Many decades ago, during my college years, an administrator said that most religions of the world emphasized trying to earn God’s favor. Christianity, however, declared that it’s not by trying, but trusting—trusting the perfect, sinless Son of God who took our place on the cross we deserved.
These words were a relief to me. I had been familiar with Ephesians 2:8-9 for a few years by then: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But I still had to reassure myself that salvation was not a matter of being “good enough,” but rather resting in His goodness.
I had to learn the same principle in my Christian walk. Even after salvation, my standing with God was not a matter of trying to be good enough. My works were not to earn His approval. I would never be more saved or more loved than I already was. My walk, or sanctification, or growth was as much a matter of faith as my salvation. It was still Christ’s righteousness, not mine, that counted before God. The whole book of Galatians was written to people who thought they had to obey certain rules in order to be right with God:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
It’s given immeasurable rest to my spirit to know I can always “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
The same college administrator made another statement at another time that has stayed with me all these years: “God’s not going to do your math homework for you.”
I don’t recall the context of that statement. Perhaps there were college students who thought prayer took the place of study. I can understand, as one who prayed my way through various lessons. I’m sure there were courses that were passed only through prayer. But they also required mental and physical effort.
Since then, I have amended that administrator’s statement about what God is not going to do:
God is not going to slap your fifth cookie out of your hand.
God is not going to turn off the TV when the sex scene starts.
God is not going to have devotions for you.
God is not going to make you take the opportunity you’re afraid of.
And so on.
I tend to be overly analytical. I’ve spent a great deal of thought on what’s God’s part and what’s our part in the Christian life. I can’t say I have it all figured out, even now. My tendency is to want to sort it out neatly in a series of points. God does this: 1, 2, and 3. And we do this: 1, 2, and 3. But I don’t think it works like that.
I do know this: As I said, our standing before God and His love for us are totally dependent on His grace, not our actions. My ups and downs, stumblings, faults, and failures don’t threaten His love for me or my salvation.
But Jesus did say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
We don’t keep His commandments to earn His love or favor or salvation.
But we keep His commandment from His love and favor and salvation.
Because He loves us, saved us, changed us, we’re new creations.
We don’t put down the cookie because we’ll lose points with God if we eat it. But His Spirit dwells within us, and part of His fruit is self-control.
We don’t turn off the sex scene because we’ll go to hell if we don’t. We turn off the sex scene because we love a pure and holy God.
We don’t have time in prayer and the Bible because we’ll have a bad day if we don’t. We spend time with God because He is our Father, and we want to hear His great and precious thoughts.
We don’t take the scary opportunity because God won’t love us if we don’t, but because we want to do what He has called us to.
We can’t do anything without Him.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).
But as we walk through the day, seeking grace to help in time of need, asking for His strength, step by step, we yield to Him.
What do we do when we see a “Yield” traffic sign? We let the other drivers have the right of way.
What do we do when we yield to God? We let Him have His way. We acquiesce to His will.
The fact that our salvation is by grace through faith doesn’t mean there is no effort to the Christian life. Grace does not preclude obedience. Grace is not good just for forgiveness. Grace enables obedience.
The verses that seem to most clearly show our effort and His working:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10).
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13).
So maybe there is no actual dividing line between God’s part and our part as we seek to live for Him. We don’t muster up the strength or will to serve Him on our own—we feed on His Word for our nourishment and strength and ask for His grace and help through prayer. Maybe it’s like the man with the withered hand or the paralyzed man in Scripture whom Jesus told to do the very things they could not do. With faith and obedience came enabling.
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VERY good post Barbara!! I Love it. there’s so much here to “chew” on…i don’t need a cookie 🙂
Good thoughts here; like you, I tend to overanalyze. Not long ago, my mom said to my daughters something to the effect of — “If you don’t tithe, God will get what’s His another way. Maybe you’ll get cancer” etc. I was horrified at the analogy and by the fact that she said that out loud to the kids. But it made me think, even if I don’t take things to that extreme, do I try to “earn” God’s favor in other ways? It’s a fine line to walk, trying to live by grace and walk by faith.
I’ve heard that kind of philosophy, too. Someone I knew in my young mom years said that if you don’t have your devotions, God will make something go wrong that day to get back the time that should have been spent with Him. That seems like such a horrible way to live. God chastens, yes–but for our good and training, not to be vindictive. But you’re right, that kind of thinking can seep in even when we know better.
What a good and thoughtful post, Barbara. It actually went along with our Pastor’s message this morning from John 5. It’s good to be reminded why we do what we do. I especially liked the ways you shared about how we are loved no more because of the “works” we do. The majority of my Christian life was lived out in a church that was very works oriented. It’s been a blessing in the more recent years to understand what God’s grace is about!
We were in a very rules-oriented community for a while, too. It took several messages and passes through Scripture to truly understand and rest in grace. Yet I fear that many today err in the opposite direction, feeling that it doesn’t matter what we do because we’re covered by grace. We forget that grace is not just for forgiveness, but for enabling us to obey (I just went back and added that to the post. 🙂 )
Hi Barbara! I am so thankful for this post! I too spent many years of my Christian life in a rules-based community and have the past several of years, thanks to marrying a gospel-centered, godly man, been introduced into the doctrines of grace. I have felt like I’m meeting Jesus for the first time all over again! Oh! That pesky tendency to earn God’s love or favor or blessing! I so appreciate your balance, though, too. Yes, God’s grace through Christ covers my sin, but it empowers me to throw of the chains sin tries to strangle me with, too, so I can fully enjoy, love, and worship my Savior and enjoy Him and the things He’s given me and endure discipline and suffering with joy anchored in Him.
Reminds me of when I’ve heard people say God doesn’t expect you to sit on your hands. He provides so much for us as well as His love. Years ago when I attended Church, it did seem they were still in the mindset of works. So many of how we do things to earn. I’m with you when learning to accept Grace of His Love. He guides if we listen. Thank you for an uplifting post for my Sunday morning.
Thanks, Peabea. It’s a hard balance sometimes. I think I’m *still* learning to rest in God’s grace and not my efforts. But, as I said to someone else above, these days many err in the opposite direction–that it doesn’t matter what we do because grace covers us. His grace forgives, but it also enables us to obey Him and walk in His ways, even though we still stumble and fall.
I was just saying to my Sunday school class this morning that we could ponder forever on the partnership between us and God in the sanctification process. What a miracle that he produces actual righteousness in the believer without compromising our individuality or will.
Amen. I love how you put that.
This line struck me: “What do we do when we yield to God? We let Him have His way. We acquiesce to His will.” So much food for thought in this post. My biggest takeaway is I don’t have to work for God’s love. He loves me no matter what. It is his unconditional love that inspires me to serve him.
I think you hit the nail on the head–His love inspires us to serve Him. Some seem to think of grace as an “I can do anything I want” card. But God saved us so we could walk in His ways (though we do so imperfectly), not so we could do our own thing and then claim grace.
I think the longer we walk with God, He changes us. Our “want-to’s” and “need-to’s” align with His will and plan. Our hearts become in synch with His.
Amen. It’s such a key factor to walk with Him and grow in our knowledge and love for Him.
Barb, so much to like here. Coming from a Catholic background to salvation, needless to say I brought a ton of baggage with me! Always operating in my relationship with God from a place of guilt and not being good enough. While I have come a long way. my tendency is to slip back into “earning” my way or performing to get God’s favor. Excellent words here!
It’s so easy to slip back into that mindset. Thank God for His grace in His gentle corrections and drawing us into a loving relationship with Himself.
Your college administrator sounds like a very wise person, Barbara. And I love how you put it, that “grace enables obedience.” We play our part, of course, but we do it in His strength. That is such a comfort!
I think that’s such a key factor. We tend to either swing legalistic and performance-based, or “It doesn’t matter what I do because I am under grace.” Sometimes I want God to stop me before I sin, when He wants me to depend on Him to obey.
I love what you said here. I like the word picture I get when you wrote “ God won’t smack the fifth coke out of your hand”. So true.
Grace enables us—what a beautiful way of saying it. I’m a closet legalistic who thinks in my head rule-keeping will make me right with God, and a hoper for grace—whose heart knows the truth—I obey because of love. What a conundrum!
I battled those same thoughts for many years. Maybe as we grow in our love for Him, obedience will come easier or won’t be so much of a battle.
Powerful post Barbara. Blessings.
Visiting today from Inspire Me Monday # 17
Thanks so much, Paula.
I once heard JI Packer talk about God’s part and our part in sanctification as follows. First we pray and ask God for his strength to accomplish x. And x can be something like reading the Bible, witnessing to a friend, or even prayer itself – we pray the Lord helps us pray to him! Second we go and do x as best we can no matter how we might feel. Lastly we pray and give thanks and glory to God alone for giving us the strength to accomplish x! That’s how we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Likewise, I’m reminded of the story Corrie ten Boom once told about when she met a Nazi prison guard. In fact, this Nazi was one of her prison guards when she and her sister were forced into a concentration camp for helping to hide Jews during the war. He had been a terrible guard to her and her sister. Her sister died in the camp. Corrie met this Nazi after the war when she was giving talks and evangelizing people. After one of her talks, the Nazi approached Corrie and said he had become a Christian and wanted to thank Corrie and also ask for her forgiveness for all his brutality. He stuck his hand out to shake her hand. Corrie said at that moment she recognized him but did not want to forgive him and all her emotions like anger sprung up inside her. She wanted to recoil from his offer of a handshake. Sonshe leaued to God and begged for his help, with then in faith she took his hand and shook it. As she did, she said she felt such love and forgiveness run through her and was able to forgive him. She thanked God for his strength to simply shake the former Nazi’s hand. I think this could be a good illustration of God’s part and our part in sanctification.
Those are such apt illustrations. I think we often wait until we “feel” forgiving or courageous or obedient or whatever before we act. But we’re to act in faith whether the feelings come or not. It has always comforted me that Paul said he was with the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” But, he goes on to say, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:3-4).
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Such a succinct way of stating this truth, “Christianity declared that it’s not by trying, but trusting.” And as you stated, it is by abiding in Him.
Love your title. This is a hard concept to explain. Maybe it has more to do with motivation. We please and praise God because we can’t help but do this because we see all he has done for us. I have been thinking lately about a post I get to write about praise and realizing that it is hard to praise God unless we have a correct view of him. Why would we praise an angry God who is out to get us? Or why would we praise a God who controls us and makes the right decisions for us (like slaps the fifth cookie from our hand)? We quit striving and trying to earn his approval and our worth and instead trust and receive and in the process that makes us want to be obedient and do the things we should.
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Great post Barbara! I do a lot of thinking too about God and learning to give Him room to move in my life is an ongoing thing surrender for me. The best conversations are the ones where friends and I talk “faith”. I believe God loves to listen to our conversations and delights in our delight of Him …💕
This is such good perspective and something I’m going to be chewing on today.
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Lol this reminds me of Conan O’Brien he used to enjoy slapping cookies off his assistant’s hand. Btw I am fasting so talking about cookies is not a good idea