If It’s Works, It’s Not Grace, Part 1

Peter Ditzel

A Euler diagram of two, separate circles. One is labeled grace and the other is labeled works. The diagram shows that there is no intersection between the two sets. Grace and works are separate.
Grace is God’s unmerited pardon. Jesus Christ purchased grace for His people by His atoning sacrifice on the Cross, and God gives that grace freely to believers (Romans 5:15-19). For grace to be grace, it must be entirely apart and distinct from works. It must be pure. It can never be mixed with our works.

Something I’ve learned over the years is that many people profess to believe in salvation by grace alone received by faith alone. Yet, a good number of those same people throw works into the formula, often without even knowing it. You might be one of them. The Bible clearly teaches, “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work” (Romans 11:6). Like oil and water, grace and works don’t mix. Our salvation either stands on grace or it falls on works. Let’s look at some commonly held beliefs and see what they’re really based on.

Myth: We’re Justified by Grace, but Then It’s Work, Work, Work

A very commonly held belief is that God justifies us (declares us not guilty and legally righteous) by grace through faith, but that our Christian life from that point on is a struggle to keep the law and overcome our sinful nature. Romans 3:28 is taken to imply that “a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” but the common thinking is that the works of the law most certainly play a part in the rest of our lives. Yet, neither this verse nor its context say or imply such an interpretation.

Romans 3:31 is also cited to prove a Christian life of law-keeping: “Do we then nullify the law through faith? May it never be! No, we establish the law.” Does this mean that we are still under the law? Not at all. It’s merely a reference back to Romans 3:21: “But now a righteousness of God has been revealed apart from Law, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” That is, the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament) give witness to the time of grace that came with Jesus Christ when righteousness would be manifested apart from the law. In short, faith establishes the Law because it is the fulfillment of what the Law (and the Prophets) pointed to—the time of the New Covenant when righteousness not connected with the law would be revealed.

But what about this from a famous evangelist?

The kingdom requires earnest endeavor, untiring energy, utmost exertion…. There’s a battle there, but you must enter. You must enter this narrow gate; you must enter alone; you must enter with difficulty;… It’s the gate of self-denial. Strip off all the sin and self and self-righteousness.

John MacArthur, “The Only Road to Heaven

Notice that John MacArthur isn’t saying that Jesus met all of the requirements of the kingdom for us, and now that we are justified and saved, God will work in us to produce good works. No, he’s saying that the kingdom requires all of this endeavor and energy and exertion and battle from us!

Elsewhere, MacArthur says, “False confidence comes from a gospel of cheap grace where one can believe without any cost to themselves (contrary to Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-38)” (“Sin and the Work of the Spirit”). Do you see that John MacArthur is teaching that we can’t receive grace merely through believing, and that there is a personal cost to the believer to receive grace? That is a false gospel!

MacArthur’s citing Mark 8:34-38 to support his position is also off base. Read those verses. Is denying and dying to our old sinful self and following Jesus really a great cost to us? Do we come out losers for following Jesus?

What was the cross to Christ? It was the symbol of the death that was yet ahead of Him when He spoke those words in Mark 8. So, what is our taking up our cross and following Christ? It is the gift of trusting in Christ and thereby following Him by dying to our old sinful selves, being buried with Christ, and rising with Him to a new life. Paul taught this very thing:

We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will also be part of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be in bondage to sin

Romans 6:4-6

Colossians 2:12-14 says basically the same thing, adding the important fact that Jesus wiped out and nailed to His cross the “handwriting in ordinances which was against us”—the law.

All we do is live the new life that is now in us. There’s no struggle , striving, or works.

Taking up our cross, following Jesus, and losing our lives is not a task, or a work we do. It’s a Christ-centered, grace-centered, Gospel-centered gift. In first-century Judea (as well as in other times and places) following Jesus meant being willing to be ostracized from society, friends, and family. But that’s all part of what we die to. It’s not a price we pay. None of this is a self-generated work. This total reversal of mind is a gift freely given to us. It’s merely dying to what is sinful, corrupt, passing away, and worthless while gaining what is priceless: “Yes most certainly, and I count all things to be a loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). With Jesus both the author and finisher (perfector) of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), what do these “works people” think they’re adding to it?

Augustus Toplady seemed to know this truth when he wrote,

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;...
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
From “Rock of Ages”

“Nothing in my hands I bring.” We can add nothing to our salvation. Not a single work comes from us.

Myth: Despite Grace, the Believer Can Sin and Must Work and Struggle

One of the quotes from John MacArthur above comes from his commentary on 1 John 3. Yet, in that very chapter, the apostle points out that by virtue of our abiding in Christ (1 John 3:6), our being born of God (1 John 3:9), we don’t sin. John even says we “can’t sin” (which strictly translates as “he doesn’t have the power to sin”). Many preachers exhibit double-jointed spines when they try to explain these verses. They usually wind up saying that all John really means is that we don’t sin as a habit. Rubbish! John could hardly be clearer. The believer “doesn’t sin,” “doesn’t commit sin,” “can’t sin.”

Paul says the same thing in Romans 8. Sin condemns, but believers have no condemnation because Christ has freed them from the law of sin and death. Just as those under the law can only sin continually, those under grace can only do righteousness continually. It comes naturally. Even when we do something the law would have considered sin, it doesn’t count as sin because we’re not under the law. Read all of Romans 8 and 1 John 3. Nothing could be more gracious. There’s no striving here. It’s all resting in grace and living as new creatures in Christ.

No matter what we may think of ourselves, God sees no sin because He’s not looking through law-colored glasses.

Myth: Belief Alone Is Nasty “Easy Believism” and “Cheap Grace”

Have you ever analyzed Jesus’ words in the following famous passage?

For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him. He who believes in him is not judged. He who doesn’t believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.

John 3:16-18

Jesus here shows us that salvation and condemning judgment are founded upon belief and unbelief respectively. Believing on Jesus is the way we freely receive the salvation He paid the price for. “Earnest endeavor, untiring energy, utmost exertion” or whatever other human work you might name have no place in salvation. And most certainly, God does not, as John MacArthur asserted, expect us to strip off our own sin! Jesus Christ has freely given us all that is necessary for our salvation, including the ability to believe. No exertion by the Christian is part of this deal.

If God has sovereignly given a sinner the gift of belief, then believing is easy and grace is free. If God has not given that gift, then all of the effort in the universe won’t result in true belief, and it won’t buy grace. Preachers who denigrate “easy believism” and “cheap grace” denigrate the gift of God and preach a message that is contrary to the Gospel itself.

Myth: “It’s Very, Very Difficult to Be Saved”

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says,

Enter in by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter in by it. How narrow is the gate, and restricted is the way that leads to life! Few are those who find it.

Matthew 7:13-14

Anyone who understands sovereign grace should know that, in those verses, Jesus is speaking of the fact that His atonement would be for the elect only, who are a relative few compared to the rest of the world. What is the narrow gate? What is the restricted way? Rather, I should ask, Who? Jesus called Himself the door (John 10:7). Jesus said, “”I am the way” (John 14:6). Jesus as a gate is narrow; Jesus as a road is restricted; few find Him because His atonement is limited.

Commenting on these verses from Matthew 7, John MacArthur says,

Now, without shocking you too much, I believe it’s very, very difficult to be saved. Did you hear that? Let me show you why. It says at the end of verse 14, regarding the narrow gate, and regarding the narrow way, “Few there be that” – what – “find it.” The first implication is that you’re not even going to know it’s there unless you’re what? Looking. The Old Testament prophet said, “You’ll find Me,” says God, “when you search for me with all your heart.” I don’t believe anybody ever slipped and fell into the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe it’s easy. That’s cheap grace, easy-believism.

John MacArthur, “Which Way to Heaven

So, according to John MacArthur, unless our salvation comes with difficulty, requiring work on our part, it’s not real. Belief alone is “easy believism,” and free grace is “cheap grace.” MacArthur selectively misuses an Old Testament Scripture that specifically applies to the children of Israel in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 4:29), and he ignores the Old Testament prophecy of New Covenant times that Paul uses, “Isaiah is very bold, and says, ‘I was found by those who didn’t seek me. I was revealed to those who didn’t ask for me’” (Romans 10:20, quoting Isaiah 65:1). MacArthur has apparently forgotten Jesus’ words:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, “They will all be taught by God.” Therefore everyone who hears from the Father, and has learned, comes to me.

John 6:44-45

Jesus doesn’t speak of effort and difficulty and grubbing around looking for the narrow gate. If the Father draws people, they will find Jesus, they will hear, they will learn, and the Father will raise them up in the last day. It is that easy. It is that free. Jesus didn’t say, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you great difficulty. Take my yoke upon you because it’s heavy and full of sharp spikes, for I am a hard taskmaster, and you will have to work, work, work your way along that grueling road.”

Belief Alone and Free Grace Do Not Cause False Converts

We do not have false converts in Christianity because belief is easy and grace is cheap or free. We have false converts because so many preachers obfuscate the Gospel (or, perhaps, their false gospel) with emotional sermons, altar calls, stirring music, entertainment, unbiblical messages about such things as prosperity; so many preachers confuse people by telling them to do something (come down to the front, repeat certain words, be sorry for your sins, promise to stop sinning, go to church every week). The flesh is naturally bent toward works-based religion. Hard believism and expensive grace is very appealing. These people never understood what the Gospel is in the first place, let alone believed it. They believed something else and thought it was the Gospel.

There are also inevitably those people on the stony ground and among the weeds who hear the Gospel, are enthusiastic about it, seem to believe, but ultimately fall away (Matthew 13:5-7). Is the problem easy believism and cheap grace? No. The problem is in them. They’re not elect. Must we run everyone through the gauntlet to test his or her perseverance before we accept that person into the fold? Of course not. That’s adding works to the Gospel message. It’s judging our professed brother.

I want to point out that I cite John MacArthur, not because he stands alone in these teachings, but because he is a prominent leader in them and wields great influence. Many others say much the same thing. Also, I’m not judging the salvation of John MacArthur or others. The Bible tells us that even if a person teaches some heresy, it does not mean he or she is not saved (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). Our job isn’t to start judging people (Matthew 7:1), but to discern their teachings (Matthew 7:15-20). Of course, consistent teachings contrary to the Gospel reveal someone to be a ravening wolf. Lord willing, I’ll address this further in a future article.

In Part 2, among other things, I’ll answer the question, “What Are We to Do Under Grace?”

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