I am a self-taught guitarist. There was a time in my life when I genuinely thought I was the next Jimi Hendrix. I had long hair, torn jeans, and a pocketful of plectrums. I had my guitar, and my amp, I had musically minded friends, I had books, DVD’s, CD’s, in a sense I had everything I could possibly want or need. But I never became the world’s next great guitar player. That’s probably obvious to you, even if you’ve never met me! Every now and then I will plug in my guitar and offer an out of tune rendition of “Little Wing” or “The Wind Cries Mary,” but the reality is some of my passion for learning the guitar has faded away. Every so often I will make a resolution to really commit to playing the guitar. I say to myself “I’ll play the guitar for an hour a day” or “I’ll memorize the mixolydian scale” – but with any resolution my effort and desire seems to wane over time. Similarly, in the Christian life, we may feel like there are times when our enthusiasm and zeal for holy living are a bit like my guitar playing. Often what we do to compensate is try and make lots of resolutions, rules, and regulations. At least that’s what I do! Now, making resolutions, reading books, and going to conferences are all good things, but in themselves I don’t think they are not enough. Without a right understanding of grace, it is so easy to end up in legalism! Legalism isn’t just about salvation. We are absolutely saved by God’s grace and believing in the substitutionary death of Jesus in our place, not by works or by doing good things. But legalism easily can rear its ugly head in conversations about holiness. Because legalism tells us that if we do certain things, and perform in certain ways, then on the basis of that we can accrue a better standing or better favour from God. Nothing is further from the truth! As a result, I think it is vital to note that holiness and grace are intrinsically linked.
Paul wrote to the Church in Colossae and said, “so then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him.”[i] Paul is saying here that in the same way you received Jesus, which is by the grace of God, that’s how we grow in holiness. A focus on grace alone is key for our growth in holiness. In that sense, grace is not just the motivation for holiness, it is the cause. It strikes me that there is a big difference between giving someone some money and asking them to bake a cake, and getting together some flour, eggs, butter, and sugar, and step-by-step making a cake for someone. In the same way we can rest assured that “God’s power has given us everything we need to lead a godly life.”[ii] His grace isn’t simply a onetime down payment at the point of salvation and after that we’re on our own, it is the basis of our everyday experience of the Christian life.
All about Grace
I remember one summer, just after the birth of my twin daughters, we went camping at a Christian festival. We were excited to be there. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the way in any camping holiday, the first night saw a huge downpour of rain. Something our tent could simply not deal with. After a terrible night we woke up and everything was wet! The kids were wet, the clothes were wet. Camping at its finest! Then, early in the morning I had an idea. As my wife and elder children went off to the day’s activities, rather than going home, I would take the twin babies to town to buy a new tent. Unfortunately, as I got to the car, I found out that it wouldn’t start, so I walked to the nearest camping shop with two babies in car seats. I arrived at the shop, bought a tent, and only then did it dawn on me that I had to try and walk back to the campsite, uphill, with two babies in car seats, and a tent! I was weighed down and I needed help. In a similar way, in a world full of religions that want to load works, responsibilities, expectations, and demands upon us we can remember the grace of Jesus cuts through all of that and brings us release, forgiveness, and grace.
The Bible clearly tells us that we are saved by the grace of God, it’s not about us working hard or developing an impressive portfolio of good works so that God will approve.[iii] It’s not about working hard to climb a mountain of good works! It is about grace. That is exactly what Paul says in Ephesians 2:5 and 8.
“Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”[iv]
The key thing we see in Paul’s words to the Church in Ephesus is that our salvation is a gift from God. It is all about grace and not about works. So too is our continued growth in holiness. For example, if we take a moment to consider the charismatic movement, we might note that the word “charismatic” itself actually derives from the Greek word for “gifts” and focusses upon how the Holy Spirit himself gives gifts to the Church.[v] It is a huge mistake to think that we can somehow manipulate God into showing his power by saying the right prayer, doing the right things, or living in a certain way. In fact, when the Bible talks about miracles and the work of the Holy Spirit, it makes clear that these gifts are given as God determines. They are not earned. They are by grace and not by works or effort.
“God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”[vi] – Hebrews 2:4
“All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.”[vii] – 1 Corinthians 12:11
In that sense we can see how the New Testament teaches us that these gifts of the Holy Spirit also come via, through, and because of the Grace of God, his will, and his determination. We can’t earn salvation by doing good works. In the same way we can’t earn the gifts of the Holy Spirit by trying to do more religious activity. Every area of the Christian life is about grace, and importantly for us, holiness is all about grace. To be honest that might feel counterintuitive. Sort of like saying “dieting is all about donuts” or “football is all about footwear.” Just like the Galatian Christians, we can sometimes fall into the trap of beginning the Christian life through grace but wanting to carry on through our own effort. But when we can comprehend the link between grace and holiness, we will be set free to live the Christian life in all its fulness.
The best illustration I can think of is my wedding day. The nerves and excitement on the morning of the day, getting to the Church, making small talk with people as they arrived, and I distinctly remember waiting around at the front of Church nervously waiting for the music to start to let me know that Rachel was here. That day was a huge event which I will remember for the rest of my life, but it also has ramifications each and every day. The fact that we made those promises on that day resulted in four children, many holidays, adventures, house moves, ministry, and a marriage. All of that happens because of that one grey, cold day in April when two people said, “I do.” That day, that event, that moment, changed everything in my life. It’s not a perfect illustration, but in a far deeper and more profound way, one day 2000 years ago a Jewish Rabbi died a criminal’s death on a cross, and that one event impacts and influences every area of life. One day, one event, one moment, changed everything. The death of Jesus is the cause of our salvation, but it is also the cause of our sanctification. The connection between grace and holiness is vitally important for us to grasp as followers of Jesus, as it is all ultimately linked to, based upon, and flowing from, the death of Jesus. In that sense, it is impossible to talk about holiness without talking about grace. The author of Hebrews says this same thing when he makes this same connection between the death of Jesus and our own holiness:
“Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood” – Hebrews 13:12 NIV
[i] NIV, Col 2:6.
[ii] ESV, 2 Pet 1:3.
[iii] R. C. Sproul, What Is Faith?, vol. 8, The Crucial Questions Series (Lake Mary: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010), 53–54.
[iv] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), Eph 2:5,8.
[v] Stanley Grenz, David Guretzki, and Cherith Fee Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 25.
[vi] ESV, Heb 2:4. (emphasis added)
[vii] NIV, 1 Co 12:11. (emphasis added)