Today in America there are innumerable churches which have the word “Grace” in their names. This reflects the central tenet of Christianity that God’s grace for the forgiveness of sins was made available freely through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I personally have pastored at two churches which had the word “Grace” in their names. Our Training Center in Houston is in partnership with a vibrant church called Grace Point Community Church.
The concept of God’s grace was propounded by the German theologian Martin Luther over half a millennium ago to combat the prevailing heresy of salvation by works. So oppressive and widespread was this heresy that Luther went to the opposite extreme in an attempt to correct the imbalance. He taught that man had no part in salvation except for his faith. But unfortunately Luther overcorrected and went too far—just as a motorist who is veering off the road can overcompensate in the opposite direction and end up out of control with disastrous consequences.
Luther would not allow for any effort at all on man’s part in salvation aside from simply believing. His favorite epistle was Galatians in which the apostle Paul defended the doctrine of salvation by grace against those who wanted to include the works of the Law as well. However, Luther was not so well disposed toward the canonical epistle written by James. To Luther’s dismay, James taught in his second chapter that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” He argued that faith without works is dead, and that true saving faith will result in good works in obedience to God’s commands. (My professor at seminary told us that Luther even wanted to have the Epistle of James excluded from the Bible.)
The score: Luther 21,895 (and counting), James 0
Well, it appears that Luther, even over 500 years after his death, is still ahead by far. Today the Lutheran Church is alive and well, consisting of uncounted local congregations around the world (the figure of 21,895 congregations was just taken out of a hat). There is no equivalent Jamesian denomination. While “Grace” may well be the most popular name for a church, there is likely not a single church called “Good Works Baptist Church” or “Obedience Community Church.”
Because of this imbalance between grace through faith on the one hand and obedience to God’s commands on the other, the Church as a whole today is generally weak, lukewarm and complacent. It is mostly ineffective on the front lines of missions and evangelism when engaging the giants of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and witchcraft. It has been unable to fulfill Christ’s command to disciple all nations.
An extreme emphasis on God’s grace teaches us what God wants to do for us. On the surface there would appear to be nothing wrong with this, except that the focus is usually always on God’s desire to comfort, bless, and provide for His people on earth. Little time or attention is given to our unimaginably glorious inheritance in heaven and what we should do for God in response to such grace. This unbalanced focus on earthly blessings keeps believers in the earthbound mindset of what-can-God-do-for-me-today.
The point is that God’s grace, if properly taught, should lead us to good works in obedience to His commands. The imputed righteousness of God that we are freely given by grace through faith when we repent should eventually give birth to real and practical righteousness in our everyday lives. This means obedience in our thoughts and deeds. This should include a primary focus on accomplishing the great mandate He gave us 2,000 years ago. But we have fallen far short of His commands.
What did Paul—Luther’s hero—teach?
The apostle Paul, who authored Galatians and understood grace better than any other author in the New Testament, also wrote:
1 Corinthians 15:10 …No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
Because of the grace of God that was with Paul, he worked very hard indeed for the kingdom of God. With regard to obedience to God’s command to live a holy life, Paul wrote:
Romans 8:13 …if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live,
1 Corinthians 9:27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul understood that by the grace of God he would be filled with the Holy Spirit through whom he would have power to put to death his flesh and thereby live a holy life. In this way he would not be disqualified by the prize. The man who understood grace more than anyone else understood the necessity of obedience and holy living. Imputed righteousness should be followed up by real and proper righteousness in the life of a believer.
Romans 6:16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness.
If we are properly taught obedience, then we gain the mindset of what-can-I-do-for-God to obey and please Him after I am saved. This leads to real and practical righteousness in the daily life of the disciple. There should be a healthy balance between the two mindsets. Unfortunately, today we emphasize God’s grace exclusively and what He can do for us on earth because it pleases people and keeps them coming and tithing.
Why do we think that obedience is a dirty word?
Teaching about obedience, by contrast, is kept at arm’s length because somehow it smacks of the heresy that Luther opposed. Moreover, people do not like to hear about obedience. It conjures up images of ascetism, self-denial, self-control, discipline, hard work, and authoritarianism. It’s a hard sell in a country like America where we are all equal and where we are taught to pursue the American Dream. So it’s much more fun to hear about receiving God’s earthly blessings. People will flock to the gifted preacher who can make them feel good and laugh. But is the Kingdom of God really just a party?
Today there is talk about the Kingdom of God and what it means for believers as beloved and adored children of the King. This teaching may also have become unbalanced. If there is a kingdom, that means that there are also subjects of the Kingdom as well as servants and soldiers. We are those subjects and servants and soldiers who are to obey the commands of the King without reservation. When He commands us to go to war, we obey Him. When He commands us to preach the gospel to all creation and to make disciples of all nations, we obey Him. But because of unbalanced teaching about the Kingdom, many believers bear a closer resemblance to spoiled, overfed and unruly three-year-old princelings. Will such believers grow up strong on such a diet and be ready to reign with Jesus Christ? No.
Even Prince William (as well as his brother Prince Harry) of the United Kingdom, future heir to the British throne, served in the armed forces and learned discipline and to obey orders.
In Ephesians 1 the apostle Paul prayed: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…” If we can better grasp the extent of God’s grace for us in our heavenly inheritance, we will stop behaving like helpless and undisciplined children and instead grow up in understanding, in power and authority, and in obedience to God’s commands.
Pastors and teachers are highly accountable
We pastors and teachers want to encourage God’s people. But it is easy to fall into the temptation of church growth at any cost as is the current fad in the Church. By no means is the size of a congregation a gauge of God’s approval on that church. There could in fact be some inverse correlation between the two. I am convinced that some churches are large because their pastors have compromised the preaching and teaching of the word of God.
It is a fact that the market for sweetened beverages, pastries, desserts and other high-sugar content foods is far greater than the market for healthy vegetables. (For example, the Coca-Cola Company is No. 12 on Fortune magazine’s 2009 ranking of the “Top 50 Global Most Admired Companies.”) Therefore we believe that more people will come to our church if we simply serve a steady diet of God’s love and blessing and “grace.” Of course we all want our church to grow. But at what cost? We are not called to tickle people’s ears, but rather to disciple them and equip them for fruitful works of service for the kingdom of God. We should take care not to become hirelings motivated by the desire for a comfortable lifestyle and for status in the Christian community. Through Ezekiel God severely rebuked such false shepherds.
Ezekiel 34:1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock…
7 ”‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
James 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
Do believers want solid teaching from Scripture?
Today there is an incipient awareness of sound nutrition, healthy diets and organic foods. We have learned that simply because something tastes good to us, it is not necessarily good for our health. Now there are people who have changed their eating habits, no longer desiring unhealthy foods. In the same way, believers can also train themselves to distinguish and to desire healthy spiritual food—solid teaching about practical righteousness. Let us get rid of our reservations about teaching obedience and living a righteous life. We are accountable to God for shepherding His flock through the correct dividing of His word.
Hebrews 5:13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
The constant diet of “grace” as is taught in most churches today has left believers sick and malnourished and unfit for battle. A balanced diet of grace plus obedience will result in committed solders trained and ready to fulfill the Great Commission.
Isl–m and Communism
It is significant that major players on the recent world stage were communism in the latter half of the twentieth century and more recently Isl–m at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Interestingly, Christianity taken to the extreme position of salvation by works might resemble the religion of Mohammed—the ultimate legalistic religion. But Christianity taken to the other extreme of “unlicensed grace” shares some temptingly similar characteristics with the bankrupt economic system known as communism: you receive the same pay whether you accomplish much or little. So why work so hard? Just take it easy. The state will take care of all your needs.
The teaching of communism is not far removed from the teaching which says that “God loves us all the same.” “God will never love you more than He loves you now, regardless of what you do.” Such an emphasis gives us license to do as little or as much as we would like for the Lord. It doesn’t matter what we do. God loves us all the same and is no respecter of persons. So why obey God and do good works for Him? Just take it easy. After all, you’re already guaranteed a free pass to heaven!
Could it be a mere coincidence that Karl Marx, credited as the founder of communism, was a German philosopher who grew up in a part of the world where Luther’s teachings had begun their widespread dissemination four centuries earlier?
We will not debate God’s love here. But it is clear that His immeasurable love for us should stir us to good works in obedience to His commands. And Jesus said:
Revelation 22:12 “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”
Jesus clearly said that our reward will be in accordance to what we have done and accomplished for Him. Yes, it is grace which enables us to serve Him and this grace is available to us. But we must apply it by walking in obedience to God and carrying out His commands. This grace is available to us because Jesus was obedient to death on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins.
Philippians 2:8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Luke 14:27 And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Disciples are also called to carry their cross and to obey God just as Jesus did. We see that obedience is not optional. If we have truly received the grace of God, we will obey His commands. This leads to eternal life.
John 12:50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
It is time to revisit Luther and to correct the imbalance wrought in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation for the past half millennium. We are in the last days and God is restoring both power and purity to His Church to fulfill the Great Commission.
Obedience is not a dirty word.
John 14:15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command. …24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.”
Luke 6:46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? 47 I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. 48 He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. 49 But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”