As we read through the Bible, it is clear to see that God asks much of us. This statement might sound confusing since Christianity is mainly characterised by grace. So, the question we are left with is ‘are grace and effort contradicting realities in the Christian life?’. And if they are not, how can we reconcile these two seemingly distinct realities?
Why can’t it be easy?
The Bible is replete with promises for the Christian. Jesus offers us eternal life (John 3:16, John 14:6), freedom (Galatians 5:1, John 8:36), love (John 15:9, Ephesians 3:18-19), joy (John 15:11, John 17:3), peace (Philippians 4:7, John 14:27), comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3) and security (Romans 8:35-39, John 17:12). Jesus doesn’t just offer these promises, but so much more, so it is understandable as to why many find it difficult that the Christian life would require effort. There are some that argue that sanctification should be effortless and that faith in God should be unshakeable since, if you’re a Christian, you have been united with Christ. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it undermines two things that have been made available for the Christian; The Church and God Himself – The Holy Spirit. The fact that the Christian life requires effort doesn’t undermine the power of the cross, it confirms it. Christ set His affection on helpless sinners, lived for them, died for them, rose from the dead for them and now reigns supreme for them. Now this resurrected Christ grafts these redeemed sinners into His body (The Church) and empowers them by His Spirit (The Holy Spirit) to live out holy lives (1 Peter 2:9-10). And the scriptures inform us that we need the Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-26) and the Holy Spirit (John 14:16)
We often forget
The scriptures don’t just give us many promises but also has many commands. And if the Spirit of God lives inside each believer then surely obedience should be easy? Experientially and scripturally, we see that obedience is not easy; hence why we have the Holy Spirit who causes us to obey (Ezekiel 36:27) and the Church who is called to bear with its members (Ephesians 4:2). Jesus makes it clear throughout the gospels that obedience to God is evidence of love for God (John 14:15). So, why do Christians fall short so often when upon conversion the love of God has been poured into their hearts? (Romans 5:5). Well, Paul puts it like this :
“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”Romans 7:18-19
Here we see Paul express the reality that is common with every believer, you have received Christ and your heart has been changed as evidenced by new desires and behaviours, yet you still find yourself drawn to the things antithetical to your newfound faith. And as we are tempted by these former loves we forget the glorious truth of the gospel – Jesus is better. This is why God in His infinite wisdom calls for us to be in community (the local church) so that we are constantly reminded of this and can help each other combat the sins that wage war against our soul (1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 10:23-25).
Not by works alone
The danger with acknowledging that Christianity requires effort may result in both Christians and non-Christians thinking that their effort somehow merits their righteousness before God. It doesn’t. We are saved by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8). We are also kept by grace alone (Jude 24). The effort we produce to live right is by grace (1 Corinthians 15:10), furthermore the desire to initially want to do what is right is also by grace (2 Thessalonians 1:11). We can take no credit for any act of righteousness we do because all righteousness ultimately comes from God.
Paul lets the Christian know that God is willing and working within our efforts for His glory. In other words, our effort is energised by God’s grace for God’s glory and our good.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”Philippians 2:12-13
The undergirding of our Christian efforts is the God who works in our efforts for His glory. The God who calls us to obey gives us the heart to want to obey and delight in obeying (1 John 5:3). This should cause the believer to have great joy because the Christian walk does not rely on our strength but on God. Therefore we can trust that God will grant us the grace to empower our Christian efforts for His glory and our good.