Law and Grace, By Gary Deddo
Even after centuries of debate, Protestantism does not seem to have settled on how best to speak about the connection between faith in God’s grace in Jesus Christ and the life of obedience. All informed biblically grounded Christian teachers recognize that salvation is God’s work and that it is received by faith. They also recognize that the resulting life with Christ involves obedience to Christ. The problem is how to affirm one without denying—or severely qualifying—the other. How to avoid both works righteousness and antinomianism.
Most recognize you need both elements: faith and obedience, trust in God’s grace and right actions. It is not an either/or situation. It must be some kind of both/and approach. However, I’ve come to see that much more needs to be sorted out than is conveyed by indicating “both/and.” The problem is that “and” doesn’t really say anything about how the two are connected or related. The result is that the two are most often artificially laminated together, stacked on top of one another, simply put in the same room and told to “get along.”
In that case the solution to correct one error often is mainly to emphasize the other side. If too much “works,” then emphasize grace. If too much grace, then emphasize obedience. So various ministries take one tack or another, depending upon which error is thought to be most dangerous or most prevalent, always hoping not to commit the opposite error. But I’ve found the result to be at best a kind of see-saw theology over time. The problem is that the connection between faith in grace and obedience remains vague if not altogether absent. The “and” solution points us in the right direction but does not really take us very far.
So, can we find a deeper connection that intrinsically relates the two, integrates the two aspects of Christian truth and life? I think we can and that there is actually biblical teaching that exhibits the connection, but it is often overlooked or not well comprehended.
Both the author of Hebrews and Paul use phrases that indicate the deep, intrinsic connection that coordinates and integrates faith in grace and obedience. Paul calls it “the obedience of faith” and says it’s the goal of his entire ministry to bring nothing but this about both at the beginning and the end of his letter to the Romans (1:5 and 16:26). He sees the connection so tightly that he also declares that any obedience that does not spring from faith is sin! (Rom. 14:23). In Hebrews an entire chapter is given to providing us numerous illustrations of persons obeying or doing x, y, or z “by faith.” In 1 John we find another clue: that God’s commands are not burdensome and that they are not so because of the victory of faith. Of course Jesus reminds us that his burden is easy and his yoke light and that we are friends of God not slaves. We also read in Galatians that “faith works itself out in love” (5:6) and there are dozens of times where faith and love are essentially coordinated with each other throughout the NT.
But how does this indicate more than simply “and”? What is the interconnection? The connection is found in the person of Jesus who embodies the very character, mind, attitude and purpose of God. The object of faith is Jesus Christ. The essence of faith is trusting in him as God in person according to who he is and what he has done. Faith is our response to who Jesus is, in person, word and deed. We put our trust in God because of who Jesus Christ is. And he himself is the grace of God towards us. He is the Gospel. He himself is our salvation. And we receive all the benefits of who he is as we trust in him and cast aside (repent of) all other rival objects of trust. We then enjoy our union and communion with him as our Lord and God. Our lives are united to Christ and we share in his life, we participate with him in all he is doing and will do in and through our relationship of trust or faith. We have our being by being in fellowship and communion with him, receiving from him all he has for us, and he taking from us all we give him. In that communion and union we are transformed, bit by bit (2Cor. 3:18), to share more of Christ’s own glorified human nature, his character, even if much still remains hidden (Col. 3:3) and we remain mere earthen vessels (2Cor 4:7).
Now the problem is that we have too small a view of Jesus and so a very restricted faith in him. Often we simply and merely trust him for future salvation, the forgiveness of sins. He’s the one we can trust to “get us in to heaven” and that’s pretty much it. Now we know he also commands of us things. So we tack that on, admitting, OK, he also is a commander. He requires things of us. So here you have the “and” Inserted. Jesus saves us by grace AND, for some reason, he also commands things of us that for some obscure reason (since it doesn’t have to do with getting saved/going to heaven) we’re supposed to do. Why Jesus is both Savior and Commander is simply not clear. We trust him to save us but we simply have to obey him just because he says so, because he’s big and powerful, because we had better! Or else—what? Obedience then becomes in that case a sheer act of will in response to the sheer mighty and seemingly arbitrary will of God. A raw obligation “because I said so.” The duty of a slave.
The problem is that Jesus can be trusted for much, much more than just getting us into heaven, getting us “saved.” It turns out that our notion of salvation is also very shrunken compared to who Jesus is and what he offers. So that’s what first needs to be fixed. We need to see all of who Jesus is and all of what he offers and so all of what we can trust him for.
Jesus is first, Lord of the whole cosmos, of all reality, the entire universe. And he has a good and loving purpose for it all. He is redeeming all things and will renew heaven and earth. He is Lord and Savior over every aspect of human life and has a purpose for every dimension of our existence. It is all to be a channel of his blessing to us. All of it, every relationship, is meant to lead to life and life abundantly. Even our simply eating and drinking is to reflect the very glory of our life-giving God (1Cor 10:31). Every relationship is to be a fruitful gift exchange that contributes to a fullness of life and so a fullness of love. Jesus’ authority extends into every aspect of created existence, into every dimension of life at every level: mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, animal, human, social, cultural, linguistic, artistic, judicial, economic, psychological, philosophical, religious, and spiritual. And all this has its origin in fellowship and communion with God through Christ. But this relationship with God through Christ works its way in to every avenue of life under his redeeming lordship. God’s grace has to do with everything. That’s the foundation of a Christian worldview.
So everything we receive from God we pass on to others to contribute to God’s universe-wide purposes. This is especially true in our relationships. We receive forgiveness of sins, renewing grace to start again with hope. We receive God’s generosity providing us all the fruits of the Spirit. We receive comfort, love, transforming power, a purpose and direction in life to be a sign and witness to the grace and goodness of God. We become witnesses to the truth and holy loving character of God. And yes, all these things lead to eternal life, life with God as his beloved children in holy loving unity.
So our faith is a trust in God through Christ for all these things, not just “going to heaven” some day. Now every command and every act of obedience is keyed to some aspect of what we can trust God for. We forgive because we have been and will be forgiven. We love, because we are first loved by God. We love our enemies because God first loved us and also loves (wants his best) for his and our enemies. We can be generous because God is generous with us. We can be truthful and honest because God is truthful and honest and will bring out the truth in the end. We can be creative and helpful because God is creative and helpful to us. We comfort others in their grief because God comforts us in our grief. We can be patient because God is patient with us. We can be peacemakers because God is a peacemaker. We can pursue justice, right relationships at every level, because God is just and righteous. We can be reconcilers because God is a reconciler. All that we do is participating in what God is doing through Christ and in the Spirit. That means all we do is fellowship and communion with Christ. We never act alone—because we are never alone but are united to Christ as his brothers and sisters and members of the family of God.
We obey by faith when we see all of who Jesus is in any given situation, trust him to be faithful in that situation and then act as if he will be faithful. That is, we act on our faith in who he is. You will find that, connected to every command in scripture is some kind of reference to who God is and what he can be trusted for. It’s seeing that connection between what in particular God can be trusted for and what he then directs us to do that generates the obedience of faith. James Torrance spoke of this by saying that every imperative of grace is built on a foundation of an indicative of grace. The reason there is always a connection is because everything God commands us to do arises out of his own character, heart, nature and purpose, just like everything he has done for us in Jesus Christ. God is not arbitrary. His will is always informed and controlled by his nature, and character as the Triune God who comes to us in Jesus Christ that we might have fellowship and communion with him in holy love.
So faith in God’s grace arises out of a trust in God because of Jesus Christ and obedience to the God of grace arises out of a trust in God because of Jesus Christ. So both faith and obedience have one and the same source, the faithfulness of God in Christ. They are both a response to who Christ is. They both have the same trinitarian, incarnational theological source. They are both the fruit of a trusting relationship with God through Christ in the Spirit.
So here are some guidelines that I’ve developed over the years to help keep these two responses to God in Christ together.
1) Never call for an act of obedience without first showing what we can trust God in particular for, that corresponds to that call for action. Look for the indicatives of grace that are the foundation for the imperatives of grace (the commands) in every biblical passage.
2) Always indicate the character of the gracious, saving, redeeming Commander and never present God as simply a commander who simply has a strong will uninformed by his heart, mind, character, purpose which we see in Jesus Christ. That is, always build a foundation first by answering the question: Who are you Lord? That’s what makes our preaching and teaching trinitarian and incarnational, that is, truly theological.
3) Never preach simply to a person’s will or power of choice. Behind every act of will and choice is a desire, a hope, a love, a fear, a trust or distrust. That is, behind every act there is belief or unbelief, trust or distrust in God. Preach to persons’ hearts, their affections, their yearnings concerning the character, purpose and heart of God and his desire for our fellowship and communion with him. Preach what God can be counted on, trusted for. Feed people’s faith, hope and love for God. Obedience will come out of that.
4) Do not preach: If you….then God. That tempts people into a legal obedience and works righteousness. Preach: Since God in Christ by the Spirit has done and is doing… then you ____. Or: “as you (do x, y, z out of trust)… you will be receiving what God offers us in Christ. For example, we can say, “As we confess our sins we receive from God his forgiveness.”
5) Present obedience as “going to work with God” as an act of fellowship—being involved in the very things the Spirit of God is doing.
6) Preach obedience as a “get to” not a “have to.” As a privilege of a child of God not as a grit-your-teeth duty as a slave of a simply willful God.
7) Do not motivate others on the basis of a supposed “credibility gap” between the so-called “reality” of the fallen world and situation so that if we act/obey we will close up that gap and so realize the ideal God wants and hopes for. We are not building the Kingdom or making God’s ideal real or actual. Rather preach the reality of who God is, what God is doing and has established and describe our obedience as joining in, participating in, being involved in making visible/manifest a bit of that reality. Our only choice is to affirm and participate in the reality God has established in Christ by the Spirit or to deny and refuse to participate in that reality. But we have no power to create change the reality that God has established and maintains.
8) Preach and teach the grace of God as a finished work, a reality that we can count on even if it is hidden for now—not as a potential God has made possible so that if we do x, y or z then the potential God’s wants will become a reality. No, God is not dependent upon our actions. But he invites our participation in what he has done, is doing and will do. Preach like Jesus: The Kingdom of God has come near, so repent and believe in that good news. Or Peter: Since God has made Jesus Lord and Savior, therefore repent and believe. The action is always a response to who God is and what he has done.
9) Never preach as if God cannot be more faithful that we are—as if God is limited by what we do or don’t do. Paul says though everyone may be faithless, God will be still be faithful (2Tim 2:13). We will miss out on being involved, but God will still accomplish his good purposes. God does not need us, but he delights in having his children involved in what he is doing. We were created for fellowship, communion, partnership with God.
10) Do not grant reality making to human actions, as if it will make “all the difference.” Christ alone has done that. We cannot. Our actions, great or small (as small as a cup of water, or a mustard seed of faith) only amount to a few loaves and fish to feed 5000. They are no more and no less than embodied signs, pointers, to the coming Kingdom of God. We are mere witnesses. And our sign-acts are partial, imperfect, temporary and only provisional. But by God’s grace the Spirit uses even these meager things to point people to him so that they may put their entire trust in him according to who he really is.
11) Realize that to bring about the obedience of faith you will have to trust mightily in the unconditioned grace of God to preach and teach this way and not fall into the temptation to revert back to making it sound like God’s grace is actually conditioned upon us, dependent upon our response.
12) Know that you, like Paul, will not be able to prevent some from trying to take advantage of this grace (even though taking advantage of it is not receiving it but rejecting it!). You will also be accused by some, just like Paul was, of encouraging sin, disobedience (antinomianism!). But Paul did not change his message of grace under the pressure of this accusation. So we cannot attempt to prevent this rejection and abuse of grace by changing our message to a conditioned grace or an arbitrary obedience—like what happened in Galatia. For that switch would be a denial of the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ.
I hope you can see how I think this biblical orientation brings together faith in grace and obedience in an organic, personal and integrated way so that there is no “either/or” separation nor is there simply a see-saw “both/and” juxtaposition of two different things. Those who love and trust God through Christ in the Spirit as Lord of the Universe will desire to be faithful to him and with him in every dimension of life here and now, even in our current fallen condition. By his Word and Spirit we have an amazing privilege of getting involved through our preaching, teaching and counseling in helping people abide in Jesus Christ, their Living Vine, so that we all, in season, may indeed bear much fruit to the glory of our Triune God.