Conditional grace?

I’m really loving Colossians. We were looking at Colossians 1:15-23 yesterday in our college bible study groups. While the first 6 verses are some of the most Christ exalting verses I have ever read, and just leave the weight of the glory of Christ pressing in on your heart and mind, and I could go on relentlessly about why everyone should memorise and meditate on those 6 verses (myself included – it’s amazing how quickly you forget something you’ve memorised a couple of months back if you don’t constantly keep it at the forefront of your mind), I wish instead to look at the last few verses. Mind you, this will actually be a pretty long article.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. – Colossians 1:21-23

We often talk about the free and unconditional saving grace of God. Yet here it seems to me that these verses speak of a condition. Is it right then to say that God’s saving grace is unconditional?

There are 3 possible answers to this question. Each answer builds on the premise of the error of previous answers.

1) Paul is not talking about salvation (saving grace). This idea of being holy in God’s sight, without blemish and free from accusation is different from being saved from hell. God saves us from hell into heaven first. Being holy and without blemish is just an added bonus.

I think this is a fallacious view, but sadly one that is all too often adopted in the church today. As long as you’ve prayed a prayer, filled in a card, responded to an altar call, all is well. Salvation is like the Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly. At the end of your life, you just point to one of the moments above and say you should be in heaven (or at the least not in hell).

The biblical view of salvation is threefold I believe. I might be wrong on this, because I am treading on weighty doctrines that wiser men have spent many years studying. But with that disclaimer aside, I believe salvation is the combined act of justification, sanctification and glorification. For the sake of length, I’ll ignore the idea of election and predestination.

Justification is the work of Christ, whereby our sin is imputed to Him, and His righteousness is imputed to us, and that we are now righteous before God, not clothed in our own righteousness, but His righteousness. This righteousness is by faith. To be righteous means to be free from accusation. So the passage above clearly speaks of justification, 

However, though much weight is given to the doctrine of justification by Paul in his letter to the Romans, I believe this is but one image of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. As John Stott points out in his book, The Cross of Christ, this is the image of the law court. He cites three other images. The temple – propitiation, the marketplace – redemption, and the family – reconciliation. It is the last I wish to talk about, simply because the word reconciled is used here.

Not only are we justified, we are reconciled to God. We are brought into His family. The only perceivable way that we could be reconciled to God is if we were holy, just as is He is holy. Sinners cannot stand in the presence of a loving God.

Here is where things get a bit complicated. In being justified, we are free from accusation and regarded as holy in God’s sight, free from blemish, because of Christ. But here it seems that this appears to also be a future reality. While there is biblical precedence elsewhere that we are justified in the present, there seems to be an act of future justification. I think I have to be careful with the language I use here. I believe that it is more accurate to say that when we are justified, and reconciled, Christ also sets in motion a process by which we become more like Him. He doesn’t just save sinners from Hell, He makes them saints. It is a becoming of what we are. We are at once holy in God’s sight through Christ, but at the same time the rest of our lives is a process of becoming holy like Christ. This is sanctification.

I appeal to the image of reconciliation, because I think it helps to make more sense of the doctrine of sanctification. In being adopted into the family of God, we are to bear the family likeness, uphold the family honour, and attend to the family welfare.  The family likeness is holiness – we are to be holy, like God is holy. The family honour is the glory of God in Christ. The family welfare is our love for the saints. This is why salvation is not a Get Out of Hell Free card we keep and present at the end of our lives. Christ did not intend His sacrifice to bear so little value. He died to make saints out of sinners. 

So the divide between justification and sanctification, between salvation and holiness, is a false divide. They are but parts of the whole. I will pause just to stress one difference. Justification is wholly the work of Christ, but sanctification is wrought by us in partnership with the Spirit, though I will disclose the nature of this partnership more fully later. The last part of the whole is glorification. It is the hope of glory stored up for us in heaven. It is the inheritance of the saints which God has qualified us to share in. This is the final reality we are awaiting. Our glorification. We will be glorified. This is not a glory that will overshadow the glory of Christ, but it is the emanation of the glory of Christ in us. We are His body, and our glory is ultimately His glory.

So Paul is talking about salvation, but not salvation as we often falsely conceive it. This is salvation in its fullness, a three-part act of justification, sanctification and glorification, fully intertwined. One does not exist separately from the others. As Luther is often quoted, we are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. There is clearly a reference in this passage to all three realities.

2) Our salvation lies wholly in the choice we make. The act of faith is the act of our will. God offers His grace unconditionally. But we must choose to accept it.

I think this is a universally accepted view, but one I regard as having many inherent problems upon further reflection. How do we deal with verses like these:

But it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9

So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. – Romans 11:5-6

In the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. – 2 Timothy 2:25-26

I know this is the classic argument of Calvinism vs. Arminianism, and the freedom of the will. I know there are other verses that seem to speak contrary to the ones above. But I throw these three out, just because I believe we can’t ignore the biblical evidence that faith appears to be a gift of God, a work of God’s grace, rather than the work of the will of man. If we could really choose Him, are we really still saved by grace? Or is there then some merit in our wisdom, our powers of discernment? To me, it seems the question of whether faith is the work of man, or the gracious work of God is one that must be worked out.

As it stands, I cannot come to believe that the work of faith is the work of man. Because I am so faithless much of the time. My will is too weak. My mind is an enemy of God. My heart is full of evil. If I am to believe that I can at all be redeemed, it must be wholly by the grace of God. My faith must be the working of His grace by His Spirit in my heart. I would not have come to Him unless He drew me first (Jn 6:44). That much I believe.

3) God is the author of our faith. And thus the grace of salvation is conditional, but it is the grace of God which supplies the very condition of faith. Just as salvation is the gift of God, the faith by which we are saved is also a gift of God. And in this way saving grace is wholly unconditional. 

What is the point of stating the conditions? I believe the purpose of the conditions is to give us assurance. Just as we cannot see the wind, but we see the trees sway, and hear the rustling of the leaves, likewise we do not see salvation, but we see the faith by which we are saved and the love we have for the saints. God has given us signs to assure us of our salvation.

And so we know we are holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation, if we continue in the faith, firm and established, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. I think it is then utterly crucial that we pray all the more for the grace of God to hold firm that faith. As Christ is the author, He is also the perfecter. Pray for Him to bring our faith to perfection. Not just faith for faith’s sake. Nor faith in any other thing. But rather faith in the hope of the gospel. And let us be clear what this hope is. It is not the hope of escaping from hell. It is the hope of the consummation of the kingdom of Christ and us receiving our inheritance in it. It is the hope that the glory of Christ will one day be magnified through His body, the church, and that every enemy will be trampled under His feet, and that He will reign for all eternity, in all wisdom and justice and love.


2 responses to “Conditional grace?

  1. hmm.. you said that faith and grace is the work of God and it has nothing to do with our own power.. What if we really pray hard each time for God to keep us on our track with Him and be holy as He is holy but we still fall and fail? Does that mean that it is not God’s plan for us to remain on track? Or is it because the prayer didn’t come from a right heart?

  2. This is a tough question. I’ll try to answer it, but I’ll also point out there is no easy answer, simply because this is what the Christian life is about – killing sin and putting on holiness. But there are some things we can keep in mind I suppose, though the following is not exhaustive.

    I think it is necessary we try to wrap our minds round what proper prayer is. The situation you give is one of praying for God to keep us faithful and to sanctify us. Now, I think it is biblically true that God is the perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2). He will bring His good work in us to completion on the day of Christ Jesus (Php 1:6).

    I think there’s a way to pray this prayer and a way not to pray this prayer. One way is that we treat it as a ritual, and make our prayers our source of merit. So we find ourselves saying the right words, but not saying it in the right attitude. Prayer is not coming from a right heart.

    What is the right heart? I think it is one that is convicted of our sin, grieved by it, and seeks to put to death the sin by the power of the Spirit. Let me break that down, in reverse.

    There is a passive prayer, and an active prayer. The passive prayer is almost always a ritualistic sort of prayer. It’s not engaged in the fight. It is like firing your gun at a shooting range. Sure you hone your skills, but it’s a different scenario when you’re in a fight. This is where active prayer comes in. It’s the very instrument by which we put to death our sin. In a way it is the right way to pray. You must use it in the fight. If you don’t, can you really say that you’ve earnestly prayed for God to keep you from sin?

    However, I think this is where it becomes difficult. If you shoot a person in the right spot, he dies. If you shoot sin in the right spot, it doesn’t always die. It’s like a guerilla who tricks you into thinking you’ve got him, only for him to suddenly pop out unaware. This is where we have constant prayer to keep us from our sin. It is the act of keeping your weapons sharp, being alert for any movement.

    The problem is it’s a real struggle to do this. Our sin keeps coming at us in all sorts of ways we don’t expect. Sometimes the greater is of not persevering in prayer. And it wins a battle at times. At this point we’re often disheartened at having failed, and all these questions arise – is it God’s plan, is it wrong prayer?

    As I’ve already mentioned, I think it is not necessarily wrong prayer, but too little prayer. Note how these prayers often come after our failures, when it’s too late in one sense.

    When you talk about whether it’s God’s plan, I would also say yes and no. He never gives us a trial too hard. He does not tempt us. But He clearly allows sin to continue to abide in us. He doesn’t complete His work all at once. I’m not sure why. The only reason I can think of is that it breeds in us a constant dependence on Him, rather than momentary prayers here and there.

    Some people wake up one day free from a stronghold of sin. Some people don’t. I think we will all have our thorns. But God wishes for His grace to be magnified in our weakness, and sometimes that weakness is not the temptation of a specific sin, but rather the temptation to give up. So perseverance is difficult. But it is designed to produce character and real hope in us, only if we keep depending on God, i.e. prayer.

    A word for failure. I think we all ask this very question. We always wonder why we keep failing despite our prayers. I believe grief is the right response. There is a godly grief James talks about in the fourth chapter of His book. If we are not grieving, that is when we should be asking the question – although if we are not grieving, we probably wouldn’t even ask the question. So grieve. Grieve over the fact that you have grieved the Spirit of God with your sin. It is not a trivial issue. It is weighty. It is the feeling you get at a funeral. This is what I meant by be convicted of and grieved by your sin. And repent and humble yourself, and God will lift you up. I hope there comes a point where you’re so completely overwhelmed with grief with your sin, that then and only then will God give us freedom. I’m hoping for this very moment. But it is really up to God how He wishes to magnify His grace. And so in the meantime, we’ll have to persevere, never forgetting the victory is not won until He calls us home or returns. And when we fail, we must remember that he will redeem us, if we are truly grieved and are willing to repent and turn to Him.

    And finally, this is why God has wisely ordained for the existence of the church, rather than lone Christians. We would never survive without the admonishing, rebuking, teaching, encouraging, accountability of other Christians. Sin is deceitful and it can harden our hearts (Heb 3:13). Left to ourselves, we will be easily deceived. It’s not easy to fool a crowd though. The body of Christ is I believe the primary way in which we experience the grace of God, as we minister to one another, building one another up in love, encouraging one another towards love and good deeds. If we are constantly preoccupied with the act of encouragement, or with acts of love and good deeds, I think we would have little time for sin.

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