For 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. (Ephes. 2:8-9)
Often, salvation-by-grace-through-faith, apart from any good deeds or merit, seems too good to be true – the product of wishful thinking, even perhaps a New Testament invention. However, what if we found that the Hebrew Scriptures embodied the very same teaching, albeit not so prominently? Wouldn’t that signify that our Lord really means business when He promises us the free gift of salvation?
The evidence in favor of this is really massive – so massive as to alleviate any doubts that perhaps we might have misinterpreted the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures. The evidence confronts us at the lowest point of human history. Our first parents had rebelled against God, hid from Him, lied to Him, laughably covered their sin with fig leaves, and failed to repent. Nevertheless, God graciously gave them His own covering – animal skins - in place of their self-righteous fig leaves. Adam certainly didn’t do anything to merit this symbolic covering.
More explicitly, we are informed that “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6), apart from Abraham doing anything to deserve it. Although Abraham continued to fail God, His Savior never denied him. Instead, He affirmed that Abraham was His prophet and that healing had to come through Abraham’s prayers (Gen. 20), even when Abraham had been at his lowest, morally.
Gradually, we are introduced to a Messiah who would die for our sins (Isaiah 53). He would also be known as “The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). Clearly, righteousness would be obtained through Him and not our own efforts.
In other places, the prophets inform us that the fig leaves of our own efforts would never be able to suffice. Instead, we would be covered by the garment of His own righteousness:
- I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10).
This is a lesson that King David had to learn the hard way. (I think that we all have to learn this lesson the hard way.) Ironically, he concludes one of his great penitential psalms by including himself among the ranks of the righteous, despite his sins of adultery and murder:
- Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psalm 32:11)
David had been the worst example of righteousness. God had given him everything, but that wasn’t enough for David. His sexual appetite was unrestrained, even when the woman he sought was married, the wife of his loyal soldier. In human terms, he had no right to consider himself “righteous.” In human terms, this represented the worst kind of presumption. However, at the beginning of this Psalm, he provides the basis for his “presumption”:
- Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1-2)
Miraculously, blessedness isn’t a product of anything that we earn. It’s the product of an incredibly loving God who “does not count” our sins against us. But doesn’t His forgiveness depend upon our holiness? After all, David seems to refer to himself as in some way deserving of God’s grace - “in whose spirit is no deceit?” Don’t we have to merit this forgiveness through our righteous and true character?
King David knew better than to pat himself on the back for his repentant spirit. Instead, he confessed:
- When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. (Psalm 32:3-4)
Had not the Lord decisively intervened, David would have kept silent. He would have continued in his denial. However, God’s “hand was heavy” upon him, and he therefore confessed. No merit there!
It is apparent that David had learned that he couldn’t take credit before God for anything. Elsewhere, he confessed that even his coming to God was a product of God’s grace and not David’s own spiritual disposition:
- When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! (Psalm 65:3-4)
David confessed that he had been “overwhelmed by [his] sins.” Therefore, it had to be God who would “bring [him] near.”
Nevertheless, we understandably protest that we must:
- Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
It sometimes seems that we must merit God’s favor. Of course, we need to be holy to enter into the presence of our Savior. However, we need to understand from where holiness comes and what we need to do in order to receive it. Fundamentally, it comes to us as does righteousness - from God as a gift. By ourselves, we are incapable of holiness. Moses illuminated Israel’s hopeless situation without the mercy of God:
- "Cursed is the man who does not uphold [all] the words of this law by carrying them out." (Deut. 27:26)
The only thing that we can obtain through our own efforts is a curse. If Israel had truly understood this plain teaching, they would have abandoned any hope of obtaining their own righteousness or holiness (James 2:10).
We find this same understanding embedded in the Hebrews verse. The writer uses Esau as his example of someone who wasn’t holy. This “profane person” cared so little about his birthright – and this represented his standing with God – that he sold it for a bowl of soup. However, his main problem wasn’t this sin; it was his refusal to repent of his sin:
- Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind [repentance], though he sought the blessing with tears. (Hebrews 12:17)
Tears are meaningless unless accompanied by confession and repentance (1 John 1:8-9). Never once did Esau confess his sin. Instead, in his estimation, Jacob was the one at fault, and therefore Esau had wanted to kill his brother.
Some argue that if we understand salvation as absolutely free, we will take it for granted. Although this is likely among the unconverted, for those who remember where they had been when God rescued them, gratefulness is a great motivator. Consequently, Paul counseled Titus to remind the brethren about their pathetic pre-salvation beginnings:
- At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. (Titus 3:3-4)
For those of us who can accept this, God’s undeserved grace is precious. It’s the pearl of great value, worthy of any buying price. However, for those of us who feel that we were a pretty good catch, the pearl is not esteemed. Nor will it win our hearts or secure our full devotion. Paul therefore wanted Titus to remind the brethren of their former deplorable status:
- And I want you to stress these things [our wretchedness and God’s unmerited favor], so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. (Titus 3:8)
Grace, if understood and embraced, is a motivator. If confession and repentance are authentic, they will be accompanied by a determination to live accordingly. Consequently, we should not deceive ourselves that since blessings come as free gifts, we need not actively pursue holiness and righteousness. If we are born again, we must produce fruit that reflects our new status. An apple tree that doesn’t produce apples is not an apple tree. If instead we are an apple tree, we will produce apples.
Admittedly, there is a tension here. We are responsible, but God is even more responsible. Paul embodied both ends of this dilemma when he confessed:
- For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Cor. 15:9-10)
While Paul gave God the credit for all the good he attained, he nevertheless affirmed the need for hard work. However, it is grace that produces the hard work. Consequently, we start with grace and finish with grace, and our God gets all of the praise.
In all respects, grace seems too good to be true. However, this is exactly how it should seem. It should make our jaws drop, especially as we come to see ourselves, our sins and our unworthiness accurately. The contrast makes grace appear as it should – totally glorious and adequate to silence all of our vain boasting.