Does Our Effort Nullify God’s Grace?

There has been quite a bit of debate lately, particularly in Reformed Evangelical circles, about the relationship between God’s grace and our effort in sanctification. A while back, there was quite the conversation on The Gospel Coalition blogs about this relationship. I’ll spare you the details, but check out the roundup of the debates if you have time.

God demands that we pursue holiness after being saved. We are not saved to “let go and let God.” Rather, by grace we strive to flee from sin and strive to pursue holiness. This past month, my morning devotions in 1 Timothy have made this clear. In chapter 1, Paul says that all of our effort in the Christian life is by God’s grace. Effort is not equated with earning God’s love; effort simply works out what God has worked in (Phil. 2:14). (For one of the best sermons you will ever hear on grace and effort, watch Doug Wilson’s sermon “Grace and Sweat.”)

Notice how Paul links grace (God’s sovereign role) and effort (our responsibility) in 1 Timothy 1:1-14.

  • Faith is a gift of God (1:6).
  • God gives us a spirit of power, love, and self-control to overcome fear (1:7).
  • We endure suffering by the power of God (1:8).
  • We are saved by God’s purpose and grace, not our works (1:9).
  • We have life through the gospel, not in our own selves (1:10).
  • God guards the deposit in us until we obtain full possession of it (1:12).
  • We guard the “good deposit” of the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit, not our own power (1:14).

We are called to holiness, but God is the one who ultimately does the work. Yet, God works through means: our willful choices. Throughout 1 Timothy, Paul instructs Timothy  to appeal to his flock to believe in gospel truth and live in gospel-shaped ways because of grace. Therefore, the motivation for our “sweat,” as Wilson puts it, is not to be loved and accepted by God. We have gospel motivation: we are already accepted by God in Christ. We have the power of Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit who enables to obey. Our obedience is done out of gratitude for who God is and what he has done in the gospel. Obedience is not done out of a desire to “get God in our debt” or “get him to love us.” And when we fail, we repent, knowing our assurance with God is not based on our performance, but on Jesus’ performance for us.

In saving sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), Jesus bought all the graces of God that I mentioned above with his blood. God justifies us by grace and sanctifies us by grace. Therefore, knowing we are already loved and no longer have the weight of the law bearing down on our shoulders, we are free to pursue holiness. That is why Paul can say to Timothy at the end of his letter, “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things [false teaching and wickedness]. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called” (6:11-12, emphasis added).

These are commands to be active. How does this all happen without believing effort is the root of our acceptance with God? Four words: “Grace be with you” (6:21b). Timothy can flee evil and pursue righteousness because God’s grace is with him. Grace brings joy-filled effort and heart-level obedience that arises from the fact that our standing before God is secure in the strong name of Jesus. That is incredibly freeing, and it always produces a holy sweat.

Does our effort nullify God’s grace? Not one bit. In fact, our pursuit of holiness—even our desire for it—proves that God is the one who gets all the glory. Our pursuit of holiness exalts God’s grace. It exalts the cross because it shows us that we need the gospel—Jesus life, death, and resurrection for us—more than we ever imagined. When we put for gospel-motivated effort, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus become that much sweeter: “Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God” (John 3:21).