Chapter 11 - Holiness By Grace by Bryan Chapell
Grace is trusting “Christ’s work,” rather than our own achievements, as the basis of our righteousness; so Grace is God’s willingness to look at us from the perspective that sees His holy Son in our place. What robs many believers of joy is a misunderstanding of how God continues to view us after we have received the grace of the new birth. After initially trusting Christ to make them right with God, many Christians embark on an “endless pursuit of trying to satisfy God with good works” that will keep Him loving them – as such, they live with the understanding that though they are saved by God’s grace, they are kept in His care and His good graces by their own goodness; this makes the Christian life a perpetual race on a performance treadmill to keep winning God’s affection and approval. “Legalism” makes the believer think that God accepts him on the basis of what he does. Resting on God’s grace, however, does not relieve us of our “holy obligations” – rather it enables us to fulfill them (Eph 4:7-13).
Having the assurance in our heart that “God really does love us,” allows us the freedom of not having to “strive to please Him” in order to earn His affection – instead our obedience becomes a “gratitude response” to God’s love and grace. So, it is not as though “our works” don’t matter – clearly they do – but the “heart attitude” that governs our works is the important issue. The realization that our good works will not move God to be more favorably disposed to us runs counter to our “natural reasoning.” True grace overwhelms us with a sense of God’s love for us – thus our heart resonates with the things God desires; as such, His purposes become our purposes. Our soul delights to obey and serve Him because of our love for Him (1 Jn 4:19), and our thanksgiving for “His mercy” makes us long to honor Him. Thus, true grace produces joy and promotes godliness. So, the “focus of the believer” who is growing in holiness, must not be upon the “excellence of his own actions or thoughts” – that is performance-based Christianity – but upon “his complete reliance on God’s mercy that he does not deserve.” If the “heart” is not tender toward God in gratitude for His mercy, the believer will strive to earn God’s favor thru good works – once the magnitude of “God’s mercy” is fully realized, gratitude to God will overflow in the soul; but not until then. Read carefully the words of Martin Luther on this subject –
I have been preaching and cultivating the message of grace now for almost twenty years, and I still feel the old clinging dirt of wanting to deal so with God that I may contribute something, so that He will have to give me His grace in exchange for my holiness. And still I cannot get it into my head that I should surrender myself completely to sheer grace; yet I know that this is what I should and must do.
Long-term Christian workers oftentimes find these truths particularly distasteful. It is easy to feel that God, to some degree, owes us “His favor” for faithful service – after all, didn’t we make significant sacrifices for Him and His work? By the way, if the reason we obey God is to earn His affections with our goodness, we need to be reminded that “God will be no man’s debtor” (Job 41:11; Rom 11:35). Our attempts to barter (in some sense) for God’s kindness with our goodness and great efforts will not move Him. Remember that one line in the hymn, “Rock of Ages” – “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” We must keep our hands empty of any claim that God must bless us on the basis of our faith-fulness or goodness. According to Scripture even our best works are “filthy rags” (Is 64:6). Capturing the essence and implications of our limitations, John Calvin wrote –
To man we may assign only this – that he pollutes and contaminates by his impurity those very things that are good. For nothing proceeds from a man, however perfect he be, that is not defiled in some way.
Divine blessing flows from “God’s mercy” rather than from our merit. Our works do not obligate God to care for us in the way that we think is best. We cannot put God on a leash through our goodness. God blesses according to the wisdom of His eternal mercy rather than in proportion to our works of earned merit. Should we “plead for mercy” like the man with leprosy (Lk 17:11-19), we must realize that Jesus shows pity to those who have nothing to claim but “desperation.” He is moved by a desperate cry for help. So, God is not moved by the deeds that we trophy, but by the desperation that we acknowledge as our own. A corol-lary of this – “God gives grace to the humble” (Jam 4:6). Those who cry out in desperation have more hope of “moving God’s heart” than any who would trophy their own righteousness before Him. Therefore, to experience God’s grace, I must readily and repeatedly confess my own hopeless condition. The assumption that God only loves the righteous will tempt me to “hide the darkness of my heart from Him” – unafraid of God’s rejection, I am free to confront the wicked face of my soul, my anger, my lust, my doubt; such honesty moves God to pity us in our desperation. When we understand that our works in themselves earn us “no merit” with God, then the only reason to do those works is “love for Him” – thus, we learn to serve God not for personal gain but for His glory. When we grasp how great is God’s love for us, our hearts will long to please Him. “He who is forgiven much… loves much” (Lk 7:47). (7-37)
Because I am a “new creature” in Christ Jesus, the Spirit of God indwells me and I have the means of grace available to me by which the Spirit teaches, trains, and “rewires” me, so that I can mature in knowledge and righteousness. The Spirit changes our hearts in a way that our own efforts do not. When the Spirit supernaturally reorients our hearts to love and obedience, we have the inclination and power to follow Him. Thus, spiritual change is more than a matter of the practice of “spiritual disciplines,” or even of resolving to act on the reality of who we are in Christ. We progress in sanctification as we humbly and prayerfully depend upon the Holy Spirit to mature our wills and transform our affections, so that we stay on the course that He has designed. While Christians sometimes still yield to temptation, they now hate their own susceptibility to the wrong. Once this godly hatred of sin did not exist because the mind, untouched by the indwelling Spirit, loved the world and was hostile to God (Rom 8:5-7; Jam 4:4-5; 1 Jn 2:15). The repulsion we feel for the sin in our lives is our internal witness of the “new nature” that God’s Spirit has supernaturally created in us. The new affections of a Spirit-changed heart combined with nurturing instruction of the means of grace mature us in faith, but the processes vary greatly among individuals. Some grow quickly, while the progress of others seems undetectable over many years. We grow accord- ing to God’s plan and purposes, but there is not a linear math to prescribe our advances. Progress in sanctification requires work from us, but we are made willing and able to work because of our sure relationship with the Lord who gave Himself for us, and now indwells us with that life-changing power.
Some of us, because of our sin or lack of progress, have determined that we are either spiritually stupid or hated by God. Therefore, God tells us our “true status and ability” in His Word. Let’s begin with this – because of our union with Christ, we are not hated. Though weakness, wrongdoing, and failings do cling to us, they do not establish who we are. We are the beloved of God. Though sin still exists in our lives, we have the status of the One who gave His life for us and to us – God’s own Son. And because of the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit, we have the ability to change and progress in our Christian walk. (39-65)
If we fail to understand how we “rely on God’s grace alone” to make us right with Him, our Christian walk becomes one of personal achievements and works-orientation. Jesus wants to liberate us from the unappeasable demands of “personal merit.” Thus, He must turn us away from the error of somehow believing that the perfection of our performance will gain His favor. Our works will never earn God’s affection, just as they will never merit His pardon – though the majority of believers concur with that, still the seeds of such thinking lie deep in their hearts. Reflect upon these thoughts, and ask God to extract this works-orientation from your heart.
The assurance of my pardon provides the “peace of heart” that is the Spirit’s ultimate weapon against temptation. After all, when I am perfectly satisfied, then what can tempt me? When I am perfectly loved, then what else do I desire? When I am eternally secure, then what can threaten me? A “legalistic” mode of thinking, however, gives “indwelling sin” an advantage, because nothing destroys the desire to “pursue holiness” as much as a sense of guilt. On the other hand, nothing so motivates us to deal with sin in our lives as does the knowledge that our sins are truly forgiven, and that the dominion of sin is broken through the cross of Christ (Rom 7:24-25). The man who comes to obey God will“love Him” first – the love of God is the beginning of religion. Love of the Savior draws us from the lure of temptation. With much wisdom Charles Spurgeon said – (69-110)
When I thought God as hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.
When religious opponents argued with “John Bunyan” in prison, they urged him not to assure his Christian friends of God’s unswerving love. “If you keep assuring the people of God’s love,” the opponents argued, “they will do whatever they want.” Replied Bunyan, “If I assure God’s people of His love, then they will do whatever He wants.”
The Holy Spirit takes hearts that are hard and softens them toward God (Ezek 11:19-20; 36:25-27). The Spirit changes our priorities, our affections, our cravings – and give us a love for God that is greater than a love for the things of the world. Love for God provides the zeal we need to employ the weapons He provides. This does not mean that the battle will be without effort or without pain. It is, after all, spiritual warfare. But with the faith that God has given us, we can stand faithful so long as we truly desire to do so. That desire is also a gift from God, as His Spirit for which we pray stirs within us the love for God that is more compelling than the love for sin. Engaging in spiritual warfare because of a compelling love for God is how we secure victory over sin.
People drowning in destructive habits are not rescued by simply urging them to act more like Christians – reading the Bible more, praying more, and becoming accountable to fellow believers. They are all good and necessary steps, but in themselves these disciplines will not rescue us from sin that infiltrates the heart. Just as secular psychology may change some people’s habits by behavioral techniques, the diligent pursuit of “Christian disciplines” can cause changes in us that have healthy aspects, but do not reflect true spiritual change. So, how do we change the “core level” of our being? The Bible teaches that “these disciplines” are powerful weapons for holiness in spiritual warfare, but the power and willingness to use these means must come from a “constraining love for God” that replaces our affections for the world. That “change of affections” and “reconstruction of the heart,” is the supernatural work of the Spirit for which we must pray. We facilitate this work of the Spirit when we fully comprehend why we love Jesus. Full and consistent apprehension of “why we love God” is the most effective piece of armor in the Christian arsenal, because the Devil always begins his attack with an alienation of our affections. Note this – spiritual change is more a consequence of “what our hearts love” than “what our hands do.” The “spiritual disciplines” are important, but not as important as “developing a heart for God.” God’s Spirit enables us to “grasp the fullness of God’s love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:18-19), and our love is ignited by the flame of Christ’s love. Our “love for God” then stirs up within us a large and loving heart for His glory and purposes, and we act as the heart inspires and enables. The heart is the “command center” for every battle (Prv 4:23). (111-156)
God’s “discipline” is always loving in its intent. God’s process of making us what He wants us to be includes “discipline” – it teaches us that hardship is neither punitive nor pointless (Heb 12:4-11). Saying that discipline is not punitive does not mean that it is without pain. Nine times in Hebrews 12 the term for discipline refers to the correction or training of children. One commentator says that the meaning of discipline is “to put someone in a state of good order so that he can function as intended.” The goal of God’s discipline is to correct, or to set right, or to improve – not to make someone suffer as an act of vengeance or retribution. Incidentally, God cannot, in justice, punish us for sin – that would mean that Christ didn’t pay the full payment of our sin, because He would be requiring us to pay a part of it as well; therefore God does not chastise us as a means of satisfaction for sin. Though the means of God’s actions may be quite painful, His motive is never to “punish” His children in the sense that He makes them pay some penalty for their sin. Again, the penalty for our sin was fully and completely paid for by Christ on the cross (Heb 7:27; 9:24-28; 10:10, 1 Pet 3:18). Divine discipline is intended to benefit the wayward rather than to exact retribution for wrong. “God disciplines us for our good that we may share in His holiness” (Heb 12:10). The writer of Hebrews also tells us why the Jewish Christians needed this reassurance – apparently they were being tempted to let down in their fight against evil, so he gently chides them saying, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb 12:4). He encourages them to remember that hardship is not a sign of God’s abandonment but of His activity in their lives (Heb 12:5-6; Rev 3:19). God ultimately uses affliction and trial to conform our nature to Christ’s; that discipline is ultimately for our well-being. Carefully note what the second verse of that centuries-old hymn “How Firm a Foundation” teaches –
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply: The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
When we face the pressures of declining finances… when illnesses ravage our families… when dear friends become our critics… when trusted workers undermine our leadership… when governments act unfairly… when people to whom we have given ourselves turn on us… and when those we count on remove their support – there is still cause for joy. Whether we suffer under the weight of circumstances or under the weightiness of bearing the consequences of the sins of others – these disciplines teach us more of what Christ endured for us. As a result, we know Him to a degree and depth not available through any other means of study or contemplation. When we understand that God has not called us to freedom from all difficulty, His grace begins to flow through us in the most profound ways. Knowing that He communicates Himself through suffering, we find ourselves willing – for the sake of others – to pursue opportunities that are less attractive than others, and endure people whose insensitivities and ingratitude cause us to suffer. (159-182)
God sometimes gives us so much to do that we tend to “lose heart” – The apostle Paul must have known the likelihood of our discouragement, so he precedes all the duties and assignments he outlines in Romans 12 with this exhortation – “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy to serve Him” (v.1); thus he encourages us with “God’s loving mercy” above all other motivations. The Puritan writer Samuel Bolton wrote in 1645, “If the law is merely our command we cannot delight to do the will of God. We can perform duties but cannot delight in them, even though we may think them needful as something necessary for glory and for heaven.” Thus, the inevitable consequence of obedience without delight is the erosion of holiness. We cannot continue to do our duty to God if we have no love for the task or the Taskgiver. Paul did not say, “I urge you by the guilt you will assume if you are negligent” or “I urge you by the love you will lose if you fail.” Paul knew that if we serve God out of “guilt” or “servile duty,” then our labors will not be joyful, or strong, or long. God does not want us to serve Him that way – “Serve Me,” He says, “by keeping in view not my anger nor your shame, but My mercy!” Recall Him whose weight hung on nails… so cruel that each breath was torture… and remember that it was “our sins” that He bore… and then consider His words to us, “Oh, My child, now I will spare you what I go through” (1 Pet 2:24-25; 1 Jn 2:1-2). “How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 Jn 3:1). Such mercy eclipses all other motivations for our service for Him. His mercy should so fill our vision that gratitude fills our hearts with the longing to do His will. If “thankfulness” does not move us to serve God, then we do not truly understand who our God is and what He has done in our behalf. Without gratitude for Christ’s sacrificial love, our duty will become nothing more than drudgery and our God nothing more than a dissatisfied boss. This is why Paul tells us at the outset to service “in view of God’s mercy” (Rom 12:1).
Many Christian punish themselves to get rid of their “guilt.” They believe their “guilty feelings” are the penance God requires of them in order to renew His love for them. As a consequence they do not want to be denied their guilt. They will offer God the gifts of their own depression and self-hatred to satisfy His wrath. This thinking comes from the conviction that, if we will make ourselves feel bad enough and carry a burden of remorse long enough, we will to some degree merit God’s grace and forgiveness. But “who” is the one who really wants us pressed down and paralyzed by a burden of guilt? Satan! Nothing pleases him more than for Christians to beat themselves down into paralyzing depression or unproductive despair. God makes us right with God – not guilt feelings – and He does not want us bowed down in despair. God is the “lifter of our heads!” (Ps 3:3). We cannot offer loving service to a God who loves us only when we are good – if God’s love is conditional, then His love is not any better than “our love,” and we would not like Him very much – let alone love Him! Ultimately, we would discover that we love this unappeasable God less and less, as we try to please Him more and more. In time we would become hard, cynical, judg-mental, bitter, and despairing, because our God would be nothing more than a “heavenly ogre” intent on extracting His pound of flesh from whomever crosses Him.
Guilt should drive us to the cross. . . but grace must lead us from it. Guilt makes us seek Christ. . . but gratitude should make us serve Him.
Lasting service comes when we serve God because “He accepts us,” not to get His acceptance – the former kind of service rejoices in His mercy; the latter seeks to merit His approval. J. I. Packer said “the true driving force in authentic Christian living is a heart of gratitude.” The “conditional nature” of many human relationships causes us to think of God’s love as that which is subject to the vagaries and degrees of our obedience. The consequences of sin reinforces this misconception. It is wrong to think, however, that because there is a divine discipline or temporal consequence resulting from personal sin, God’s love is altered. (183-205)
To properly evaluate the place of “good works” in the Christian life, we must understand that grace maintains our value as God’s children, apart from our own merit; but we must also understand that God uses our obedience to promote our good and His glory. God’s honoring of our righteousness does not change the degree of His love for us, or imply that we can earn His affection. Still, His recognition and reward of righteousness does indicate that He values efforts that conform us more to His image – “God rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb 11:6). The righteousness in us that God motivates and enables by His grace, He also graciously blesses. Without that understanding, the believer could easily turn his Christian faith into a “bartering system” for personal gain – therefore we do not make “temporal rewards” the chief motive of our obedience. While we have the privilege of participating in eternal causes, the reason that the righteous and their works endure forever is that God sanctifies our feeble and faulty efforts by instilling His own righteousness in them. God’s grace is not easily reconciled with human logic – this side of heaven, we will never logically resolve the tension between human responsibility and divine provision in sanctification – but as we learn to acknowledge that God must provide what we need to please Him, the result will be our full dependence upon His grace.
Scripture asks the question, “Must we obey God in order to grow in godliness and please Him?” The answer is a definite “Yes!” Scripture also asks, “Where do we get the desire, ability, and faith to obey?” The answer is, we get each of these things from “God!” Then, is God responsible if I do not obey? The answer is “No!” There is no room for boasting before God, because of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things (Rom 11:36); yet neither can any say that God is to blame because we disobey (Rom 9:19-23; Jam 1:13-14; 1 Jn 1:5). Scripture does not resolve the tensions involved in these questions. God makes us “spiritually alive,” and enables us to obey His Word. Through regeneration, God sets us free from the dominion of sin, and sets our will free to honor Him. Still, we cannot exercise this freedom rightly without the aid of the “Holy Spirit.” This makes us responsible for our sin, but dependent on God for our right-eousness. This is why the apostle Paul’s meditations on God’s mercy ultimately lead Him to exclaim – “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom 11:33). The parable of the landowner in Matthew 20 is perplexing to us, because it does not seem fair that “the last be first and the first last!” Jesus responds to Peter, “Friend, do not be offended that I am generous.” The message of unfair but generous grace is for us as well. Our God lavishes us with His grace. Read the following verses of Psalm 103:10-14 —
God does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is His love for those who fear Him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him;
for He knows how we are formed,
He remembers that we are but dust. (207-243)