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THE GRACE/WORKS CONTROVERSY

 

         On page 34 of Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life,  Pastor Warren writes:
  "One day you will stand before God, and he will do an audit of your life, a final exam, before you enter eternity.” 

        Warren says God will ask us two crucial questions during this “final exam.”  “What did you do with my Son, Jesus Christ?  What did you do with what I gave you?”  Warren says the first question will determine where you will spend eternity and the second question will determine what you do in eternity.  Warren supports this perspective by quoting what Apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Rome. 

       Remember, each of us will stand personally before the judgement seat of God…. Yes, each of us will have to give a personal account to God (Romans 14:10, 12 (New Living Translation [NLT]). 

       The implication is that at the time of our physical death, we will be judged as to what we did while in the flesh and such judgement will determine our eternal destiny. Will God do an audit of our life and present us with a final exam before we enter eternity as Warren suggests?  Will God ask us what we did with his son and what we did with what he gave us?    To begin answering this question, we must determine when the Christian enters eternity. Jesus Christ made it very clear during his ministry that we cross over from death to life at the point of believing on Christ and keeping His word.   

        John 5:24:  I tell you the truth; whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.

        John 6:47: I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.

        John 8:51:  I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.

        John 11:26: Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

        Since we all physically die, including those Christ addressed these statements to, it should be apparent that when Christ speaks of life and death in these statements, He is speaking of spiritual life and death. The Greek word translated “condemnation” in John 5:24 is krisis. This word appears 48 times in the New Testament and is translated Judgement 42 times in the KJV.  The basic meaning of this word is to render a decision.  Christ said that if we believe in Him and keep His words we will not face judgement.  We will not face a rendering of decision. 

        If we place our faith in Christ, the decision regarding our eternity has already been made.  Spiritually we have already entered eternity by placing our faith in Jesus Christ.  At physical death our spirit continues to be alive.  If we are in Christ, we have already been audited and had our final exam in regard to where we will spend eternity. There would be no need for God asking us what we did with His Son. That question would have been answered.

        Will God, as Warren suggests, ask us what we did with what God gave us and will that determine what we do in eternity?  Let's continue to examine these issues. What is Paul talking about in Romans 14 when he speaks of everyone standing before God’s judgement seat?  Let’s look at this passage in a regular translation versus the paraphrase that Warren uses.

        Romans 14:10-12: For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. It is written: "`as surely as I live,' says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"  So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. 

        If you read the entire fourteenth chapter of Romans, you will see  Paul is dealing with the issue of the brethren judging each other relative to how their eating habits impact on their relationship with God.  He instructs them that they should not be judging each other. He shows that God is the judge of all men and therefore we should not be judging each other.  Paul’s primary focus in this passage is to stop the judging of others that was going on in the Roman Church.  Paul does say, however, that we will stand before God’s judgement seat and give an account of ourselves. Paul says something very similar in his second letter to the Corinthian Church. 

        2 Corinthians 5:10: For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body whether good or bad.

        Is Paul saying  the good or bad we do in life determines how and where we spend eternity?  Is Paul talking about some kind of “final exam” where God is going to review all that we have done in life and on that basis decide our fate?  Look what Paul writes to the Romans:

        Romans 2:6-8: God will give to each person according to what he has done.  To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, He will give eternal life.  But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and fellow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 

        Paul appears to be saying eternal life is tied to our persistence in doing good works.  Since eternal life equals salvation, how does what Paul says here equate with the concept of salvation by grace and grace alone?  What does Peter write?

        2 Peter 1:1-10:  Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,   To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:   Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.  His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.   Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to (Greek: provide for) your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall.

        Peter lists a number of qualities of character and concludes by saying; “For if you do these things, you will never fall” The implication is that if we don’t do these things we could fall.  Is Peter teaching works as the pathway to salvation?  How do we view what Peter and Paul say about works compared to what Paul says about salvation being not of works but through the grace of God?   Paul unequivocally teaches that salvation is not by what we do but comes as a gift from God.

        Ephesians 2:8-9:  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast.

         If salvation is a gift from God, why all this talk about works in relation to salvation?  Why does Paul speak of being judged relative to the deeds done while in the flesh?  Why does a Rick Warren speak about being audited and taking a final exam before we enter eternity? The answer to this question is to understand the role that faith plays in the salvation process versus the role of grace.

       Throughout the scriptures we see exhortations to express faith in Christ. Our passing from death unto life is contingent upon expressing faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Let us revisit the teachings of Christ as recorded in the book of John.      

        John 5:24: I tell you the truth; whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.

       John 11:26: Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

       You will note that passing from death unto life is contingent upon belief in Christ.  This belief includes hearing his words and living in Christ.  What does it mean to believe in Christ?   In Acts 16 when the Philippian jailer was told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and he would be saved, what was meant by that statement?  Were Paul and Silas simply requesting that the jailer express recognition of the fact that Christ paid the penalty for his sins or is there a broader meaning inherent in the expression of faith in Christ? 

        Many scriptures show that faith in Christ is defined by obedience to what Christ taught. Faith is not simply the acknowledgement that Christ’s sacrifice covers our sins.  Faith in Christ is characterized by submission and obedience to his will.  Loving Christ and behaving according to what He taught is what defines faith in Christ.  Simply said, if there is no obedience, there is no faith and if there is no faith there is no salvation.  It is faith that facilitates salvation.  There are many scriptures that show this.

        The classic passage is James 2:14-26.  James asks the question, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can faith save him?”  Verse 17: “Faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.”  Verse 24: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”  Verse 26: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead."

        What does James mean by saying a man is justified by what he does and not by faith alone?  Isn’t justification the result of God applying Christ’s sacrifice to us so we don’t have to pay the penalty of eternal death?  Isn’t justification the process of being made righteous before God because of what Christ did on the cross?  Isn’t being made righteous a free gift from God through Christ?  How can it be free if there is something we have to do?  Didn’t Paul say to the Galatians that we are justified by faith in Christ and not by keeping the Law?  Are James and Paul at odds here?

        Galatians 2:15-16: A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

        Paul is not saying that there is no observance of law connected with faith in Christ. Faith in Christ presupposes obedience to what Christ taught along with our recognition and acceptance of His sacrifice for our sins.  It is not obedience to law, however that saves us.  Salvation is the result of God’s grace bestowed upon us because of our acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice.  Our acceptance of Christ, however, includes our response to what He taught.

      Faith and grace play different roles in the salvation process.  To have faith in Christ is to know and believe what He taught.  The apostle John wrote, “The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). Scriptures as these define faith in Christ as doing what he says. Therefore, faith in Christ involves works.  Remember what Paul said to the Ephesian Church: 

        Ephesians 2:8-9:  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. 

        Paul is saying in the same breath that works don’t save us and yet we are created in Christ to do good works.  What is he talking about?

         It is apparent, when putting all the scriptures together that bare on this issue, that faith facilitates the granting of salvation by God.  Many scriptures show repentance to be a prerequisite to receiving salvation.  Repentance means to change.  When we express faith in Christ we are essentially saying that we want to change from being a sinner (lawless) to being obedient (righteous).  Faith in Christ does not grant us salvation.  Faith facilitates salvation.  There is a difference.  Faith in Christ brings us to want to change our behavior and have the penalty for past bad behavior (sin) removed.  God acknowledges our faith and reconciles us to himself by the gracious act of forgiving the penalty of death that our sin incurred.  That is why Paul says that it is by grace we are saved through faith.  Faith doesn’t save us; God’s grace saves us.  God’s grace is made available because of what Christ did on the cross.

        God removes the death penalty as a favor.  This is what the word grace means.  It means favor.  Once this favor is granted, we appear perfectly righteous before God even though our human behavior will still be less than perfectly righteous.  As long as we continue to express faith in Christ, we continue to be the recipient of God’s grace.  By definition, however, that faith involves obedience to the teachings of Christ.  As the apostle John said, we can’t say we love Christ and not do what he says.   What if we sin?  What if we fail to obey Christ?  We still have human nature and we will sin.  John gives the answer:  

        1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

         So is there a “final exam” as Warren proposes?  When we express faith in Christ, God grants us salvation.  We pass from death unto life. We already have eternal life abiding within us. We won’t need to pass a final exam.  Our exam is the ongoing process of remaining faithful to Christ.

        We must understand, however, that our faith in Christ is more than just acknowledging Christ as Savior.  Faith in Christ is defined by changed behavior. God expects us to continue expressing our faith in Christ by living our lives in response to His teachings.  John the Baptist told the religious leaders of his day to show the fruit of their expression of repentance.

        Matthew 3:7-8: But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

         When Paul was defending himself before King Agrippa, he told the King how in his ministry he not only taught repentance, but taught that repentance must be verified by a change in behavior.

         Acts 26:20: First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.

         It is not enough to say “I repent.”  A proclamation of repentance must be demonstrated by changed behavior.  That is what James is saying when he concludes that faith without works is dead.  Paul taught that repentance is what leads to salvation.

        2 Corinthians 7:10:  Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation.

        Repentance is the expression of faith in God. Faith is demonstrated through repentance which is changed behavior.  It is not our changed behavior, however, that grants us salvation.  Salvation is a gift from God.  Our demonstration of faith in Christ through changed behavior brings us to God and facilitates reconciliation with God which results in God granting us salvation as a gift.  Salvation demands perfect righteousness. Only the perfect righteousness of Christ applied to us can bring about our salvation.  Our salvation is guaranteed if we remain faithful to Christ. 

        Why then does Paul speak of appearing before the judgement seat of Christ?  Why did the writer to the Hebrew Christians say that it is appointed unto men once to die and then the judgement? (Hebrews 9:27)   The word translated into the English “judgement” is the same word translated condemnation in John 5:24 where Christ said that those who believe in him will not come into judgement because they have already passed from death unto life.

         Judgement for the Christian appears to relate to the level of reward over and above the gift of salvation itself.  This is indicated by what Paul told the Corinthian Christians.

          I Corinthians 3:9-15:  “For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.  By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work.   If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” 

        The implication is that Christ is the foundation upon which we all build.  It is through Christ we receive the free gift of salvation from God.  Our faith in Christ will result in different levels of response to Christ.  The quality of our response to Christ will determine our level of reward.  Some will build a high quality response to Christ as characterized by gold, sliver and costly stones which will survive fire.  Others will have a response to Christ characterized more by wood, hay or straw which does not survive fire all that well.  Paul says, If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved.”

        Paul is not saying that our salvation is dependent upon our works. Salvation is a free gift from God in response to faith in Christ.  Works are expected, however, as an expression and demonstration of our faith in Christ and we will be rewarded as to the quality of such works. 

         What if there are no works at all as an expression of our faith in Christ.  That really is a contradiction.  Faith in Christ presupposes works.  In Paul’s analogy he speaks of building something, even if it may not be of the highest quality.  Not to build anything is tantamount to rejecting Christ. So what should our approach be?  Let’s go back to 2 Peter, the first chapter verses five through ten:

        Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall.

        God expects us to give affirmation to our faith in Christ by how we conduct our lives. Peter said, “Make every effort” to express righteous standards of conduct in our lives.   We will never do this perfectly.  That is why there is grace. 

         So is there a final exam?  Is there some future audit of all that we did while in this physical body?  If there is, it has nothing to do with our salvation.  Our salvation is established as long as we continue to make the effort to please God by practicing the law of love.  Peter said: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God” (1 Peter 4:17) Paul told the Corinthian Church:  “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment” (1 Corinthians 11:31).

         In other words, we need to look in the mirror.  We need to do a daily audit to insure we are responding to the grace of God by showing evidence of our faith in Christ. As Christians, our exam is going on daily. This continual exam is for the purpose of insuring we are pursuing righteous behavior as a demonstration of our love for Christ and what He taught. Our salvation is guaranteed if we continue to put forth the effort to be faithful to Christ. We have the assurance that if we continue to respond to the grace of God by making the effort to please God, we will be with God for all eternity. 

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