Obedience vs. Grace?

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Can we "earn" salvation by obedience to God? What does God's grace mean for Christians? Is it a "free pass" for when we sin, or is it a powerful tool to help us practice the Way Jesus Christ taught His followers? You need to know!


Some say, "Just believe, and you will be saved!" Their idea is that anything else is a false "salvation by works." Others say that there is some set of regulations that will "earn" you a better place in the afterlife. What is the truth of the matter? The answer may surprise you!

Is obedience to God at odds with accepting His grace? After a Christian receives God's grace, does God require anything more?

God tells us to repent and be baptized, but is that "salvation by works"? Many professing Christians greatly misunderstand the roles of grace and obedience in their lives. They do not understand what the Bible really teaches about obedience to Jesus Christ, and what it means to salvation.

At some time in your life, someone has probably asked you the question: "Have you been saved?" How did you respond? We know that all who respond to God's calling, and who genuinely repent and are baptized, will be forgiven of their sins, and will be given the gift of the Holy Spirit—the spiritual power enabling them to live a new life. But what does it really mean to respond to God's calling?

On the day of Pentecost in 31ad, in the first inspired sermon of the New Testament Church, the Apostle Peter spoke in Jerusalem to several thousand people, after which they became convicted for their part in killing the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Thousands asked Peter and the other Apostles: "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37).

Here was Peter's opportunity to tell them that they did not need to do anything more than "believe." Did he tell them so? No! What did he actually say? "Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit'" (Acts 2:38).

Peter proclaimed wonderful news—that they could be forgiven of their sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this to occur, he insisted on two points—that they repent, and that they be baptized.

If you had been listening to Peter, grieving over your part in Christ's death and wanting to change your life and receive forgiveness, what would you have done? Would you have argued with Peter: "I won't repent! I won't be baptized! Those are works, and I don't have to earn my salvation!"? If you had done so, you would have been arguing against many of God's plain instructions, including these basic New Testament teachings.

Of course, no one can earn salvation. But a willful disobedience against God's instructions is a sure sign that you have not really repented or become truly converted.

How did the crowd respond on this first Day of Pentecost in the New Testament Church? Scripture shares the wonderful news. "Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:41–42).

On that day, 3,000 new Christians obeyed God's instruction—they repented and were baptized. They did as Jesus had told all Christians to do: "Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel'" (Mark 1:14–15).

What Is Repentance?

Peter's instructions were plain and simple—yet many today do not agree with his clear proclamation of God's word. Today, we find many who emotionally desire to be "saved" but who ignore the serious matter of repentance, which must precede baptism.

Just what is repentance? The Greek word translated "repent" is metanoeo, which means to "think differently." One must repent of—think differently about—one's sin. But what is sin? "Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness." (1 John 3:4). The King James Version puts it plainly—"sin is the transgression of the law." When you transgress one of the Ten Commandments, you have sinned. As the Apostle James wrote: "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' also said, 'Do not murder.' Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty" (James 2:10–12).

When we repent of sin, we are deeply sorry for having transgressed God's law. We no longer have a hostile attitude toward God and His law of liberty. We no longer have a carnal attitude that is enmity against the law of God (cf. Romans 8:7). After repentance, we want to be in harmony with God's law of love—the Ten Commandments. Repentance brings a deep change in our thinking, and a commitment to live by every word of God. As Jesus said: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God" (Luke 4:4).

Repentance is more than an intellectual awareness of sin. Genuine repentance brings deep sorrow for our sins. Think of the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears (cf. Luke 7:38). This is deep repentance.

We should be aware that there is also a worldly sorrow that is not genuine repentance. Notice Paul acknowledging the Corinthians' repentance: "Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (2 Corinthians 7:9–10).

Some criminals express worldly sorrow, saying that they are sorry for their crimes (or sins), when in fact they are saying, deep down: "I'm sorry for getting caught" or "I'm sorry for the guilt I'm feeling, or for suffering the penalty for my crime. But if I get a chance to commit another crime, I will." It is not only criminals who have this worldly sorrow. Many who become addicted to oppressive and unhealthful habits—sexual sins, drug abuse or misuse of alcohol—may feel a kind of sorrow, regretting the consequences that come with their behavior. However, without a genuine change of heart, and without a change of behavior, their continual sinning will lead to death! The sorrow of the world leads to death!

Godly sorrow—true repent-ance—brings different, better fruit. Notice its characteristics, as described in Scripture: "For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter" (2 Corinthians 7:11).

Think and Act Differently!

Those who have genuinely repented both think differently and behave differently. They are serious in their commitment to change their lives! Such individuals will actually make dramatic changes in response to the grace they have received. Remember what John the Baptist said to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to his baptism? "Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, 'Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance'" (Matthew 3:5–8).

If we continue to practice sin with no change in our attitude or life, there is no genuine repentance. Psalm 51 is David's acknowledgement of his sin. Read that Psalm and it will help you understand more deeply. Notice that David did not ask for "justice"! Justice for David would have meant the death penalty. "The wages of sin is death" for us all (Romans 6:23)! So, in his repentant attitude, David asked for mercy. "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin" (Psalm 51:1–2).

David acknowledged his sin! He prayed earnestly for God to cleanse him. Have you ever prayed that way? "For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight; that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge" (vv. 3–4).

How did David sin "only" against God? David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. He sent Bathsheba's soldier-husband Uriah to the front lines to be killed. Certainly David "sinned" against them. But God commanded: "You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:13–14). David sinned against the Lawgiver, and came under God's death penalty.

David's repentance sets an example for all of us. We all need that humble and contrite attitude! "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart; these, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:17).

A License To Sin?

After we come to the point of repentance, as David did, and we obey Christ's instruction to be baptized, we are forgiven of all our past sins and we begin to walk in newness of life. How, then, should we continue to respond to the unmerited pardon and grace that God has given us? Notice: "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1–2). Should a newly begotten Christian, whom God has forgiven and granted grace (unmerited forgiveness and pardon), continue to transgress God's law and disobey God? Paul says plainly: "Certainly not!" The biblical evidence is overwhelming. We cannot continue to disobey God willfully and be given the gift of salvation! Paul was dealing with false Christians who were trying—as do many today—to use grace as a license to sin!

The Apostle Jude also condemned this unbiblical approach to grace. "For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 4, KJV). The New Revised Standard Version states that these "intruders… pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness." The New International Version words it this way: "They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality."

How many professing Christians are doing just that today? Those who pervert the grace of God are saying by their conduct: "We are free to transgress the Ten Commandments; we don't need to obey God and keep His commandments!" That is wrong! That form of rebellion is carnality, not conversion! Converted Christians recognize that keeping God's commandments is an expression of love. The first four commandments show us how to love God, and the last six commandments show us how to love our neighbors. As the Apostle John wrote: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3)—or "not grievous" as the KJV has it.

So, as the Apostle Paul strongly stated, we cannot continue to live under grace if we are practicing sin at the same time. No truly repentant Christian would want to practice sin while claiming grace. The true Christian has "died to self" at baptism, as Paul explains: "Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3–4). That "burial" is symbolized by the repentant sinner's complete immersion in water.

The Holy Spirit

We cannot grow spiritually without God's Spirit. God gives a repentant sinner the gift of the Holy Spirit after baptism.

God expects us to exercise active faith. He expects that we will trust Him to the point that we will actually do what He tells us to do. Jesus warned His followers, "But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46). We need to do as He did! Remember, even Jesus Himself set the example of being baptized in obedience to God's instructions!

Notice that this gift of God's Spirit is given by the laying on of hands by God's true servants. The Apostles "laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:17). The Holy Spirit is the spiritual power from God that begets us as His children and empowers us to grow spiritually.

We need the Holy Spirit to overcome the downward pull of human nature. Paul described his struggles with human nature: "I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin" (Romans 7:25).

Notice Paul's attitude of obedience. Will God give the Holy Spirit to those who have an attitude of disobedience? No, He will not! As Peter plainly stated, "And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him" (Acts 5:32). God will not give the gift of the Holy Spirit to those in an attitude of disobedience.

Peter and the Apostles continually demonstrated an attitude of obedience to God. Notice Peter's boldness in speaking to the Jews' Sanhedrin. This council had commanded the Apostles not to preach in the name of Jesus. What was their response? "But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: 'We ought to obey God rather than men'" (Acts 5:29).

One of the themes of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that obedience to God brings blessings, and disobedience to God brings curses. You can receive God's grace—His wonderful blessings and His gift of eternal life—through Jesus Christ our Lord. Remember, though, that God will only give His free gift of salvation to those who are willing to repent, to believe and to obey Him. As Peter wrote: "For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now 'If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?'" (1 Peter 4:17–18).

Your Bible reveals God's awesome plan of salvation. Salvation is a free gift, which we could never earn. Most Bible students are familiar with one of the fundamental scriptures on the subject: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8–9). Notice that God's grace is a gift, but faith for salvation is also a gift of God! Verse 10 is often overlooked by those who turn grace into a license to sin: "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). Our response to God's grace produces good works, and we walk in them; that is, we continually produce good works. We must bear the fruit of true Christianity in our lives.

Jesus Christ is our living Savior. We shall be saved by His life (Romans 5:10)! I hope that you will receive God's grace, obey His will, and participate in His wonderful plan of salvation!

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