How does God’s grace relate to human effort?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

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Question: If it is God's grace that saves us and not our own works, then why isn't that grace powerful enough to enable us to stop sinning? Ephesians 2:8-9 it says that we are saved by grace and not works… meaning we are filthy rags that are saved only by God’s grace. But in 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul says that he beats himself up every day so as not to be disqualified from the race.

Also, in Philippians 2:12 we are told to work out our salvation… and here I smell a fishy kind of wordplay. If we are saved by grace alone — and not of works — then why is all this beating ourselves up and working out our salvation necessary? Don’t those notions evoke effort on our part?

Let's say that I follow Paul’s example and beat myself up to control my flesh, and I work out my salvation as commanded. Where is the grace? Its seems like it would be me who is doing all the work. But if you disagree and insist that no grace is at work when you beat yourself and work out your salvation, then I’d like to know where the line of grace and works actually lies.

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries — and thank you for submitting such an important question. It will be my pleasure to explore the line between the grace of God and the works of human beings with you today. Just be a little patient with me as I try to address all the issues in your question.

First of all, God’s grace is indeed powerful enough to keep us from sinning. In fact, based on the keeping power of Jesus Christ, God’s expectation is that we won’t continue to sin!

“We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.” (1 John 5:18, NIV)

We do sin, of course… but this is because we have free will (Joshua 24:15) … and because we live in a world that’s permeated with sin and ruled by Satan (1 John 5:19) — a world that has not yet been fully redeemed (Romans 8:22) — and we do this in bodies that have not been fully redeemed (Romans 8:23). It’s a wonder we don’t sin more!

But this business about and Paul beating-himself-up (1 Corinthians 9:27) merely shows that he recognizes that this struggle to control ourselves is expected in the human condition in this age. But not only that, it’s further expected that we will fail… and fail in spite of the grace that saved us.

But, in spite of being truly God (John 8:58), Jesus was just as human as we are (Hebrews 2:17) … yet he made it through his whole life without sinning (Hebrews 4:15). So, it’s possible for us who have the saving grace that is based on his sacrifice to do the same thing… although none of us has pulled this off (Romans 3:23). The thing that’s impossible is for God to crank up his grace to a level that ensures that we will accomplish certain good works… and for us to remain volitional creatures. (Aristotle classified us as “rational animals” over 2300 years ago… and no one has improved on that notion since.)

So, here’s the problem: if God increased grace in a way that guaranteed certain outcomes, then we would cross the line in God’s sovereignty that separates human beings from fire hydrants. At that point, we’d become meat-puppets rather than volitional beings.

We have another line to talk about too… the one between Ephesian 2:8-9 and verse 10. Please note that verse 10 ends the paragraph and provides the concluding thought for the entire letter to the Ephesians up to that point.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9, NIV)

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)

Now, many evangelical Christians do indeed stop at verse 9 as you did… because they want to emphasize the idea of God’s grace and not muddy the waters with verse 10… because it speaks of works and not grace. But this is dishonest exegesis — and it’s a mistake! You see, the point of God’s grace in our lives is not to save us. That’s just a waypoint. The point is for us to be disciples and to make disciples… and discipleship is all about works.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:19–20, NIV)

Now… don’t get me wrong. God’s grace enables all the works we do. It’s our constant friend and companion — even after we are saved! But we Christians work… and work… and work (Matthew 5:17)… because we are supposed to. But we don’t do this in order to maintain salvation. That’s a doctrinal point that the whole package makes clear. Ephesians 2:8-10.

But it also clears up Paul’s statement about beating himself up (1 Corinthians 9:27). Here he is talking about being the best disciple he can be — post Ephesians 2:8-9… and compared to the saving work Christ has done for him, he doesn’t feel like his works are up to par. That should also be our experience.

You also referenced Philippians 2:12. Let’s look at that verse — but in the New Living Testament (NLT) version — and I’ll wrap up this answer.

“Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.” (Philippians 2:12, NLT)

There’s no real “wordplay” going on here. In the King James Version (among others) we are told to “work out” our salvation — and this is often misunderstood by contemporary English readers who are tripping over the KJV’s 400-year-old phrasing. Today we have an idiom, to “work things out.” But that has nothing to do with God’s grace; it has everything to do with self-effort!

So, look at the verse again in the NLT. Works are clearly the product of salvation, not the process of it — as Ephesians 2:10 also insists — and as is definitive of “the Gospel.” By “work out” the verse means to take the salvation that is within you and do works outside of you. It doesn’t mean go and work out how to accomplish your own salvation… which is the common misunderstanding of this verse.

The cumulative case makes it clear that God’s grace has multiple functions: it saves us; we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesian 2:8). But also, it sustains us; it sustains us in our Christian lives so we can do the works that the Father sent us to do (1 Peter 4:11).

So, it’s the same old grace… but with two jobs. Therefore, the thing you cannot do with it is to challenge the doctrine of salvation by grace — or say that works are independent of grace — because grace shows up both before salvation and after it (1 Corinthians 4:7; 15:10)… but it does so in a way where salvation is grace-initiated and works are grace-sustained.

I pray that this discussion gave you some clarity.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20190819 Shouldn’t God’s grace make us super-Christians?).

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