God’s Grace or God’s Debt
“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.” (Romans 4: 4 & 5)
I believe that there is much confusion in the western Christian churches regarding God’s plan for salvation. To many Christians it is unclear exactly what is expected of us from the Lord regarding good works, sin, holiness, or in general, our Christian behavior once we become a Christian, and how this relates to our standing with God and ultimately, how it relates to our future, eternal place with Him in heaven.
The teachings of John Calvin, known as Calvinism, have strongly influenced evangelical Christian churches, especially the Baptist denomination. This teaching states that once a person is “saved” and becomes a Christian, it is impossible for them to “lose” their salvation, no matter what they do (also known as “once saved, always saved”, or “eternal security”). As a caveat to this, they state that if a person’s behavior is extremely evil after they are “saved”, then they really weren’t “saved” in the first place. Or they believe that in the future this evil person will turn back and repent, and therefore be saved and enter heaven.
This view is problematic in that it leaves Christians not knowing if they are in fact “saved”, especially if they fall into serious sin. They may think that they were never really accepted by God, so they abandon their faith. It also encourages some Christians to remain in their sin and not deal with their flesh. It encourages some Christians to think that they will not be accountable before God for their actions. I have met many people who have stated that they don’t have a problem with the sin in their life because all of us are sinners and will always be sinners; none of us are “perfect”, it’s just that Christians are forgiven by God’s mercy and grace (ironically, many of these people I talked to were in jail at the time). Any person with even a cursory knowledge of the Scriptures will acknowledge that this approach of taking sin lightly is not supported by the Scriptures. Unfortunately, Christians are listening to men’s teachings without going back to God’s Word to confirm the validity of what they were taught.
Part of the disparity here is that we as God’s creatures have limited knowledge and we don’t know the future. But God is infinite, knowing all things and knowing the future. He knows what we are going to do in the future. We, in our limited capacity, have trouble comprehending God’s behavior towards us, and can’t align in our limited minds what appear to be incompatible truths. In our minds, it’s either one or the other: either God is the one who is in control of us, who calls us to Him, changes us, and causes us to be what He wants us to be, completely controlling our destiny, or, we are responsible ourselves for our actions, and then will be judged by Him for what we have done.
This exact question comes up in Paul’s discourse in the letter to the Romans:
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’” (Romans 9:19)
In other words the question is, “How can God judge me and find fault with me if it is His will that determines what I do, and I can’t change or resist His will for my life?” Here’s Paul’s answer:
“But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does the potter have power over the clay, from one lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?’” (Romans 9:21)
Paul’s answer (inspired by the Holy Spirit) establishes that both sides of the question are true. He explicitly states that God has created some people who will be good and some who He knows will be evil. He also states, though, that we should not “reply against God”. The implication here is that we should not question the fact that God will judge us and find fault with us, even though He created us in this way. We must not question an infinite God from our finite standpoint, as the clay should not question the potter. The conclusion is that all men will be judged for their actions, as the Scriptures state, and we can’t use as an excuse that God created us this way, so our actions were predestined, and therefore He cannot find fault.
“And it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive god or evil, according to what he has done in the body. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.” (2 Cor. 5: 10 & 11)
So how does this judgment affect the Christian, and how does it fit into God’s plan of salvation? How do our good works, good deeds, actions, and sins get judged by Christ when we stand before Him? Here’s what I see that the Scriptures clearly reveal:
- (God can’t be in our debt) No man will be forgiven of their sins and be acceptable to God, therefore entering into heaven, because of their own merits or good works.
This means that our good works or good deeds cannot make up for the penalty we owe due to our past sin. Our past sins can either be the actions committed by us when we knowingly disobeyed what we knew to be against God’s law, and against our conscience, or our past sins could be a lack of action on our part, like not honoring God as we should have, giving Him His due respect and honoring Him as our Creator. The Scriptures very clearly and explicitly state that every human being ever born (except Jesus) is under the penalty of sin, and therefore under God’s wrath, and therefore we all are in need of a savior. There is nothing that we can do in the way of good works that will put us in a position where we can then say to God “you owe me a dismissal of my penalty”, in other words, we will never be in a position were God is indebted to us.
- (God’s grace to us) Only faith in the payment made by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, will negate the penalty of our sins and make us acceptable to God and grant us eternal life in heaven.
It is only by God’s mercy, or unmerited favor (grace), that we are forgiven of our debt to God. Jesus paid this debt by sacrificing His life for us. This sacrifice was atonement for the penalty of our sins. It was an act of love and mercy, undoing the negative act of our first parents, Adam and Eve, that we inherited from them. This merciful act also undid the curse of death. For those who have turned to Jesus and accepted by faith His forgiveness and promise of eternal life with a resurrected body, as a part of God’s family and kingdom, they will be recorded in the book called “The Lamb’s book of Life” that holds the name of all who have been atoned for by the “Lamb”, Jesus Christ.
These first two points are universally accepted without dispute by all Christians who believe in the authority of the Scriptures, but it is this next point that is disputed.
- Even after entering into this relationship with God as Christians, being forgiven by His mercy for past sins, with our names in the Lamb’s book, our lack of good deeds, or our evil deeds could disqualify us from entering into eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
Unfortunately, this point has not been made clear in our modern Christian churches. For whatever reason, whether it be the teaching of predestination by God’s sovereign will over our lives that disqualifies our responsibility for actions once we are “saved” (as discussed above), or if it’s the false understanding that God’s mercy and grace extend into our future sins unconditionally, meaning that all of our sins, even the ones we will commit in the future, no matter if we repent of them or not, are covered by the payment of Jesus on the cross.
Let me be clear about this: God is merciful and forgiving, and if we turn to Him for forgiveness, repenting with the intention to turn completely from our sin, He is faithful to forgive us.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
But if we knowingly continue in our flesh, in sin, without turning from it, we can again come under the wrath of God and will be judged accordingly by the Lord.
“Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication (sex outside of marriage), impurity, licentiousness (disregarding moral restraints), idolatry (putting anything before God or replacing Him), sorcery (the use of power gained by the assistance of spirits – not the Holy Spirit), enmity (hatred or ill will towards someone), strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)
But you may be saying, “Doesn’t this bring us back to a salvation that is based on works?” No, our salvation is still based on faith, but remember that true faith will result in good works. Therefore, if we do not have the good works in our lives, and if we are not being transformed on the inside so that we can have the victory over our flesh and the resultant sins, then there is a problem with our faith – it is dead and not living.
“So as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:26)
The error of the Jews was that they thought they could earn merit with God by their works. They therefore focused on their works, or the keeping of the rules, rituals, and regulations of the law, as a means of attaining favor with God and “meriting” a right to gain eternal life as a child of God. They should have been focusing on their faith, because it is only by faith that we can become spiritual rather than carnal, thereby being able to fulfill the law by being transformed internally.
“Why(did the Jews not attain righteousness and forgiveness of sin with God)? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as it were, based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone….” (Romans 9:32)
The bottom line is that we should be focusing on our faith, and our ability to truly walk in the spirit. This will result in a transformation of our inner man that will cause us to produce good works and free us from the sin associated with carnality. It will also result in the law being written on our hearts, so that we can naturally do what the law requires; so that we can truly love one another unselfishly, which fulfills the whole law.
The conclusion is that we cannot earn favor with God by good works, but we can disqualify ourselves by our lack of good works or by continuing in unrepentant sin. Our faith is what deems us as righteous before God and qualifies us to be forgiven of our debt due to our past sins, but true faith is proven by our good works. True faith causes a transformation of our inner man by changing our focus from the temporary physical world to the permanent, eternal, spiritual world. This inner change gives us the power to live in victory over our flesh and over our sin, but it is a constant battle to stay focused on this faith, and to walk in the spirit.
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5)
Let’s pass this test. There’s an eternal value attached to it.