Is Grace a Work Free Zone?

Is Grace a Work Free Zone?

Is Grace a Work Free Zone?

The Bible often presents truths that seem somewhat contradictory but are really truths in tension.  God is completely sovereign yet gives man free will.  Jesus was fully God and fully man.  God is trinity Father, Son, Holy Spirit, yet God is One.  We are justified by faith apart from works according to Paul but James says faith without works is useless.

I remember when I first began to study the history about the origins of controversial doctrines.  The great teachers like Calvin would indicate when presenting an extreme position based on certain passages an acknowledgement of other ones in tension.   They would use phrases like “I’m saying this” based on a passage, “but I am not saying this” based on other passages.  Authentic teachers have a humility and a fear of the Lord that is reflected in Ecclesiastes 7:18. 

Ecclesiastes 7:18 “It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.”

This is what Paul exhibited in passages like Romans 6 in speaking about salvation through grace alone when he twice said, “shall we continue to sin that grace will increase, GOD FORBID! (Romans 6:1, 15).   I find this humility and fear of God often missing in some of the extreme teachings today. 

Today more than ever we live in world of sound bites that people use to spin ideas in certain ways in accordance with their own views and desires.   Both conservative and liberal news sites use quotes and sound bites from the same speeches and interviews then spin them in completely different directions.  They obviously have a perspective they believe to be true and look for bits of speeches to use to reinforce their narrative.   In doing these types of things they completely miss the context of the view the people speaking intended. 

We live in a marketplace of spiritual messages.  There are well over 550 million Christian based web sites along with multiple times that number of social media sites.  We must remember that there are 3 things at work when it comes to God’s word.

  1. His truth.
  2. What we believe to be true.
  3. What we want to be true. 

What we believe to be true should always be a result of pursuing what is true, not what we want to be true. 

When what we believe is guided more by what we want to be true we will do what Paul warned against, (which is easy to do with all the online marketplaces of spiritual messages) find “teachers in accordance with our own desires.”  2 Timothy 4:3  For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,

This can be very true when it comes to the idea of grace wand works.  You can Google “grace and works” and find over 152 million responses.  You find catchy slogans like “Grace +  works = legalism, Grace – works = salvation.”   Is grace a work-free zone?

Philippians 2:12-13  So then, my beloved… work out your salvation with fear and trembling;  (13)  for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Anything good that we do in our lives is only a result of God’s wonderful working by grace.   Our works apart from Him were unable to earn His approval.  What we couldn’t do on our own God did in sending Jesus.  Salvation is God’s free gift beyond our works.  God liberated us from a works based salvation but did He liberate us from works? Ephesians 2:8-9“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; (9) not as a result of works, that no one should boast….  

Unfortunately people often stop at verse 9 and forget the completion of Paul’s thought in Ephesians 2:10  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.  We are never working to earn acceptance by God but that doesn’t mean we are not working.  Some people interpret the idea of God’s grace as a “work-free zone.”  Nothing is further from the truth. 

Dallas Willard said it well, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Paul writes in Philippians to “work out our salvation” but he isn’t telling us to earn it, but rather, to “live it out.”

People do a similar thing with what Paul said in Titus 3:4-7  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared,  (5)  not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  (6)  whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  (7)  that being justified by His grace, we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life

Again people stop there (use that sound bite) and make bold assertions regarding grace and freedom from work but again we must allow Paul to complete his thoughts.   Titus 2:8 This is a trustworthy statement, I desire that you strongly affirm that those believing God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable…

Self-Generated or Spirit-Generated works

While God has liberated us from self-generated religious works that earn our salvation He does come to dwell in us to inspire and enable good works.   When we are saved Holy Spirit becomes a living reality in our lives.  He both inspires and directs.  This will result in works, Spirit inspired ones.   This is what Paul was saying in Philippians 2 “work out your salvation…for God is at work in you, both to will and work for His good pleasure.”  

Paul had no concept of a lazy grace that would result in a work-free zone.  He considered that posture “receiving grace in vain (empty, futile, without purpose)

1 Corinthians 15:10  But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.

2 Corinthians 6:1  Working together with Him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.

Over the years I have noticed that people that are the most emphatic about grace not being about works are often the ones that work the least.  They tend to be the least sacrificially serving and the most self-serving.  They consistently justify behaviors that the Bible frowns upon playing the grace card when challenged.  Right behavior will never justify us before God but if we are truly justified it will result in right behavior.  

Living in Christ will result in God-inspired ideas, Spirit enabled actions, and God motivated serving, flowing through our lives.  We will also see exhibited what Paul said in Romans 8:13 if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. His inner working will ultimately affect every area of our lives and will result in good works   These are the “good works” that God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.  Eph 2:10.  God’s grace isn’t a work-free zone but works that result from Him working in us. 

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If Grace is about a Relationship then Relate

prayer in secretHave you ever heard any of these ideas?

  • “Legalism is about rules, God is about relationships.”  
  • “You need to get out of religion and come into grace.”  
  • “The reason I can do this is grace.”  
  • “The reason you can’t do it is you are bound by legalism.”

Often when I hear people bringing up the idea of grace they immediately associated with a behavior that was previously thought of as sin, but is now allowable.  It often has self-justification at its core.  Just like the legalist brings up their list of do’s and don’ts as a means of justification others bring up their “belief” or “understanding” about grace as their justification. 

Grace isn’t a thing disconnected from a person.  God’s grace is in Jesus Christ. 

2 Corinthians 13:14  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.  I think Judah Smith sums it up well, “We shudder at the term grace because it has been so maligned, so abused, so misrepresented. We see grace as the get out of jail free card. ‘Oh yeah, I love me some grace man. I get my jiggy on in the weekend then I come back on Sunday and get me some race man.  I get my jiggy on in the weekend and then I come back on Sunday and get me my grace on.’ No, that’s not grace.  You’ve met a concept, not a Person.”

“We shudder at the term grace because it has been so maligned, so abused, so misrepresented. We see grace as the get out of jail free card. “Oh yeah, I love me some grace man. I get my jiggy on in the weekend then I come back on Sunday and get me my grace on.” No, that’s not grace. You’ve met a concept, not a Person.”  

Any time there is an immediate connection of grace to behavior we can get away with instead of  walking with Jesus it is a distortion of grace. 

Romans 5:1-2…having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  (2)  through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand…

If God and grace is about a relationship with Jesus then it should be evident in a relationship with Jesus. Jesus Himself said abiding in Him connected with prayer is essential.   John 15:1-2  “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing...“If you abide in Me…ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

When I speak with people who shout the loudest about grace and relationship not  rules and religion their “actual prayer life” defies their belief. 

How to consistently abide with Jesus in prayer

God has designed us in such a way that our ongoing relationship with Him is sustained through regular prayer.    Many Christians would admit that they struggle with consistency in their everyday personal prayer life.  It is something that everyone knows they need to do, but often struggle with consistency. 

I remember how difficult it seemed in my early years of serving Jesus to gain a consistent prayer life.  I remember a book by Andrew Murray called “The Prayer Life” as well as other books on prayer that really helped me reach the tipping point in going from an inconsistent to a consistent prayer life.   You can read Murray’s book “prayer life” free online at

Prayer is a spiritual experience and a spiritual discipline. 1 Timothy 4:7…discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.  Here are some essential tips if we are going to be more effective in consistent prayer.

Tips for the prayer closet

  • It needs to be regular and consistent.  Jesus said “when you pray” not if you pray (Mt 6:6).   It is good to set a consistent time every day and get into the habit.  In doing so we fit our life around prayer rather than trying to fit prayer into our life.  Trying to fit prayer into our life rarely works. The Bible puts a premium on Morning Prayer.  It is a first-fruit time in which we are the clearest before the day begins.  If you can’t do Morning Prayer make sure you set another time (that works in your schedule) that is a priority you attend to every day 
  • Real language, not religious eloquence, is the language of prayer.  Prayer is above all communication with God.  Jesus always seemed to frown on religious language but wanted real communication from our heart.
  • Find a private place where you can be alone and undistracted with God.  This is what Jesus met by the “inner room.”  It can be a literal room or someplace where you can have undistracted communication
  • Thanksgiving, praise, and worship are essential to entering God’s presence and staying alert there.  These things work to draw us to God and keep us alert in His presence. 
  • Psa 100:4  Enter His gates with thanksgiving And His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
  • Col 4:2  Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving;
  • Shouting/lifting our voice is a good way to create alertness and focus.  Shouting is by far the most common expression of praise and interacting with God in the Scripture.  It is used 265 times, silence is the least mentioned. Only 4 times is silence mentioned towards God.  The word meditate is used about 13 times in regard to God most of which are meditating on His word and His ways.  Shouting brings our foggy mind to a sense of focus and alertness. 
  • Psalms 95:1-2  us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation.  (2)  Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. Psa 77:1  My voice rises to God, and I will cry aloud; My voice rises to God, and He will hear me.
  • Psa 142:1 I cry aloud with my voice to the LORD; I make supplication with my voice to the LORD.
  • It is good to alternate praying/singing in the Spirit (praying in tongues) with praying/singing in your understanding.  The helps cultivate a Spiritual atmosphere and engages us with the Spirit of God. 
  • 1 Corinthians 14:15…I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
  • Use Scriptural Prayers as a pattern and example.  I have all the prayers of the Bible recorded on my computer and I regularly pull them up and pray them.  It is part of Jesus’ instruction about His word abiding in us as we pray in John 15.  
  • The biggest thing is to just do it.  Prayer is not just a good intention or a good concept.  It is a practice.  The only way to develop a consistent prayer life is to consistently pray!  There is not magic prayer pills.  Nike launched one of their most successful advertising campaigns that had a tag line which expresses the foundation of consistent prayer, “Just Do It.”  

If grace is about a relationship not rules then cultivating that relationship through regular communication/prayer is a must.  It will also help with behavior because light dispels darkness.  If you are doing something in which you can’t connect with Jesus while doing it there may be a problem with what you are doing!

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Home on the Range Theology Pt 2 (no conviction allowed!)

Bible 1I wrote in my last article about the great need for a systematic approach in studying and/or teaching the Bible.  If not we may end up in a spiritual cul-de-sac of subjective ideas.  What that means is when looking at or using a certain passage/subject from the Bible it is a good idea to look at the other places where that subject is mentioned and how it is used.  As we review them we get an overall perspective of how God thinks about that subject.  

We need the Spirit of God working through His word to measure our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors because there are two things we all wrestle with, what we believe to be true and what we want to be true.  Without Him and His word the latter can overshadow the former.  

What we want to be true will shape what we believe to be true and we can always find a confirmation from the over 500 million Christian based web sites.  

Holding both Grace and Truth Together

Joh 1:14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.  Both grace and truth are important in our lives.  In looking at the subject of God’s grace and how He works in our lives through it we understand it is very liberating and appealing in a special way to believers who have been ensnared in a legalistic system where there is little positive encouragement or assurance.  In legalistic theology God is seen as harsh, aloof, impossible to please, and always waiting to punish us for any mistake. This doesn’t sound like the “Loving Father” who wants us near Him and sent His “only begotten Son” to make it possible.   

At the same time we must guard against a tendency to jump from one theological extreme to another.

Ecclesiastes 7:18 “It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.”

Jesus was the full embodiment of both grace and truth, not just a balance of the two or one to the exclusion of the other    When it comes to God’s great grace I have seen a tendency to hold to “one thing” while “letting go of the other” (Eccl 7:18).  In seeing the empowering and affirming aspect of God’s grace I have seen people let go of the fact that God does challenge/discipline us.   The writer of Hebrews does say “discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” Heb 12:1-29.   If we don’t see this we will end up with what I call “Home on the Range Theology” where as the classic western song says, “seldom is heard a discouraging (challenging) word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”  We will end up missing important things God wants to do in us that aren’t always comfortable.

I had the privilege of seeing a historic example of this when visiting Washington D.C. Thomas Jefferson cut out verses he liked  from a couple of Bibles and combined them into the “Jefferson Bible.”   He definitely “grasped one thing” while “letting go of the other” (Eccl 7:18).  

Jefferson Bible

Jefferson Bible

Jefferson donor Bibles

Jefferson donor Bibles








God doesn’t convict us

One case in point I recently discovered was when I read some popular authors who put forth the idea that God doesn’t “convict” us. The line of reasoning is that any challenge or conviction is legalism not grace.  They base it on the fact that “Holy Spirit convicts the world (not His people) of sin” Jn 16:8.  It is important to note that the word for “convict” in Jn 16 is from the Greek word “elegcho” GG1651 which means “convict, refute, confute, to bring to the light, to expose, to correct by word, to admonish, to call into account, to show fault.”   Because Holy Spirit doesn’t “convict” then anything that has that sort of challenge in it isn’t of God.  You can imagine where that leads.

This is why we need to take a systematic approach and look at all the scriptures to determine if that is true, or “what we want to be true.”  Let’s consider the places where that word is used in the New Testament.   

  • Mt 18:15 If your brother sins, go and show (G1651) him his fault (G1651) in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.
  • Lk 3:19 But when Herod the tetrarch was reprimanded (G1651) by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the wicked things which Herod had done,
  • Jn 3:20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed (G1651)  
  • Jn 8:46 Which one of you convicts (G1651) Me of sin? If I speak truth, why do you not believe Me?
  • Jn 16:8 And He, when He comes, will convict (G1651) the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment;
  • 1 Cor 14:24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted (1651) by all, he is called to account by all;
  • Eph 5:11 Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose (G1651) them;
  • Ephesians 5:13-14 But all things become visible when they are exposed (1651) by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light. (14)  For this reason it says, “Awake, sleeper, And arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you.”
  • 1 Tim 5:20 Those who continue in sin, rebuke (G1651) in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.
  • 2 Tim 4:2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove (G1651) rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
  • Tit 1:9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute (G1651) those who contradict.
  • Titus 1:13 This testimony is true. For this reason reprove (G1651) them severely so that they may be sound in the faith,
  • Tit 2:15 These things speak and exhort and reprove (G1651) with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
  • Heb 12:5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED (1651) BY HIM;
  • James 2:8-12 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well. (9)  But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted (G1651) by the law as transgressors.  (10)  For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.  (11)  For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.  (12)  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.
  • Jude 1:14-15 It was also about these men that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, (15)  to execute judgment upon all, and to convict (G1651) all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.”
  • Rev 3:19 Those whom I love, I reprove (G1651) and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.

Additionally Jesus Himself speaks to 7 churches of Asia Minor in the first 3 chapters of Revelation. He links His words 7 times to, “let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22, 3:18).  Jesus through Holy Spirit is speaking and  8 times Jesus tells them to “repent”  of things He isn’t pleased with and further tells them something similar to Hebrews 12, “whom I love I discipline”  (Rev 3:19).   Sounds like Holy Spirit is speaking and challenging.

We are thankful that Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and His people encourage us as sons and daughters reminding us that we are adopted and gloriously forgiven by His grace.  It is also out of His love for us that challenge/discipline comes so that we will not be destroyed by “the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13).  Home on the Range Theology will reject this because of mistaken ideas about the love of God.  While God always loves us that doesn’t mean He always loves what He sees.  Only an evil parent would ignore things that would hurt or destroy their child (Heb 12:11). 

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“Home on the Range” Theology

False doctrine I had the great privilege recently to meet with a large group of people who are involved in teaching God’s word.  We were covering the subject of making sure we take a sound systematic approach in preparing to study or teach the Bible.  If not we may end up in a spiritual cul-de-sac of subjective ideas.  What that means is when using a certain passage or subject from the Bible it is a good idea to look at all the other places where that subject is mentioned and how it is used.  As we review all the places, we get an overall perspective of how God speaks on that subject in Scripture.  We want to interpret the passage or subject we are using in light of the whole of God’s revelation.  Another way to say it is that we use Scripture to interpret Scripture.

No sooner did I finish the weekend when I was confronted with a prime example of why we need to do this.  Over the past 36 years of helping lead churches I have come across my share of strange ideas from people using scriptures.  Some of these ideas tend to circulate in different forms from decade to decade. With over 550 million Christian based web and blog sites along with an unknown greater number of Christian social media sites good and bad spiritual ideas are everywhere.  We have an internet smorgasbord of just about any theology you like.

I had not come across this idea before.  I was reading someone who boldly declared that Christians shouldn’t pray the “Lord’s Prayer.”  I have told a few people about it since then and I get the same response, a moan followed by “what?” The author set out his logic.  The prayer contains “Old Testament legalistic” things like asking God to “forgive our trespasses (sins) as we forgive others” as well as helping “lead us away from temptation and deliver us from evil.”  Jesus taught this before He gave His life for our salvation.  Now because our sins are forgiven and we are in the New Covenant there is no need of such prayers.   After all Jeremiah 31:31-34 announced the New Covenant (affirmed in Heb 8:6-13, 10:16-17)  in which our sins are not only forgiven but “remembered no more.”   Jesus died for our sins “once and for all” (Heb 7:27, 9:10) past, present, and future so why pray something as legalistic as the Lord’s prayer.   Asking forgiveness is some sort of works based Christianity that was Old Testament.

While I have seen my share of hyper grace teachings over the past 4 decades this latest version, often identified with phrases such as “grace revolution,”  also lacks a good systematic approach towards the Bible.  The spiritual logic is easy; you pick out some passages you like, string them together, ignore the rest of the passages surrounding them and “eureka” you’ve found it.  Of course you have to ignore facts like the church has been praying the Lord’s prayer for two millennia.  Early church fathers like “Polycarp” (a disciple of John the Apostle) prayed it, as well as first century writings like the “Didache” record its use.  While some answer, as I have heard, the early church just didn’t understand things like this as well as we do.”  I would be careful with that line of thinking.

The last two writers of the New Testament, Jude and John, began to address similar types of teachings that were creeping into the church.  It is good to remember that prior to their writing Jerusalem had been destroyed causing a serious blow to the Judaizers (those where were trying to pull the early Christians back to keeping the Old Testament law as a means of being right with God).   The biggest problems they were facing were teachings that were causing the church to believe that because of grace and knowledge God was okay with them living any way they desired (defined as “sin” in the Bible).  There are no consequences because of the grace and knowledge they had.  Jude specifically addresses this in most of His short letter.

Jude 1:3-25  Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.  (4)  For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness (aselgeia G766 unbridled lust, excess, outrageousness, shameless behavior, CEV “God treats us much better than we deserve, and so it is all right to be immoral.”) and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.  (5)  Now I desire to remind you…(7)  just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire… (12)  These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves… (16)  These are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage.  (17)  But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ,  (18)  that they were saying to you, “In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.”  (19)  These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit.  (20)  But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit,  (21)  keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.  (22)  And have mercy on some, who are doubting;  (23)  save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.

While we are gloriously and wondrously saved by God’s grace being poured out on us through Jesus, that grace isn’t a license to live any way we desire.  It is an empowerment to walk with Jesus and live in His design.

Titus 2:11-12  For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,  (12)  training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.

“Home On The Range” spirituality

In contrast, a hyper-grace approach has no challenge in it because that would be negative.  There is never any room for such things as conviction, repentance, correction, or confession of sins.  They have already been forgiven in Jesus, past, present, and future.  I call it “Home on the Range” spirituality.  If you remember that classic western song most of us learned growing up (which happens to be the state song of Kansas) “where the deer and the antelope play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”  Everything is positive, no consequences, we just spiritually feel good about ourselves.  God’s revelation throughout scripture sees grace as having a much greater purpose than us simply feeling positive about our lives.

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