Grace vs. Works

Don: Works seem to be the biggest impediment to our understanding of grace. If we are saved by grace through faith (as Ephesians 2:8 says we are), then what is the purpose, value, and function of works? Some have said that although we cannot be saved by our works, we can be lost by them. In His teaching, Jesus emphasized not only the power of grace but also the value of works. How do these two concepts fit together?

Paul said:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

The idea that there is a record of all our deeds, good and bad, that is examined at the end of life is a notion held deeply by all faiths. But if we are saved by grace no matter what we do, why bother to keep a record of what we do?

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Prodigal’s elder brother complains to their father that his good works have gone unrewarded while his brother’s bad works have resulted in unprecedented rejoicing:

‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ (Luke 15:29-32)

Similarly, in the parable of the vineyard workers, every worker received the same wages regardless of how much they worked:

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?'” (Matthew 20:8-13)

In both parables, those with good works to their name expected their works to be recognized and rewarded. Those without good works to their name had to rely on grace alone. Jesus implores all of us to accept grace, because, as He made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, our definition of what constitutes good works pales beside God’s: If you are angry with your brother, you are guilty of murder; if you lust after a woman you are guilty of adultery; if your eye sees something evil, you should pluck it out; if your hand touches something bad, or your feet take you to a place you should not go, you should cut them off. (Matthew 5:21-48) What we consider righteous in ourselves is not at all what God sees in us, it seems. Jesus summarized His remarks thus:

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

His audience—Pharisees and all of us—seeks to water down God’s law so that we can claim to be obedient to it. But the law is severe and exacting. It cannot be diluted, but we are incapable of obeying it in undiluted form. The law, then, must surely have a purpose other than our salvation. A pious Pharisee muttered disapprovingly as Jesus forgave a prostitute (i.e., a law breaker) who washed His feet with her tears and anointed them with perfume. Jesus responded with a parable about debtors, to make the point that the amount of sin (debt) is irrelevant; that salvation stems from faith in, and love for, Him. (Luke 7:36-50 and Matthew 18:21-35)

The Book of James makes the point that true and righteous works are about the passing on of God’s grace to others. The debtor parables point to this also. But in the story of the woman who washed His feet, Jesus pointed to something even more fundamental about grace than passing it on: Gratitude for it. That story shows that sometimes grace is simply to be received with thanks; that there is no requirement to pass it on. In a similar case of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume (Matthew 26:6-13), the disciples grumbled that the money would have been better spent on the poor (i.e., the grace passed on), but Jesus replied that this was not so:

For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me. (Matthew 26:11)

A Moslem friend told me that Moslems just cannot understand the concept of grace. To them, he said, it seems like a license to do anything you want and get away with it. “Where is the self-control, the self-denial, the adherence to a straight and narrow path that is necessary to live a strictured life?” he asked. It seemed to him that grace was simply a cloak for licentiousness.

How do we explain grace to others? Is it enough to say that grace eliminates the questions: “How good is good enough?” and “How bad is too bad?”; and also lays to rest the question: “What if my best is not quite good enough?”

How do we live life with grace? How do we die with grace? Above all, how do we accept grace?

KB: It is confusing. On the one hand, the Bible says we are saved by grace, yet on the other, it says we have to work for salvation.

Robin: It depends on motivation. We should not work in order to earn something by our works. We should rather want to work in a natural gesture of appreciation for the grace God gives out of His love for us.

KB: But then, it is natural—it is human nature—to expect unequal pay for unequal work, like the vineyard workers; and to be rewarded for loyalty, like the Prodigal’s elder brother. This is how we think and act.

Robin: It is indeed ingrained in us to expect reward for effort. But in the spiritual realm, we are all led by the same spirit, and we cannot judge the spiritual effort of our brothers and sisters. The angels still rejoice over one sinner who repents. God is not willing that any should perish at the end of time. We must not envy those who arrive late, and think we deserve more because we arrived early.

Don: In the judgment scene, everyone was surprised—both those on the left, judged to have been bad, and those on the right, judged to have been good. It seems that trying to anticipate God’s judgment is a waste of our time.

Dr. Singh: After repentance, we need baptism. After baptism, by faith we have grace. But we lead both physical and spiritual lives. We have worldly DNA in our bodies. A Hindu friend invited me to return to Hinduism because, he said, I have Hindu DNA. But after grace, we should lead a spiritual life focused on prayer to seek guidance from the holy spirit as to what is right and wrong. We must be vigilant because Satan always tempts us through threats to our families, through sex, and through hunger.

David: It seems there was no grace for those on the left in the judgment scene. They were consigned to outer darkness. This directly contradicts the other Scriptural messages that grace is given anyway. There can be no reconciliation of this bald contradiction. Perhaps, like Job, it shows us that we cannot hope to understand God and must simply accept the contradiction. This is not a problem for a Daoist.* 😉 It is nevertheless both fascinating and potentially enlightening to try to resolve it, as it was for Job, even though we know we can’t succeed.

Donald: We’ve talked about free will and free grace without judgment. The opposite of free will is predestination, which makes us squirm. Calvinism is predeterministic, which is why there is no evangelism in Calvinism. People are either predestined to be Calvinist, or not; evangelism won’t change anything. It is what it is, to them. To Adventists, it is not. Choice and will are important to us. But the last act of Christ, on the cross, was to save his neighbor regardless of the choices that man made in leading a life of crime.

David: It would seem fair to say that we are predestined to be saved. Or I should say, predestined to be offered grace. We still have the choice of accepting it or not. One of the two criminals crucified next to Jesus accepted it, the other (in essence) rejected it.

Robin: The difference is between foreknowledge—omniscience—and predestination. God knows what choice we will make but does not force us to choose one way or the other. Jesus displayed omniscience when he told Philip He saw him sitting under a tree, which was physically impossible. He could see what others could not.

Don: The fundamental question is: “Do we have to do anything to get God’s grace?”

Robin: You have to accept it.

Anonymous: You have to be a sinner. Grace is intended to cover sin.

Leif: You have to be undeserving. I view grace as a gift. It justifies us, and Jesus died on the cross so that we might be justified. The question is whether we can accept the gift of grace while not wanting to partake of its benefits, because grace and justification are offered throughout our lives. Paul addressed this:

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? (Romans 6:14-16)

If we do not yield ourselves to God, asking Him to change our hearts so that we can follow Him and do righteous works, do we really accept grace? Works and grace are connected, but works are often misused. We are not saved by our works, but they are part of the picture. Can we continue knowingly to sin while accepting grace?

Dr. Singh: Good deeds alone are not enough for salvation. They may simply turn us into social workers.

Leif: Right. But grace is not only justification. It is multi-factorial. It is sanctification as well. It helps us to overcome, but this is not the same as works. It comes only through grace.

Robin: We cannot justify a life of sin on the basis that grace will be given regardless of sin. We have to recognize our sin, know that it hurts the heart of God, and repent. Grace then covers us even if, like the criminal on the cross, we repent at the last minute. Had that criminal lived, we might have seen how he would have passed the grace on in the form of good works, as we saw happen in the lives of the apostles. Grace is not an excuse, not a get-out-of-jail free card.

KB: But what about those who repent and stop sinning but still do no works? Does grace still cover them, or is there an expectation of works after grace?

Dr. Singh: Jesus told his followers they would not be alone after He left. He would send His spirit to guide and protect them.

Robin: On conversion, when we realize that we are sinners, works come out of us naturally through the spirit. Conversion changes our minds and our hearts so that instead of tending naturally to sin, we tend instead to good works. It happens almost subconsciously, through the spirit.

Eb: Saul and David were chosen against their wills to serve God, yet did good works. God forces us all to work in the sense of making us feel an irresistible urge to do so, even when people around us advise against it. If I don’t do His work, He will punish me, I feel.

Chris: Is there something we must do with regard to grace? I think we must accept it. But once we have accepted it, there is an urge or a compunction to do something. We can’t help but want other people to know and share the grace we have received. We can’t hoard it. We want to show it to others and give them the ability and the desire to accept grace for themselves.

Don: But Jesus never completes the stories of the people who received grace from Him. We don’t know if the adulteress he saved from being stoned to death led a blameless life thereafter or went right back to sinning. We don’t know what happened to the prostitute who washed His feet, or to the Prodigal Son after the party was over. We don’t know if Zaccheus kept his word to give back money he had stolen. We want happy endings. Why does Jesus not supply them?

KB: If God does not mention something, then it must not matter. Once we have accepted grace, what we do going forward doesn’t matter. We have nothing to earn.

Donald: Right. Grace accepted—end of story.

David: For all of us, the story ends at death. To me, the messages of Jesus are about that. I think the prostitute, the Prodigal, Zaccheus, the importunate woman, and so on were all intended to represent people at the end of their tether—literally, their tether to mortal life itself. Like the blessed of the Beatitudes, grace is invoked only by extreme distress and hopelessness. At that point of death, there can be no passing on of grace. The criminal on the cross could not live to tell the tale.

Some people may go through life without ever being in distress, without ever suffering hopelessness. They are well off, have good friends and a nice family, and simply never come into situations that cause them real distress. They don’t need grace—until they die. But even then, there may be people who “die happy” and feel no need of grace. For them, entry to the kingdom of heaven must, presumably, depend on judgment.

Leif: Jesus said:

“For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39)

He gave us all the information we need, in the parables, to lose our blindness and accept sight.

Dr. Singh: It is conditional:

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

We need to ask daily for guidance from the holy spirit.

Don: Next week, we will consider the Sabbath as a metaphor for grace. Following that, we will turn to a new subject, based on the statement of Jesus that we should…

“…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21)


* …or a Zen Buddhist.

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