The Delicate Balance of Faith, Grace and Works :: By Andy Terry

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” Ephesians 2:8-9).

“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” (James 2:14).

You don’t have to be a meteorologist to observe the effects of the collision of warm and cold air masses. I’ve stood out in the front yard and watched the frightening beauty of a cold front slamming into a warm front, then watched the ensuing fireworks. The show can be ominous, noisy, often destructive and sometimes fatal. When the atmosphere slips out of balance, titanic cumulonimbus clouds rise to the fight and vie for control of the skies. I’ve witnessed a similar “titanic struggle” materialize between the pillars cited above. Super Saints will rise like anvil-laden thunderheads, quoting Paul’s words to the church in Philippi. In their wake, they’ll often leave the spiritual equivalent to storm damage, having soundly bludgeoned all within earshot.

Andy’s Lexicon:

SUPER SAINT. This is an individual who has adopted an air of spiritual or moral supremacy among their fellow believers. Symptomatic behavior includes: The belief that they have ascended to the next spiritual plane between earth and New Jerusalem; belief that God has provided them with special insights not understood by the Christian “hoi polloi.” Patronizing conversations with those still considered in their own estimation to be “carnal.”

RECOMMENDED TREATMENT. Liberal doses of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and time spent in front of the mirror have proven effective in treating Super Saint-ism.

An orderly God doesn’t contradict Himself. Obviously, a closer look is in order. In doing so, we’ll see that what appears contradictory isn’t, and that there is a delicate balance between grace and works. Salvation, “By Grace alone, through faith alone” is foundational to historic, biblical Christianity. Our participation in the miracle of biblical salvation is limited to our embrace and acceptance of this gift of divine favor.

To add ANYTHING else to the equation inserts a ‘work” of some stripe of color, and flies in the face of the statement. In fact, we could distill the statement down even further by stating that it’s not our faith, but God’s grace, by which we’re saved. We’re not saved because we rose above the battle and accepted the Divine Invitation, we may receive that invitation because our God is infinitely gracious. None could reach the bar of God’s perfection any easier than an Olympic high jumper could clear a 200-foot high jump.

The words of Paul in the epistle to the Ephesians are seminal to the historic doctrine of salvation. I hold this passage in Ephesians Chapter 2 near and dear for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it declares the miraculous means by which salvation is obtained. We’ve been saved by the incomprehensible Love of God the Father, through the atoning sacrifice of God the Son. It wasn’t through prayers of penance, acts of contrition, the giving of tithes and offerings or anything that I could have conceived in my mind that merited salvation.

It was nothing less than the unmerited favor of God. But this passage is special because as a student in homiletics, my first assignment in scriptural exegesis was to do an exegetical breakout of Ephesians 2:1-10. It was (and remains) a magnificent passage to cut one’s teeth on.

One epistle to the right of Ephesians is the epistle to the Philippians, and here we read the seeming contradiction to work out one’s salvation in “fear and trembling.” The ringer is found in the general epistle of James, where we read, that “Faith without works is dead.” Believers throughout the history of the church have noticed this apparent tension. Even Luther, when confounded by the apparent contradiction referred to James as the “Epistle of Straw”[1] as in his mind, it flew in the face of the Pauline doctrine of grace and faith.

For better or worse, I’ve run into extreme Arminianists along the pilgrim pathway who tend to use these latter verses as a club to beat their fellow pilgrims into a mold of their liking. Specifically, I’m speaking of those on the far edge who, view the “security of the believer” as presumption. In their dire zeitgeist, the saint is never more than a heartbeat away from losing his or her salvation and falling back into the abyss of the unredeemed.

These folks as a group, tend to place heavy emphasis on the “fear and trembling” and “works” while forgetting about “grace.” Also, I’ve encountered extreme Calvinists who’ve all but completely negated the former, while focusing entirely on the latter. The God of creation is a God of harmony and order, so it’s only logical that a scripturally-balanced fulcrum has to exist within the text of God’s Word. I believe that we’ll see this fulcrum there in the “Epistle of Straw.”

James, the stepbrother of our Lord, was an “every man” who could communicate and relate to every man ( women and child). From the witness of the gospels, we may conclude that prior to the resurrection of Jesus, he was dubious if not completely doubtful of big brother’s claims of Messiahship. It was during that interlude between Christ’s resurrection and ascension that James acknowledged the Lordship of the one who he’d known all his life as “my big brother, Jesus.”

This little brother became a passionate spokesman for Jesus, but he never asserted or sought any special status accorded to earthy royal relationships. His self-perception is seen in his salutation in the opening of his epistle, where he identifies himself simply as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any perceived contradictions evaporate when we consider the viewpoint of this servant as he wrote to the church in general.

Kent Hughes, in his commentary on the epistle sheds an insightful viewpoint. [2]According to Hughes, Paul approached the life of faith from an objective stance, taking time to engage counterviews while providing weighty scriptural background material from the Old Testament. James in contrast, approached the life of faith from a subjective stance. As we read James, we can see the flint striking the steel, hear the metallic resonance and feel the spark leap from the ensuing collision of elements.

Paul was an apologist to the preeminent, while James was an apologist to the pew. Concerning that fulcrum, let’s consider the passage in the second chapter of James in some detail.

There is a critical presupposition to keep in mind as we read James; he’s speaking to believers. This isn’t an evangelistic appeal to the unredeemed; it’s an appeal to those who’ve committed their lives and fortunes to the hands of the Savior. The epistle is written to the church at large, and deals with the conduct of those who would wear the moniker of “Christian.” With that said, let’s continue. Let’s for a moment think of the “works” cited in this passage as “fruits.” For the most part, fruit is harvested from trees and because we can pick an apple out of a lineup of fruit, when we see them hanging off of a tree, we can conclude that the tree in view is an apple tree.

Apple trees produce apples, not oranges. People are capable of good works and we’ve observed noble acts by folks who aren’t part of the family of faith. Spiritual fruit can only be produced in the lives of spiritual people. Regardless of perceived nobility or good intent, the unredeemed are incapable of producing these spiritual fruits or works. As we keep this in view, then the perceived contradiction begins its meltdown.

James in this passage actually compliments Paul’s thoughts in Ephesians 2. As we read beyond verse 9, we see language that points to our being God’s workmanship. This passage is given even greater weight in its original Greek as “workmanship” is seen in the Greek word poeima. the root of our contemporary word for “poem”

Paul reminds us that we were not simply redeemed in order to loll about in heavenly sunshine as the ages roll. No, we were redeemed that we might be conduits for God’s outworking; to be the “doer of deeds” that He ordained from eternity past. Taking this thought to its logical conclusion, if we’re not bringing forth fruitful works, or being God’s T-1 line to the world, then something is amiss in our divine relationship. We don’t perform good works in order to earn (or even maintain) our redemption; good works are a consequential byproduct of that divine redemption.

As to the idea of “fear and trembling” as seen in Philippians 2:12; the resolution again falls on context and construct. Paul is neither speaking of a God whose thoughts are of short-sheeting sheep nor a vindictive deity who sits with a quiver of lightning bolts, waiting to zap a stumbling saint. We need to zoom out and look at the greater context as seen in Philippians 2:12-18.

Paul calls the Philippians to live out their redemption with the senses of awe, wonder and reverence, because the Almighty is moving and working through their day-to-day lives. Think about it… The God, who spoke the sub-atomic particles into existence, is moving and working through our mundane lives. The Lord who let light trip from his lips and spun the stars and planets into orbit is moving actively in our lives on a daily basis. Awesome.

So, what’s the rub in the midst of all this? The balance between grace, faith and works falls on our understanding, first on the nature or God’s salvation, and second on our understanding of Scripture. If we profess to be among the redeemed but our branches are without fruit, we must engage in a round of soul searching. Are we fruitless because we haven’t truly been redeemed?

I’m speaking of mental ascent rather than a deep heart’s acceptance of the need for the Savior and true repentance. We may not have truly committed our lives and fortunes to God. Or are we fruitless because we’ve yet to seek God’s plan for our lives once we’ve turned to him? Or are we just plain (ouch!) lazy? Any of these will inhibit the production of spiritual works in our lives. To be true, the super saints do have an extremely limited point, though I have issues with their dire lack of love and compassion in the delivery of their message.

These spiritual works have not, do not, or will not EVER save us.

Soli Deo Gloria! (To God alone, be the glory!)

End Notes

[1] Phillip Unger, Unger’s Bible Handbook.

[2] R Kent Hughes, James, Faith that Works.