For many Christians, there is an exhausting struggle between grace and works. For others, there is no struggle at all, and the dichotomy looks something like this: on one side of the fence you have the legalists—the people who are all about works; on the other side you have the antinomians—the people who are all about grace. Many Christians struggle to walk the tightrope in-between the two worlds. If you fall to the left, you land on the side of the legalist who is all wrapped up in the rules of Christianity. If you fall to the right, you land in the antinomian camp who disregards the rules in the name of grace. I’ve heard pastors criticize other pastors for being “too heavy on grace” claiming that they “need more judgement in their message” and vice versa. For others, Christianity either becomes all about what you do (works), or about doing what you want (which typically results in a need for grace). So how do these two competitors play out in the Christian life? A few quick notes:
- Well, actually, Grace and works are not competitors. While they are distinct from one another, they are not in opposition. Grace operates as a disposition, while works operates as a product or “fruit” of a particular motivation.
- Part of what makes the gospel the good news is that salvation is the result of grace and not works (Eph. 2:8). So a person can only be as heavy on grace as God is heavy on grace. And the Apostle Paul claims that the riches of God’s grace is “immeasurable” (Eph. 2:7).
- Works will distinguish a genuine believer from a non-believer, in a similar way that Jesus talks about the fruit of repentance being displayed in a person’s actions (Matt. 3:8; 7:15-17). Some people might take this to mean that if you continue to sin as a Christian, you conversion was not genuine. However, I do not think that is the point that Jesus is trying to communicate.
So how do these two things work together? Let me put it into practical terms: Grace and works will both operate naturally in a love relationship between two individuals. If I love my wife, I should naturally extend grace to her when she makes a mistake. Additionally, I should also want to please her. I take little mental notes of things that she likes—“actions” (or works) that I can do that will make her happy. I kiss her when she walks in the door. I hold her hand in public. I offer to put on movies that she likes and watch them with her. The point is that because she is the object of my affections, grace and works should flow naturally from my love for her. But of course, in order for this relationship to work, it must be mutual. She must also extend grace and works towards me.
God is a perfect being. He is also a relational being. Therefore God’s relationship with us is only strained if we’re the ones doing the straining. God showed us ultimate grace (and continues to) and ultimate works on the cross. In that regard, his extreme love for us is obvious. The question: if God is love and if God gives grace, does he care how I live? is ultimately answered this way: if I love God, I will do everything I can to maintain and richen my relationship with him. From the beginning of the Bible, to the very end, the words of Jesus encapsulate the common thread regarding our relationship to God: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” We can all relate to this. Every equal, functioning human relationship operates this way. Grace and works are fundamental to our relationships, and no one picks one over the other. They’re another way of saying. “If you love me, you will show it. But if you fail to show it, I will forgive you.”
Thus, the question, “Is Christianity all about following rules?” is almost identical to, “Are relationships all about following rules?” The answer is: No–but a relationship won’t last without them.
(Thoughts? Comments? Feel free to share in the comment section or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
 John 14:15