Often times grace and works are presented as opposites; either one has grace or one has works, but never both for they are mutually exclusive. A famous passage from Romans is usually quoted to demonstrate this dichotomy: “At this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Rom 11:5-6). Another useful verse is found in Galatians 5:4, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace.”
The general consensus among many groups today is that grace is irreparably at odds with works: grace is the new covenant of salvation, works is the old covenant. If one desires to live according to the will of God—that is, obey the commands of Christ—he/she runs the risk of falling from grace and becoming estranged, cut off, from Christ.
If the reader is not struck by the irony of this idea—that Christ has redeemed his followers from following Him—then perhaps he or she is too familiar with the teaching to take serious notice of its contradiction.
The problem, of course, is not with the verses mentioned, but with the implementation of them. If one believes that doing good works is a contradiction to grace, and grace the key to salvation, then why raise a finger? If a person is observant they will notice that the same groups who hold to this peculiar idea of grace are often the same groups who complain that today’s Christianity is not addressing the needs of society, that church has become a country club and not a house of worship and outreach, etc. Is it really a mystery? Is it not the inevitable outcome of flagging righteous living as an act of sedition against grace?
I want to look at a few verses and attempt to set the record straight as briefly as possible (long articles = no readers). St. Paul gives us the proper starting point in Romans 1:5, “Through Him (Jesus) we have received grace…for obedience to the faith.” Paul did not view grace as a means to escape obedience, but rather the empowerment of God “for obedience” to the faith. Without God’s grace it is impossible to be a disciple of Christ in this world. Paul says again in his first letter to the Corinthian Church that, “by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (15:10). Notice that he attributed his ability to labor in the work of God to the empowerment of grace.
A very telling verse is found in Romans 12:6 where Paul is describing the spiritual gifts. He says: “Having gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them…” From this verse one is reminded of Christ’s parable of the talents.
As the reader is probably already aware of the details of the parable, I will only make some brief points. Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them” (Mt 25:14). The parable goes on to explain that the Master gave 5 talents to one servant, 2 to another, and 1 to another. Upon his return the one given 5 talents invested them and doubled the talents for his master, likewise with the one who was given 2 talents. The master says to them, “well done, good and faithful servants; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you rulers over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” But then the servant who was given 1 talent hid the gift and returned it to his master saying, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.” Somehow this reasoning made sense to the servant, but not to the master. The master rebuked him and took his talent saying, “you wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown…etc, etc…cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness…” and that was that.
The last servant reminds me of much of the church today. They believe that God gave them the gift of grace, but they also believe that He is wholly in charge of it and does not require the cooperation of His children—if He wants something done He’ll do it with or without us; He “reaps where He hasn’t sown.” They think that they are exempt from investing the gift of God into the world on account of grace, when it is exactly the other way around. Because of God’s grace they are able to invest in good works. To not do so is not only “lazy” but is “wicked.” Being faithful, or ‘full of faith,’ means acting on the power that God has given, i.e. the power to be a disciple of Christ. When one does act on the grace given to him/her even more grace will be given. The gift that the wicked servant hid was not discarded by the master. No, it was given to the one who demonstrated that he would produce even more with it; it was given to the one who was faithful.