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).


Anti-Bullying Activist Curses Christians

From TGC:

 As many as 100 high school students walked out of a national journalism conference after Dan Savage, a homosexual activist and anti-bullying speaker began cursing, attacked the Bible, and used a homosexual slur to refer to those who refused to listen to his message. Savage was invited to deliver the keynote address during the National High School Journalism Conference sponsored by the Journalism Education Association and the National Scholastic Press Association. Instead of giving the expected talk about bullying, CitizenLink notes, the students got “an earful about birth control, sex, and Savage’s opinions on the Bible.”

Read the whole thing. You can also watch a 3-minute segment of his speech below.

This video reveals many things about the speaker in particular and aggressive liberals in general (notice I did not say all non-Christians!). Here’s four:

  1. Savage reads the Bible as a book of rules and morality (as do many Christians, unfortunately), rather than a contextual story of God’s self-revelation throughout history. (If you are new to the blog, see posts here and here for more on this.)
  2. Related to this, Savage thinks that the Bible has a one-to-one applicational principle for us today (e.g. the “stoning” law he sarcastically says the GOP might try to legalize). He says that Leviticus is the place where Christians go for their code of sexuality. Wrongly, some Christians use that. In reality, the law has been fulfilled in Christ for us so that there is not one Old Testament law that has to be obeyed. There are principles to be heeded, of course, but the New Testament gives us the authoritative commentary on the Old Testament. Our “code of sexuality” goes all the way back God’s creative design in Eden, which is affirmed over and over again in the New Testament.
  3. Savage wants Christians to be tolerant. Yet, he is quite intolerant of Christians–not just of their beliefs, but of Christians as people.
  4. Savage calls Christians “hypocrites.” Yet, he is quite hypocritical as he bullies the Christians who walk out of his “anti-bullying” speech. He justifies his bullying because he has been bullied by Christians. Makes perfect sense.
I pray that God would have mercy on you, Dan Savage. You need his lavish mercy just as much as I do.

Ministry Theology

Five Reasons I’m Thankful For The Gospel Coalition

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is a fellowship of evangelical churches deeply committed to renewing faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures. TGC was founded by D.A. Carson and Tim Keller. In the past two years, for me, it has become the go-to place for theological insights, conversations, and resources. In addition to the general TGC blog, a host of pastors and authors blog there. I encourage you to check them out if you haven’t already.

Here are five reasons I thank God for TGC:

  1. The whole reason for their existence is to help the church universal become gospel-centered in their theology and ministry. Because their focus is on the gospel, non-essentials do not cause division. TGC consists of Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Non- and Inter-Denoms, and many others. Heck, I’m sure that there’s even a Methodist or two in there. The point is this: if someone loves the gospel of Jesus Christ and sees all of Scripture, belief, and ministry through that lens, they will find a home with TGC.
  2. TGC is solidly in the Reformed Evangelical tradition. It’s my conviction that those who are truly “Reformed” in their theology will be the most gospel-centered in their belief and practice (that’s another post altogether). TGC gets to the heart of what the Reformed tradition is all about: Jesus Christ. They put “Calvinists” in a better light and, hopefully, help win Reformed theology a fair hearing in the evangelical world.
  3. TGC produces quality stuff without being gimmicky, faddish, or cliché. Their website is pleasing to the eyes, with great graphics and high quality short videos. They also produce gobs of material quickly. That material covers more than intramural theological banter. Commentary hits pop culture, literature, history, politics, science, and, my favorite, sports.
  4. TGC review books–tons of books. As a husband and father who interns at a church and is in the midst of a master’s degree, I cannot read (or afford to read) everything I want to read. But I can read reviews. That helps me narrow down my selections, but also helps me file a title away in my notes so down the road I can check it out when the book’s issue comes up.
  5. TGC equips and helps people for real-life ministry. The blog, in particular, is not a place for mere theological speculation among intellectual giants. There is some of that, but it is very minimal. What you will find at TGC is that rich theology finds its way in the mundane nature of everyday life. Your life. Pastor or layperson. Christian or non-Christian. School of higher learning or school of hard knocks. Everyone will find something there to help–whether it’s, “Why does justification by faith matter?” or “Can a person get remarried after a divorce?”

What are you waiting for? Head on over there and dig in.