The True Grace of God

Thanks to all for the feedback, as well as questions, which I received in response to last month’s e-teaching titled, Five Modern Myths About Jesus’ Conversation with the Rich Young Ruler. Over the next few months, I’ll address some of those questions. This month, I’d like to tackle the most common one, which could be paraphrased, “How does what you taught last month harmonize with the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace and not works?

Allow me to begin by rephrasing that question to, “How does what Jesus said to the rich young ruler harmonize with the doctrine of salvation by grace and not works?” I didn’t write the Bible, and it wasn’t me who had a conversation with that rich ruler 2,000 years ago. All I did last month is take Jesus at His word, something that consequently exposes the myths so commonly believed relative to His conversation with the rich ruler.

This is to say that it is every Christian’s burden, not just mine, to reconcile what Jesus said to the rich ruler with what apparently seems to contradict what Scripture teaches about salvation by grace. The fact is, it is because of that apparent contradiction that Jesus’ words to the rich ruler are so often twisted. Twisting Jesus’ words, however, is the job of the devil.

If you read last month’s e-teaching, you know how I reconciled that apparent contradiction. The reconciliation I offered doesn’t require that we completely ignore entire passages of Scripture that make it irrefutably clear that “works” are essential for salvation. Moreover, the reconciliation I offered stems from an understanding of grace that harmonizes with every verse in the Bible, rather than just a few.

In a nutshell, the grace that God is offering in salvation is conditional, not unconditional. It is not a license to sin, but a temporary opportunity to repent and believe so that one can be forgiven, born again, and walk the narrow road that leads to eternal life. The Bible itself describes God’s grace in this way:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:11-14).

It couldn’t be more clear, could it? God’s grace is anything but a license to sin, as it instructs us to live righteously. Any other portrayal of God’s grace is a perversion, against which the Bible also warns:

For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 4, emphasis added).

Thus, when God’s grace is portrayed as eliminating the necessity of our holiness, it is an incorrect portrayal.

The idea that, if something is offered by grace, there can be no conditions attached to the offer, simply is not true. If a judge were to graciously forgive and set free a convicted murderer, but at the same time warn him that, if he continues to murder people, he will receive the justice he deserves, who would claim that the murderer was “saved by his works”? It could only be said that the murderer was saved by grace, but not a grace that allowed him to continue murdering others. The judge’s continued grace would be dependent upon the murderer’s continued behavior.

Here is an indisputable fact: Grace need not be unconditional. God has never offered anyone an unconditional saving grace. Never has He said to anyone, “I extend to you My grace, so you can continue sinning without worry.”

Jesus did not say, for example, to the woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you for what you’ve done, and neither will I condemn you for anything you might do in the future.” Quite the contrary. He said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more” (John 8:11, emphasis added). That is salvation by conditional grace. Had she not repented of her adultery, Jesus would have ultimately condemned her with all adulterers (see 1 Cor 6:9-10). When modern preachers proclaim, “Jesus died for all your sins, past, present and future, so there is nothing you can do to remove yourself from God’s grace,” that is a gross perversion of God’s grace, and those who preach such a perverse gospel should be branded as heretics.

Here’s another example of conditional grace: Remember Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant (see Matt. 18:21-35)? His master forgave him of a mountain of debt. That was grace in action. But that forgiven servant refused to forgive his fellow servant. When his master learned of his unforgiveness, he reinstated his servant’s formerly-forgiven debt and handed him over to the torturers until he would repay what he could never repay. Clearly, the master’s grace was conditional. Jesus concluded that parable with a promise that most professing Christians do not believe: “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).

Who would argue that God’s forgiveness does not stem from grace? Yet His forgiveness is conditional:

If you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions (Matt. 6:15).

The only kind of saving grace that God has ever offered anyone is conditional. Consider the following familiar passage from Isaiah. Does it convey conditional or unconditional grace?:

Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the Lord,
And He will have compassion on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon (Is. 55:7).

Jesus similarly declared that “repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations” (Luke 24:47). That is conditional forgiveness. Peter obeyed, preaching, “God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34-35). That is conditional acceptance. God “resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Jas. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5, emphasis added). That is conditional grace. Conditional grace is still grace.

Think about it: If God was extending “unconditional grace” to everyone, then everyone would be automatically destined for heaven. There would be no requirement to repent and believe. Everyone, including the most perverse, wicked and unrepentant among the human race, would be guaranteed eternal life. No one would perish.

Grace Versus Works

Some, by quoting scriptures out of their context, try to pit grace against works, hoping to prove that the two are always mutually exclusive and that there is no such thing as conditional grace. Paul’s words found in Romans 11:6 are often used to that end:

But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.

If that were the only sentence in the Bible, we might conclude that grace and works are mutually exclusive. However, Paul also wrote:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Clearly, Paul believed that the salvation God offers on the basis of grace does not nullify the necessity of some degree of holiness.

So how do we reconcile what Paul wrote in Romans 11:6 with what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10?

Note that in Romans 11:6, Paul was specifically writing about grace, rather than works, being the basis of salvation. Of course, the basis for salvation cannot be anything but grace, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). If sinners are going to be saved, it will have to be by grace.

The reason Paul contrasted grace with works in Romans 11:6 is clear to anyone who reads that verse in the context of his letter to the Romans. It was because of a Jewish objection to the gospel that he preached, and particularly that his gospel offered salvation to sinful Gentiles. Of course, if the basis of salvation is works, as was so commonly believed by the Jews in Paul’s day, no dirty Gentile had hope of salvation. But Paul argues that the basis of salvation is grace. In fact, Paul argues, if the basis of salvation is not grace, then not only can no Gentile be saved, but neither can any Jew, because they, too, are sinful like Gentiles. Moreover, if the basis of salvation is works, there was no need for Christ to die (see Gal. 2:21).

Paul accuses Jews of attempting to “establish a righteousness of their own” (Rom. 10:3) by their feeble attempts to keep a few minor requirements of the Law. And he argues that there cannot be true righteousness in people without God’s grace as the foundation, a grace that forgives and transforms sinners, both Jew and Gentile.

Paul makes this same point in his letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

Clearly, God does not save us based on our merits. Contrary to what so many Jews in his day believed, salvation is a gift, and no saved person can boast that it was his works that saved him. But God’s grace offers more than forgiveness of sin. It provides deliverance from sin and transformation. Which is why, in the very next verse, Paul writes:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them (Eph. 2:10).

God’s grace makes us new creations, children of God who are spiritually reborn, who long to please our Heavenly Father.

Paul certainly did not believe that God’s grace was unconditional or that it furnished a license to sin. In this very same epistle in which he declared that salvation is a gift from grace, he also wrote:

But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:3-6).

In Conclusion

Once we grasp the simple principle of conditional grace, we understand how easy it is to harmonize what the Bible teaches about salvation by grace with what Jesus required of the rich ruler if he was to inherit eternal life. Not only that, but we also understand how easy it is to harmonize what the Bible teaches about salvation by grace with so many other scriptures that so plainly reveal that some degree of holiness is required of those who would inherit eternal life (see, for example, Matt. 7:21, 25:41-43, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, Gal. 5:19-21, Eph. 5:3-6, Rev. 21:8).

It is no exaggeration to say that, if the concept of conditional grace were rightly understood by all professing Christians, it would result in a repentance and revival worldwide within the church that would alter the eternal destiny of millions and change the course of history. However, as long as preachers and teachers continue to propagate the unbiblical idea of unconditional grace, they pervert the gospel itself, reducing it to a deceptive promise and a license to sin. Those preachers become unwitting agents of the “father of lies,” as they broadcast what is perhaps his most damning deception. May God help us to turn the tide.