Many people believe that even if we do not always obey God ---- we will be accepted by God, nevertheless. In this logic, the basic operating principle of Scripture is "I am accepted by God through the unmerited free grace due from the saving work of Jesus Christ ---- therefore, one does not always need to obey God. They believe we will be accepted by God through the work done by Jesus to establish the gift of grace, regardless of anything we do or have not done.
Other people believe they must always obey God because if they don't God will not answer their prayers, or take them to heaven upon their death. They say: "if we remove this fear and talk a lot about God's free grace and unmerited acceptance, what incentive will anyone have to live a morally good life?" It is argued that a Scriptural interpretation demanding total obedience to God is the best way to produce people who will be at their moral best throughout their everyday lives..
Now, consider that I might be saved only in proportion to my "good works" Wouldn't there thus be a limit on what God would want to do for me? I would be like a taxpayer with "rights". I would have done my civic duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved only by sheer grace ---- at God's infinite cost ---- then there's nothing more I need to ask of Him. However, we can see immediately that this wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace has two edges to it. On the one hand it cuts away my slavish fear of punishment by God. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. Yet one also knows that if Jesus really has done this for us, are we still totally free agents, and on our own,literally as our own master?. The benefit has been bought at a price.
But if, when you have lost all fear of punishment, perhaps you also have now lost all incentive to live an obedient life. So, what was your motivation in the first place? Perhaps it was only fear. What other incentive is there? How about GRATEFUL LOVE OF GOD?
Belief in Scripture is often how a person first makes a connection with God. It gives the person a new relationship with God and a new identity. We must not think, however, that upon believing Scripture, the Christian is now finished with the Gospel message. I like the idea that Martin Luther is alleged to have taught, which I paraphrase here ---- that 'religion' is the default mode of the human heart. One's "computer" operates automatically in a default mode unless you deliberately tell it to do something else. So, Luther thought that even after you are converted by Scripture, your heart will go back to operating on other principles unless you deliberately, repeatedly set it to "Scripture-mode".
We habitually and instinctively look to other things besides God and His grace as our justification, hope, significance and security. We believe Scripture at one level, but at deeper levels we do not. Human approval, professional success, power and influence, family and "tribe" identity ---- all of these things serve as our heart's "functional trust" rather than what Christ has done, and as a result we continue to be driven to a great degree by fear, anger and a lack of self-control. One cannot change such things through mere will-power, through simply reading Biblical principles and irregularly trying to carry them out. We must regularly "feed" on Scripture, digesting it and making it part of ourselves. That is how we will grow spiritually.
Faith in Scripture can restructure our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity and our view of the world. However, behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting.
God's grace is free, yes, but it is also costly in a sense ---- infinitely so. In his famous text, "The Cost of Discipleship", Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns about the dangers of what he calls "cheap grace", the belief which stresses that because God's grace is free to us, it doesn't really matter what rules we live by. The solution, he says, is not to return to legalism (not act like a Pharisee), but to focus on how seriously God takes sin and how only He can save us from sin at an infinite cost to Himself. Understanding this must and will profoundly reshape our lives. We will not be able to live in a selfish, cowardly way. We will stand up for justice, and sacrifice for our neighbor. And we won't mind the "cost" of following after Christ when we compare it to the price he paid to rescue us. We will enjoy a grateful love for Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer insisted that the people whose lives remained unchanged by the expectation of God's grace, didn't really understand its costliness. Therefore, that they really did not understand Scripture. They had a general idea of God's universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ's work on our behalf.
In the end, Martin Luther's old formula still sums things up nicely. As Luther would say, we are saved by faith alone [not just our works], but not by a faith that remains alone. Nothing we do can merit God's grace and favor. We can only believe that God has given the blessing of grace to us in Jesus Christ, and that we can therefore receive grace by faith. But, if we truly believe and trust in the one who sacrificially served us [Jesus], it changes us into people who sacrificially serve God and our neighbors. If we say "I believe in Jesus" but it doesn't affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith, so much as that we haven't truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping that you will discover some personal spiritual growth this Fall.