Of grace, law, commandments, rules, and effort

This is one of those posts where I am trying to work things out in my own mind. Some of these thoughts have been swirling around for years, and even now I’ve sat staring at the computer for a while wondering how to start. I guess I’ll do so by pulling out one strand at a time.

Much of the discussion on grace these days emphasizes that we’re not only saved by grace through faith plus nothing, but we’re kept “safe,” kept in Christ the same way. His love for us and our position with Him is not based on what we “do,” it’s based on His grace.

I agree with that.

But some go on to say that there is no room for any kind of law (spiritually speaking, not referring to the civil laws of the land like traffic lights and speed limits), commandments, or even effort in the Christian life, and anything related to such is labeled legalism.

What, then, do they do with passages such as these:

If ye love me, keep my commandments. John 14:15

He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. John 14:21

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10

Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.  For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus. I Thessalonians 4:1-2

 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.  He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. I John 2:3-4

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.  For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. I John 5:2-3

And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it. II John 6

And these are from the grace-drenched New Testament.

Where some get it wrong is in thinking that we have to keep His commandments in order to be saved or in order to “earn” His love and favor, and that’s not correct. But where others get it wrong is in thinking that, since we’re saved and kept by God’s grace, there is nothing that should smack of commandments or rules in the Christian life, and that’s wrong as well.

As I understand them, these New Testament verses about God’s commands are saying that obeying God’s commands is an outflow of our relationship with God and love for Him, not a way to earn His love. The early part of John 15, for instance, talks about abiding in Christ, being a vine in His branch, not being able to do anything without Him, and then it goes on to say, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (v. 10). And far from chafing under His commands, “his commandments are not grievous” (I John 5:2-3), and we obey them out of love.

I think it’s something like my relationship with my own children. They were born my children. They didn’t do anything to earn that spot in the family. They’ll never have to do anything to earn that spot: it will always be theirs. I will always love them, no matter what they do. Even if they rebelled to an extreme extent and I had to ask them to leave my home, it would not nullify my love. But their actions do have an effect on whether that relationship is a happy one or a grieved one, and it reflects on their love and maturity. Sure, a child’s motivation for obedience in their early years is so that they don’t get into trouble, but as they mature, their motivated by wanting to respect and honor their parents.

Going on from commandments to rules, I’ve seen many totally eschew the idea of rules in the Christian life since we’re saved and kept by grace and not by rule-keeping. But not being saved by rules doesn’t mean there are no rules. For instance, I have a rule for myself that I attend church unless I am sick or something comes up (company suddenly coming in, bad weather, extreme tiredness, etc.). It’s not that I think God won’t love me if I miss church. It’s more an effort to apply Romans 13:13-14: “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” I should go to church out of love for God, a desire to learn more about Him, a desire to fellowship with others in the body of Christ, and ultimately I do. But we all know that even in our closest and most loving relationships, we don’t always “feel” like doing what we should. So sometimes we have to deliberately make an effort in spite of our feelings of the moment. And as one professor used to say, good feelings follow right actions: usually my feelings catch up after I do the right thing. This all doesn’t mean that I live a life of rules out of duty devoid of feeling: it means my actions are based on underlying love that’s deeper than my momentary fleeting feelings.

And that brings me to effort. I’ve read some who point to passages like John 15 and say that we’re vines abiding in the branch, and the branch doesn’t do anything to help itself grow, neither do we have to expend any effort. Similarly, the fruit of the Spirit is something wrought by the Spirit, not something we work to produce.

And I agree with that. On the other hand, the New Testament is filled with action verbs. Love. Obey. Yield. Put on. Put off. Abstain. Work. Walk in certain ways (circumspectly, or carefully, for one). Do not do certain things. Do certain things. Strive. “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22).

I liken it in some ways to the Old Testament battles. Sometimes God did something supernatural to deliver His people, like parting the Red Sea or having the sun stand still in response to Joshua or sending a noise to scare the Syrians into running away. But most of the time the people had to actually pick up their swords and fight. Yet even then they couldn’t win battles in their own efforts alone: if something was between them and the Lord, He did not help them and they lost.

In the same way, we can’t live the Christian life in our own strength. Yet God doesn’t always come in and just do away with whatever battles we face. But as we rely on Him, He enables us to do what He wants us to do.

Being saved and kept by grace doesn’t mean I’m just a happy little blob taking up space on earth until I go on to heaven. It doesn’t mean that since God loves me no matter what, then it doesn’t matter what I do. But it does mean that He will enable me to do whatever He wants me to.

Ephesians2:8-10 sums it up nicely:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

We’re not saved by good works, but we’re created unto good works.

And Romans 8:13 shows how our efforts work together with God’s enabling:

For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.

He doesn’t mortify it for us: there is a response expected from us. But we can’t do it on our own: we can only do it through the Spirit.

12 thoughts on “Of grace, law, commandments, rules, and effort

  1. Love this phrase: “And these are from the grace-drenched New Testament.”
    I struggle with the same issues. It seems like in the name of grace and Christian liberty, people today have thrown out all responsibility or call to holy living. The Christian world has been rocked by an earthquake of sorts in recent years.

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