Grace & Service

Grace is a great Christian truth. It is the means by which we have faith at all (cf. Eph 2:8f) through which we come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Not only is it the basis of God’s saving act toward us, it is also a means to live out the christian life (cf. Rom 5:2; Eph 2:8-10; 1 Pet 5:12). God’s effective calling of his children, the means by which he makes us holy, by which we live out our Christian walk, and the basis of how and why He keeps us until the end are all of grace. Little wonder then that Christians are happy to talk about grace. A lot.

However, I have become increasingly convinced that our view of grace can impact in the most direct way on our service for the Lord. If you will forgive the crass terminology (I didn’t have anything better to hand), there is a low view of grace (or, cheap grace) and a high view of grace (costly grace). Please don’t confuse low and high, cheap and costly, as necessarily indicative of which view is “correct”. Both affirm something rightly and deny something wrongly.

The low view of grace rightly affirms that works play no part in salvation or forgiveness. However, it tends toward a form of antinomianism. It establishes grace as the means of forgiveness and then fails to concern itself with individual sin. That is it takes a blasé attitude to sin because, of course, God will just forgive me. It is cheap because in the old analogy – we stand in court, God is the judge and we are unable to pay the fine – this low view treats the price paid by Christ as though it were a mere speeding fine. An inconvenience, for sure, and money we’d rather not pay but hardly an eye-watering sum. Perhaps, to take the analogy further, we may accept we were broke and couldn’t pay £60. Yet, it is still only a relatively small price. Thus Christ’s forgiveness comes cheaply and easily available.

The high view of grace, by contrast, rightly affirms we are saved from sin and are brought into a relationship with God in order to glorify him. It correctly holds dear the truth that just as God is holy so we are to be holy (1 Pet 1:16). However, it tends toward a form of nomianism (or legalism). It can have a particularly hard attitude to sin as God hates sin and Christ paid such a high price to remove it from us. Grace is, therefore, hard to come by. It is costly because in the old analogy – we stand in court, God is the judge and we are unable to pay the fine – this view treats the price paid by Christ as trillions of pounds that not even the richest man in the world could pay, let alone you or I. Thus forgiveness comes at the highest of costs. To add further sin to the debt is to pile Pelion upon Ossa.

The problem the low view causes for our service is ultimately this. Christ has paid the price for my sin, I am no longer guilty before God and I don’t have to continually worry about my standing before him. I don’t have to keep working out my righteousness by doing anything. Thus far, thus correct. However, because I am right with God I have no need to prove anything. If I don’t fancy serving him I don’t have to. If I don’t want to do x, y or z for him, so what? I’m forgiven. I don’t need to earn my way to Heaven so why bother working hard for the Lord when I don’t necessarily fancy it. And, even if I ought to have done something, well, he’ll forgive me won’t he.

The problem the high view causes for service is this. I’m forgiven and because of what he has done for me, I owe Jesus everything. Thus far, thus correct. However, because I owe Christ so much, I effectively have to pay him back for all he has done for me. Every time I sin, that adds to my debt (which I know he has forgiven and I am no longer liable for it). But every time I do something good, that pays him back in a small way for all he has done for me. Therefore, I must get to every meeting, do all the evangelistic events I can and generally try to do as much good as I can. I can measure my holiness and righteousness by the amount of stuff I do for God. Whilst I know he will forgive me when I sin, I’ve already got a mountain of debt I owe so I don’t want to be adding to that. Though I know I will never (indeed, couldn’t) fully pay him back, I’d like to do what I can as best as I’m able.

Both views have hit on some truth to the detriment of an equally important truth. The low view is thoroughly liberating whilst simultaneously dismissing biblical imperatives to pursue holiness and to follow particular commands. It ignores the work of the Spirit in our lives who empowers us to keep God’s law. The high view emphasises personal holiness but can lead to a crushing expectation in our spiritual walk. It can also create a two-tier system of believers and super-believers, based on the twin measures of the amount of stuff we do and our personal piety (usually assessed entirely negatively in how much stuff we are willing to shun).

How do we avoid the Scylla of cheap grace and the Charybdis of legalism? The high view primarily errs in presuming we can “pay back” Christ at all. It is not simply that the price he paid was beyond our means, it was that the price he paid was in a currency to which we have no access. No amount of good works will pay him back one penny. Equally, when Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. You cannot be more or less righteous, you either are or you aren’t righteous at all. If we are in Christ, we have his perfect righteousness. This means there cannot be tiers of believer. Yes, there are those who do more for Christ than others and the scale of our reward in Heaven may differ as a result. But our fundamental righteousness, our standing before God, is a flat platform as our holiness in glory will also be.

The low view errs inasmuch as it treats Christ like an insurance policy. I may aim not to sin but, if I do, it’s not the end of the world because Christ will forgive. It equally denies the ongoing work of the Spirit in our hearts. He isn’t called the Holy Spirit for nothing. It seems highly unlikely God would put his Holy Spirit into our hearts simply to sit there and care not one jot about our personal holiness. If all true believers receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (and they do), it follows that all true believers would pursue holiness. If we are growing in holiness, it follows that such will have a clear a noticeable outworking in our lives and in our service. Though our service is no payback scheme, nor does it earn us righteousness, it does please the Father (as Kevin DeYoung points out here). 

At heart, grace is the means by which we are saved. It is the means by which we receive Christ’s righteousness. Yet, it is also the means by which God empowers his children to live lives that are generally pleasing to him. When talking grace, it’s always worth keeping these two truths together.