What is the Gospel? Part Four: Grace
Note: From September 9–11, a large chunk of Westgate Church traveled up to Lake Winnipesauke in New Hampshire for our annual Sandy Island retreat. The focus of our time was “What is the Gospel?” Since not all were able to attend (and not every reader attends Westgate), I have been posting the sessions here. Part four completes the series. Click here for Part One: News, Part Two: Kingdom, and Part Three: Cross.
WHAT IS THE GOSPEL? PART FOUR: GRACE
So far in this series we have seen how the gospel is NEWS about God’s KINGDOM which he establishes through the CROSS. So the question remains, how do we come to participate in the gospel message of God’s kingdom, and what effect does the gospel have on us? How do we find our place in the story? Our key word for part four is GRACE.
Notice the centrality of grace in Paul’s description of how God takes us from being rebels and children of wrath to being servants and children of God (Ephesians 2:1-10):
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Jerry Bridges summarizes well: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And you best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”1
We often hear grace defined as “unmerited favor”—being given something that we don’t deserve, something we have not earned. But that’s only half of the biblical portrait of grace. It’s not merely that we haven’t done anything to earn God’s favor (as if we stand there neutral); we have actually done something to deserve his judgment and anger. We’re not neutral; we’re guilty. And so God’s grace is more than unmerited favor; it is being given something indescribably wonderful even though we deserve something utterly terrible. Or as Bridges often says, it is God’s unmerited favor toward those who deserve only his wrath. As we mentioned in part three, we deserve the dungeon and execution for our treason against the kingdom. Instead we’ve not only been pardoned, but adopted into the king’s own family. Or to use the imagery of Ephesians 2 (which is more than imagery; it’s a spiritual reality), we who were dead in our trespasses and sin have been made alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.
We’ll consider God’s grace from two angles in part four. First, we’ll look at how our salvation is by grace from beginning to end: from the initial response of faith and repentance, to the ongoing sanctification process as we grow in our walk with God, all the way up to our glorification by God when Christ returns. Second, we’ll trace a gospel-shaped framework for life—a way of looking at the world that keeps us fixed on God’s grace for each day, whether for relationships, work, decisions, our own personal growth, our ministry priorities, whatever—a framework for keeping the gospel central in our lives.
Saved by Grace
All of salvation is of grace. But what we mean by “salvation?” The word actually has a wide range of meaning in Scripture. As broad theological category, we might define it like this: the whole process by which God rescues us from our sin and its effects and restores us to our created purpose of relating to him, reflecting him, and representing him and his rule. Part of that process has taken place in the past, things like regeneration (being born-again), justification (being declared not-guilty), adoption (becoming a child of God), and consecration (being set apart for God’s purposes). Part of that process is present and ongoing, like sanctification or transformation. And part of it awaits the future, like glorification (when we finally receive our resurrection bodies in God’s heavenly new creation and bear God’s image perfectly).
In Ephesians 2, Paul describes the past dynamics and present implications for salvation. More specifically, Paul says three things about salvation in vv. 8-10: we are saved by grace, through faith, for works.
We are saved by grace. God gives us something wonderful—forgiveness, new life, peace with him, the joy of his blessing—even though we deserve something terrible. This grace is only possible because of what Christ has done for us in his life, death, and resurrection. As Paul says elsewhere in Romans 3: we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
Yet God’s grace is only applied to us if we are united with Christ—if we share in his identity and benefit from his work. Notice how our salvation is described in Ephesians 2: we who were dead “were made alive together with Christ” (v. 5)—that’s resurrection. We were raised up with him (v. 6)—that’s ascension. And “seated with him in the heavenly places”—that’s Christ’s session. Elsewhere in Colossians Paul says how we have died with Christ and our life is hidden with him in God (Col. 3:3; cf. 2:20; Gal. 2:20;Rom.6:1-5). When we are united with Christ, such that he is our representative in both his life and death and our identity is now found in him, God’s grace applies to us. So how are we united with Christ?
Faith is trust and dependence. It’s more than simply agreeing with a fact. It’s trusting in, depending upon, relying on something. It’s putting the full weight of your hope in that something. If you think of sin as crippling our ability to walk with God, such that we’re lying on the ground in our own mess of sin, a hundred miles away from our destination, faith is not just agreeing that Jesus could pick me up and carry me over there if he wanted to; it’s letting him do it. It’s turning to him in active faith, asking him to do it, depending upon him to do it, and turning away from any other false hope, such that if Jesus fails, our life is a complete wash. It’s recognizing that I have no hope apart from Christ, and so all my hope is in him.
Now why is stressing faith so important? Frankly, because we’re all legalists by default–every human being. What’s a legalist? We all want to take some or all of the credit for our standing with God. Even though we’re lame and unable to get there on our own, we still want to take some of the credit. For Israelin Jesus’ and Paul’s day, that credit came in the form of their privileged covenant heritage or their particular keeping of certain laws. For us today it’s much more generic; we put our good works on one side of the scale and our bad ones on the other, and we hope that the good will outweigh the bad, as though God would then be obligated to love us. Because if my salvation is at least partly dependent on me, then I have a claim on God and his favor. I can demand something from him, even manipulate something out of him. Or else I can refuse something he might ask, since my standing is partly up to me. But if it’s all of grace, I am completely at his mercy. My only hope in life is Christ, and the only defense for my sin is Christ and his death on the cross.
We naturally gravitate to thinking that God’s favor or disfavor toward us is dependent on what we do. The problem is (1) we’re not capable of doing good on our own—sin has stained every part of us in some way, such that even our most righteous works are blemished. Isaiah 64:6 says, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (i.e. “used menstrual cloth”). If that’s our righteous deeds, what are the unrighteous ones like? We want the credit, but in reality everything ends up being on the wrong side of the scale. So (1) we can’t do it, even if we wanted, and (2) doing good still doesn’t make up for the bad. Sin has to be punished. A just king must deal justly with rebellion in his kingdom. So either we bear it ourselves in hell, or we look to Jesus who bore hell in our place.
Paul summarizes well in Philippians 3:7-9:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
So, we’re saved by grace through faith and not by works; yet, we are saved for good works.
Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We’re not just saved from something (sin, God’s wrath), we’re saved for something—for God’s kingdom: to be God’s people in God’s place living under God’s rule, enjoying God’s blessing for the sake of God’s glory. By God’s grace we have been transferred out of the dominion of darkness and into thekingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13-14). And so we are called to live as citizens of that kingdom, in joyful obedience to God. By grace through faith we are written back into God’s story, and given God’s Spirit to produce fruit in us (Gal. 5:16-26; Rom. 8:1-17). Therefore faith is necessarily accompanied by repentance from sin—a turning away from sin and to God. In fact faith and repentance are the common responses explicitly requested when the gospel is preached in the New Testament (e.g. Mk. 1:15; Acts 3:19; 26:20). And when someone believes and repents, that conversion is regularly marked with baptism (e.g. Acts 2:38, 41; 8:35-39; 10:48).
Think about the imagery of baptism. During our retreat we celebrated four baptisms. What was going on there? It’s the picture of dying to the old world, to self, and to sin, being buried in the watery grave with Christ, and then being born again—rising to new life, coming up out of the watery grave in Christ’s resurrection. Something old dies; something new is born. We were once dead in sin, we are now alive to God. We have a new God, a new King, a new life, a new hope, a new allegiance. That means we’re called to obedience.
Now, the minute you talk about the relationship of works to salvation, there are two kinds of alarms that go off in people’s heads. The first is the alarm of legalism. If you talk about the necessity of obedience as fruit of God’s grace and Spirit in your life, people will be afraid that will come off as legalism. Note: I am very much against legalism. And it’s a big problem for most Christians (we’ll unpack this in a moment). But obedience is not the same thing as legalism. Legalism is “I obey, therefore I’m accepted.” Grace-fueled obedience is “I’m accepted through Christ, therefore I obey.”2 True obedience flows out of grace and is empowered by the Spirit. But if the obedience isn’t there, you have to ask, Is the grace there? Is the Spirit there?
The other alarm is going off is the alarm of license. The minute you talk about grace, the fear is that people will take that as an excuse to do whatever they want. Who cares about obedience if God’s just going to forgive sin? That’s cheap grace. Note: I am also equally and adamantly against license. Grace is not cheap. It’s freely given, but it cost God the life of his only Son. And so to exploit grace as an excuse to sin is to betray our lack of faith in and love for Jesus. It exposes the fact that we don’t really think sin is that sinful, and thus we don’t really appreciate grace. But listen to Paul’s exhortation in Romans 2:4: “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” God’s grace produces repentance. If there’s no repentance, then do we really get grace?
We are saved by grace, through faith, for works. These works flow out of grace; they do not replace it. And this is where it’s crucial to remember that the gospel is not just for sinners. The same grace of God that rescued us from our sin (past tense) is also at work in us to transform us to sin less and less each day (present tense), even as it will deliver us fully when the Lord returns (future tense, cf. Rom. 5:6-11). Grace teaches us to sin less and less.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
So how does the grace of God work to transform our lives today, in the present? How do we live out of the power of the gospel daily? We’ll conclude this series by sketching what I call a gospel-shaped framework for life. A simple rubric for helping us discern how the gospel ought to shape our lives and relationships and service and everything.
A Gospel-Framework for Life
A gospel-shaped framework or perspective is framed by two realities, like two guardrails on either side of the road: the sinfulness of sin, and the sufficiency of grace. Very simple. Going back to part three: We are more sinful than we can ever acknowledge or imagine, but God’s grace in Christ is more sufficient than we can ever appreciate or conceive.
So on the one side, there is the reality of sin. All of us should say with Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost,” which doesn’t mean I’m as sinful as I could possibly be, but that in comparison to the holiness of God, I am as sinful as they come—more sinful than I care to acknowledge. Now, Christ has redeemed me from sin, and is at work in me to continually transform me. But I still sin, and left to myself, I am still as sinful as they come. That’s the first guardrail.
The second is the sufficiency of grace. If we continue with Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy, he goes on from acknowledging his foremost sinfulness to say, “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:16). God’s mercy is more than enough to deal with our sinfulness, as pervasive as it is. We can never exhaust it or find its end. As sinful as we were and still are, God is patiently at work in us by his grace to deliver us not only from sin’s penalty, but from sin’s power. In fact, God’s grace is the only thing that can deal adequately with our sinfulness.
One of the greatest temptations in life is to minimize or lose sight of one or both of those realities. To remove one or both of the guardrails, which opens us up to straying from the course, perhaps driving off the cliff, or, more often, gradually drifting down the slope. But if we can keep these two realities ever before us, they offer guidance, correction, and encouragement. They help us avail ourselves to the power of God’s salvation, our only real hope, held out for us in the cross of Christ and applied by the Spirit.
I want to illustrate how this works by looking at what happens when we minimize or lose sight of one or both of these realities—whether in our own lives, or in the lives of people we relate to. (See the figure below).
First, what happens when I minimize my own sin? When I disagree that my sin is really that sinful? When I lose sight of my own sinfulness, there are only two possible destinations: The first is prideful self-sufficiency: “I don’t need the gospel, because I can do it on my own. I have the strength, the strategies; I’ve read the right books, I know the right methods to make life work on my own. I’m certainly not as bad as those people. Look at all the ways they compromise their faith; I’m sure glad I’m not like them.”
There’s another word for this: pride. I minimize sin because my identity is still caught up in how well I can do on my own. I can’t acknowledge my sin because then I won’t look as good to God or others. It’s a prideful heart that, regardless of what the mouth says, doesn’t really believe it needs the gospel. That’s one possible destination from minimizing our own sin.
The second is shameless self-indulgence: “I don’t need the gospel, because my heart and my actions aren’t really that bad. It’s not that sinful. How sinful really is it to lose myself in my work and prioritize my job over my wife and kids? Isn’t God’s grace sufficient? What’s the big deal if I tell my wife I’ll be home at 5:30 and I’m constantly pulling up at 6:15? Sure, I gave her my word and I didn’t keep my word, but it’s not that sinful is it? So what does it matter if I spend 8 hours on a Saturday watching football while my wife has to take care of the kids—it’s how I unwind from the week? Everyone else looks at porn every now and then. Everyone uses that word, watches that show. I’m just curious what my old high school boyfriend is up to; that’s why I searched for him on Facebook. Sure it might look like a problem—whether it’s my drinking or my sexual interaction with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, but I have it under control. Besides, it’s not that bad anyway.”
Shameless self-indulgence. We justify our sin. It’s not that sinful, because I still like doing it. Or it’s not that sinful, because I can’t bear the guilt and shame of admitting that I’m doing it. When I minimize my own sin, I end up either at prideful self-sufficiency or shameless self-indulgence.
How about what happens when I lose sight of or minimize sin in the life of someone I’m relating to or interacting with. What if I lose sight of the reality that my spouse is a sinner, my children are sinners, my boss, my parents, my neighbors, my friends? Again, there are two likely results.
The first is a naïve over-regard for the person: “They can do no wrong. Or at least nothing that I can’t handle. My children would never do something like that (Read between the lines: because if they did, that means I’m not as good a parent as I think I am).”
These are the rose-colored glasses of love or admiration of a mentor or hero. We have some vested interest in protecting the pedestal we’ve placed them on, which of course only sets that person up for failure down the road when they do in fact do something terribly hurtful and come hurling down. When we lose sight of the sin of others, we hold onto false expectations, we deprive those people of opportunities for transforming correction, and we put our hope in people who at the end of the day can’t deliver what we want from them (since only God can).
The second is evasive disregard for their sin: “It’s not that sinful. Their sin isn’t so bad—the pornography addiction, or the alcohol abuse, or the constant cutting words. It’s not that big a deal; my marriage isn’t that bad; it’s a good marriage, so what if we have a couple problems, nothing we can’t handle. Again, my children aren’t that sinful. They’re doing okay—could be worse. They’re good kids. Sure they could be making some better choices, but they love God—I think.”
We evasively disregard their sin, which of course is merely an attempt to escape the reality and weight of it. Perhaps because in our fear we don’t know how to address it, or we can’t imagine bearing the pain and shame of it. And when we minimize sin, we necessarily marginalize grace. If we can’t be honest with how ugly our own sin is, or the sin of those we love, then we will withhold from them the very means of change God has given them—the grace of the gospel.
So how about the second guardrail? What happens when I lose sight of the sufficiency of God’s grace in my own life, or in someone else’s life?
When I lose sight of the sufficiency of God’s grace in my own life, again there are two common destinations. The first is legalistic performance: “I’m a sinner, and I have to make it up. I’m fully aware of my sin, but God’s love and favor for me are contingent on my being good enough. Whether it’s loving my spouse well enough, having my daily quiet time, obeying my parents, going to church, or telling others about Jesus. If I can just stop doing certain bad things and start doing other good things, I’ll grow in my walk, and God will be happy with me.”
Of course, this is again losing sight of the cross and turning the gospel into something we do.
The other side of it is hopeless despair: “I’m a sinner, and I can never make it up. I now realize that I will never be good enough. I will never measure up no matter what I do or how hard I try; and so why try any longer? I give up.” And so we turn inward in depression, or maybe outward to other things that we think could fill the void—the things I can conquer, like food, pornography, romance novels, internet relationships, adultery, eating disorders, any variety of addiction or abuse, and so on. Hopeless despair.
Here is a test on whether or not you may have lost sight of God’s grace. When your head hits the pillow at night and you reflect back on your day, why was it a good day? Why do you feel satisfied? Or why was it a bad one? Why are you overtaken by regret? If your satisfaction and joy in life go up and down based on how well you have performed for God, or how badly you’ve blown it, you might have lost sight of God’s grace. Come back to the cross. Come back to your union with Christ.
When I lose sight of the sufficiency of God’s grace in someone else’s life (whether a friend or colleague or spouse or parent or child or leader), where do I end up? How about vindictive manipulation: “You have to make it up to me. You hurt mr; you let me down, and now you have to make it up. You have to work your way back into my good graces. But I’m always going to hold the bar just an inch or two higher than you can reach, so that I can keep you in debt to me and make you feel the pain you’ve caused me to feel. Don’t worry about performing for God, I’m the one you have to worry about. And I will withhold forgiveness and peace until I’m convinced on my terms that you deserve it. And just in case you try to do the same thing to others, I plan to warn them and tell them what you did. To protect them. So they can pray for you. And (if we’re honest) so that you suffer.” Vindictive manipulation.
The other side of this is unforgiving resentment: “I won’t say anything, but I’ll never forget. I may not make a big deal of your sin. I may not even tell you that you hurt me, but I will not forget it. I might smile and nod when people praise you to me, but I know the truth. I simply add each new offense to that secret list of grievances that I’m carrying around in my pocket, until one day, when you really blow it, the whole thing is coming out.” Unforgiving resentment.
And both of these take us full circle back up to downplaying my own sinfulness—I can only stand in judgment over someone who has sinned against me if I believe that I’m a far less sinner than he or she.
Do you see how all this works? How the wheels come off in life? How so many of the everyday things we deal with come from a deficient appreciation for the gospel?
But what happens when the framework stays in place?
What happens when I am aware of my sin, such that when I fail, I cling to the cross in repentance, I seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Such that when I’m sinned against I am eager to extend the same grace that I myself have received from Christ?
What happens when I don’t have to pretend that my sin isn’t that sinful, or my spouse’s sin, or my child’s sin, because in Christ we have an adequate solution? We have something that is greater than our sin and able to rescue us and transform us—to bring something beautiful and life-giving out of the ugly and deadly course that has been walked?
What happens when I realize that God is not asking me to manufacture fruit in my life or my kids’ lives, that Christianity is not a try harder religion, but a trust Jesus more religion?
What happens when our identity is so anchored in Christ and our union with him, that we rest peacefully at night even on our worst days, and with humble gratitude even on our best? That we are confident in our right standing before God, regardless of how our hearts or our friends or the devil himself accuses us?
What happens when Christ becomes so sweet to us that we begin to hate our sin and love obedience? What happens when we see the shame and pain and sin in the world around us, and our hearts are burdened to share with them what God has given to us?
What happens when the gospel truly shapes our lives? I am more sinful than I can ever acknowledge or imagine. God’s grace is more sufficient than I can ever appreciate or conceive. Such is the beauty of the gospel. And once again, the gospel changes everything.
1. Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994), 18.
2. Timothy J. Keller, Gospel Christianity (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2003), 1.