We have examined two implications which follow in our lives if our focus is right and our eyes are fixed on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. We will now consider the third implication and that has to do with the right outworking, daily and long-term, in practical terms, in our Christian lives.
GOD’S GRACE AND THE VARIOUS RESPONSES TO IT
We have noted earlier that it is by grace we have been saved through faith – it is not from ourselves – it is a gift of God. We also noted that we should continue to work out our salvation by grace through faith until we see the Lord face to face. Jesus Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith and God’s grace comes from Him. Indeed, God’s favour comes to us basically through the merit and completed work of the Lord Jesus. We respond to Him through faith, in the beginning when we become believers and throughout our pilgrimage and journey in life. We are to fix our eyes on Jesus by faith in the Christian race until we cross the finishing line.
However, there are several ways believers may respond wrongly to the grace of God.
GRACE DOES NOT ENCOURAGE SINNING AS A WAY OF LIFE
The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?
There are those who argue that if sin increases, grace increases all the more, then we might as well go on sinning so that grace may increase. The Apostle Paul exclaimed, ‘By no means, we died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?’ If we are truly children of God, we have already died to sin. We are a new creation, how can we live in sin?
The Apostle John put it this way:
No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him…No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
It is clear that those who are genuinely born-again Christians will not continue to sin as a way of life – they have died to sin. Those who continue to sin with the presumption that grace will increase as sin increases in their lives need to evaluate whether they are truly born-again believers. The teaching of antinomianism, which advocates freedom to live in any manner we like because we have already been forgiven by grace irrespective of how we live, is a very dangerous teaching. It is in fact encouraging various ones to continue sinning so that grace may increase. It is sad to see those who claim to be believers living carelessly and in sin, taking God’s grace for granted. It is even sadder to hear Christian leaders preaching such a doctrine, giving false assurance to those who dishonour God’s name by their negative manner of life.
We need to realise that although sin remains in us, sin is no longer our master. There is a great difference between sin living in us and we living in sin. The believer is no longer a slave to sin – he has died to sin in that sense – sin no more has dominion over him. As he looks to God and depends on Him, he is able to overcome sin with God’s enabling. But there is no perfection in this life.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
GRACE IS NOT CONTRARY TO DISCIPLINE
Then there are those whose understanding of God’s grace causes them to become unhealthily passive in their Christian lives. Grace does not mean freedom from any rules. Discipline, on the other hand, does not necessarily mean restraint and legalism (although it can lead to this – we shall touch on this subsequently). In fact, it is God’s grace that teaches discipline in our lives.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
The Apostle Paul made it clear that God’s grace teaches believers self-control and disciplined godly living. Grace is not contrary to godly discipline and it certainly does not promote passivity.
Unfortunately, many believers who promote discipline tend to work out discipline in their own strength. It is so very easy to depend on ourselves, our efforts and performance, and this results in the work of the flesh. We are called to be responsible, yet dependent on God. It is God who works in us to enable us in our outworking. Discipline can be the work of the flesh if it relies on human effort. But discipline need not be carried out in reliance on human effort; it ought to be in dependent on God’s strength and grace.
We see the positive example in Paul’s life and ministry.
We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.
Paul proclaimed and taught Christ; he laboured and struggled in his ministry, yet not with his own strength but with God’s energy powerfully working in him. There was no doubt that Apostle Paul exercised much discipline, diligence and self-control, yet it is also true that all of Paul’s toil and struggles were in dependence on God’s power and grace.
The Apostle Paul also communicated this truth to the Philippians believers.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
The Philippian Christians were to work out their salvation soberly; yet the working out was to be in dependence on God who works in them to will and to act. We see that grace is not incompatible with discipline, and dependence on God’s power and enabling is not incompatible with working out our salvation. The Holy Spirit does not do the work for us but He enables us to work. Our part is to work but to do so in reliance upon God. God’s work makes our effort (which is necessary) effective.
FLESHLY DISCIPLINE LEADS TO LEGALISM
Fleshly discipline leads to legalism – a keeping of rules and regulations to the point that we equate these rules with spirituality and measure our standing with God by the way we perform our spiritual disciplines. In reality, our daily relationship with God does not depend on how well we carry out our spiritual disciplines. It is dependent on God’s grace, not on our efforts in earning God’s approval. Godly discipline is always in the context of His grace and love. We are accepted in the Beloved, solely through the merit of the Lord Jesus and not on the basis of our performance. Even our performance, the very best of it, is like ‘filthy rags’ to God – it cannot hope to satisfy God’s requirement of justice and holiness.
Consider the parable of the Lord Jesus in Luke 18:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
Notice that the Pharisee was disciplined – he fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of all he got. He obviously refrained from carrying out any gross sins like adultery, robbery and the like. One would have thought that his performance should have gained approval from God and he would have been justified before God. It was the tax collector instead who was justified. The tax collector recognised his own sinfulness and unworthiness before a holy righteous God, and he asked for mercy and cried out to God for His grace. It is the spirit of repentance and a crying out for God’s mercy and grace that caused this man to go home justified before God. There was no merit on his part.
The Pharisee, however, was confident of his own righteousness and looked down on others. His spiritual disciplines had caused him to be proud and arrogant. Obviously, the disciplines had been carried out in dependence on his own human efforts.
LEGALISM CAN MAKE ONE PROUD OR GUILTY
We see how legalism can make one proud and arrogant. Our ability to uphold spiritual rules, regulations and disciplines consistently (albeit in our own strength) causes pride to creep in into our lives Conversely, when we fail, in our own strength, to maintain spiritual disciplines in our lives, we become dejected, discouraged and victims of guilt (made worse by the accusations of the evil one). We feel that our spiritual performance is below par and surely God cannot be pleased with us. In fact, God might even reject us, we think. But this is certainly not true. God accepts us because of Jesus and what He has done for us, not because of our own efforts and performance. However, as noted earlier, grace teaches us godly discipline and we cannot go about living our Christian lives carelessly and recklessly.
Preachers who promote legalism may unknowingly cause many to be under the bondage of guilt. Such ones may be so despondent to the point of wanting to give up their faith. They feel that it is no use trying to live the Christian life, for although they try and try again and again, they just cannot live up to God’s standards and expectations. Ours is a supernatural life and it is only by God’s grace and supernatural power that we can live out such a life. When we fail, God is ever ready to forgive us in Christ Jesus if we repent and acknowledge our sins before Him.
In fact, Apostle John wrote:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
When God’s servants preach on the many practical applications recorded in many of the epistles, they must not forget that these applications and exhortations are always with the background and context of God’s grace and what has been accomplished by the Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. This needs to be emphasised, for it constitutes the whole biblical perspective and revelation. Otherwise, those who receive the message would invariably seek to respond with their own effort, even though the desire may be noble and commendable. We must not put burdens on the shoulders of our brethren which we ourselves are not able to carry. The wrong emphasis in our teaching and preaching may cause many to be committed to a set of Christian values or a kind of Christian lifestyle without being committed to God Himself!
If we continue to fix our eyes on Jesus and focus on Him, we would realise soon enough that we have to depend upon Him, the perfecter of our faith, to finish the race and to be transformed into His likeness. As we gaze upon Him, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we would be transformed from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). The more we gaze at Him and focus on Him, the more we want to become like Him. And the more we gaze at Him, the better we will know ourselves because truth comes to light in the presence of the eternal God.
PRIDE LEADS TO DOWNFALL
We have noted earlier that legalism can make one proud. The sin of pride is perhaps the worst of all sins. It was pride that caused Lucifer to rebel against God. The one who is proud finds it hard to acknowledge that he has sinned. He finds it difficult to be teachable, and repentance requires teachability, true openness and acknowledgement of sin. This is especially so for those who have attained a certain spiritual standing in Christian leadership and some degree of popularity and success in ministry. Such ones may feel they are beyond rebuke and correction. They forget that they have only one Teacher and Master, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is very easy to hide from the truth and imagine ourselves to be truthful, when in reality, we are not. It is possible to be open and honest on the outside and yet hide from the truth on the inside. Let us realise that all of us, even the mature believers, are capable of hiding from truth. For Christian leaders, it is wise to be open not just to those who are beholden to them but also to those who will not be embarrassed or afraid to tell them the truth about themselves. It is so easy to be set in our own ideas that our minds are shut to the feedback of others. The conviction that our belief and methods alone are correct has been the cause of much tragedy and pain in the history of the church through the ages.
It is helpful to learn from the life of King David. The prophet Nathan’s confrontation with David regarding his sin with Bathsheba was not pleasant – imagine telling a king ‘You are the man’. Yet David was contrite and repentant – he responded almost immediately: ‘I have sinned against the Lord’. David could have responded negatively like some other kings of Israel who ill-treated the prophets who had the courage to tell them the truth about their lives. Read what David wrote in the psalms:
Let a righteous man strike me – it is a kindness; let him rebuke me – it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. Yet my prayer is ever against the deeds of evildoers.
THE MORE GODLY THE MAN THE HUMBLER HE BECOMES
We must remember that no one living is truly righteous before God, apart from His grace. Those who are pure in their own eyes are those who do not appreciate deeply the ugliness and gravity of sin.
It is interesting to observe that the closer a man gets to God, the lower he becomes. In other words, the extent we appreciate and acknowledge our wretchedness and the forgiveness of our sins will determine the measure and degree of our gratitude and love towards God. The more godly the man, the humbler he becomes. As we fix our eyes on Jesus and focus on Him, our faith in Him grows; our love for Him grows; our appreciation of grace grows and the consciousness of our own unworthiness and sins grows. The more believers are conformed to God’s image, the more they recoil from sin and are conscious of it, even the less obvious one. They become more acutely aware of the gravity of sin and they would detest it and feel dismayed when they succumb to it.
It is no wonder Apostle Paul described himself in the following way:
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I, persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
Apostle Paul was perhaps the most influential, godly and effective apostle. Yet he recognised deeply the grace of God in his life and he remained humble and ever conscious of his unworthiness and wretchedness before a holy God. There was no room for pride in his life; in fact, he thought of himself as the worst sinner and the least of the apostles, not deserving even to be called an apostle.
If we become proud like the Pharisee and look down on others and if we think of ourselves as having made it to a certain extent in our spiritual lives, pause and ponder: are our eyes still fixed on Jesus and focused on Him or have we been looking at ourselves, our own efforts, our achievements (spiritual though they may appear to be) and comparing ourselves unhealthily with others? What is the outworking of our Christian lives like – is it the right outworking or is it one independent of God and His provision in Christ Jesus? Are we growing in the nurturing of a humble and contrite spirit or are we getting more and more confident in our spiritual achievements and standing? Is our godliness clothed with humility and an attitude of dependence on God or is it coloured by self-confidence and a `holier than thou’ attitude?