquer. But God allowed me to struggle, and He allowed me to fail utterly to commend myself before Him. Somewhere along the line, though, it clicked. I began to realize that grace is not a one-time event, but it is an ongoing gift that we rely on not only for our justification, but also for our sanctification. God finally got it in my head that just as works are powerless to justify, so they are also powerless to sanctify.
Grace means that I am already forgiven. It means that I don’t have to do anything to be saved. To continue commending myself before God through works is to take a step back and deny the efficacy of what Christ did on the cross for me. Being familiar with Christian lingo, I was using “sanctification” as an excuse to return to works as a way to secure a peace of mind. Subconsciously, I kept telling myself that I was justified by grace through faith, but I was sanctifying myself through works. But as Paul shows in Galatians, this type of thinking is totally backwards. There is no return to works for one who is saved by grace.
Here, I must insert the customary disclaimer and say that grace doesn’t mean I’m now free to sin. But even in writing this disclaimer, I’m once again tempted to think that I have to obey in order to be saved. Thankfully, the beauty of grace is that it releases us from compulsion so that we are free to live not according to the Law, but according to the Spirit. As Christians, saved by the blood of Christ, we are no longer compelled to fulfill the requirements of the Law, but we are called to bear the fruits of the Spirit. This is where I’ll end tonight, because (conveniently) this also happens to be where I’m at in my walk with Christ. For now, my prayer for myself, for all of us, is that we’d continue in God’s saving grace, relying in Him not only for our justification, but also for our sanctification.