The tense relationship between grace and good behavior

May 15, 2015

"St. Paul in Prison" by Rembrandt.

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt.

In the comments section of my previously posted sermon, my friend Tom wondered whether I had gone too far in emphasizing that we do nothing in order to be saved—that even after we’re saved, it’s all grace and no works.

I admit this is tricky. 

I certainly don’t mean to say that since we’re saved by grace, works don’t matter. In fact, if we have no works to show for ourselves—if our lives bear no evidence of God’s saving grace—I’d say we were in danger of hell! 

I am saying, however, that our works are always a response to a prior grace. And our works play no role in saving us.

Tom also wondered if I wasn’t affirming “eternal security”—once saved, always saved. I hope not—I am a Wesleyan, after all. He’s Baptist, so he’d probably be happy if I were! 

No, while I don’t affirm eternal security, I believe it must surely be difficult for a believer to backslide and forfeit a gift of salvation that they have at one time sincerely received.

But let’s not get too comfortable: this Sunday I’m preaching a text that includes 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which is a warning that believers who engage in sinful behavior persistently, without repentance, risk being excluded from God’s kingdom. Why would Paul warn us in such strong language if he were speaking only hypothetically? “Of course you would exclude yourself from God’s kingdom if you persistently committed these sins without repentance, but since you’ve been saved, that’s not really possible, so don’t worry about it.”

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee tackles this question briefly:

For Paul there is to be the closest possible relationship between the experience of grace and one’s behavior that evidences that experience of grace. Paul himself is as concerned as anyone that the latter (right behavior) should not be perceived as coming first or as leading to the former (the experience of grace). But those who concern themselves with grace without equal concern for behavior have missed Paul’s own theological urgencies by several furlongs. It is precisely for these reasons that the warning texts in Paul must be taken with real seriousness. Security in Christ there is, to be sure, but it is a false security that would justify sinners who have never taken seriously “but such were some of you.” That is to whitewash the sinner without regeneration or transformation; Paul simply would not understand such theology.[†]

I’m sure Tom would agree, whether eternal security exists or not, that we should live our lives as if it didn’t!

Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 273-4.

5 Responses to “The tense relationship between grace and good behavior”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    I like Fee’s use of the word “whitewash”, as in Jesus’ comment about the Pharisees being “whitewashed tombs”. All shiny white on the outside, but dead and dark on the inside.

    We are not saved in a “whitewashing”. We are regenerated as “new men”. This is a great mystery, and the assurance of the efficacy of the regeneration, I think is the issue. I don’t want to sound cavalier about “backsliding”. It should scare the heck out of me, when temptation comes. But, if I am to believe the Lord, I must trust that His Grace will be sufficient for me, because I’m pretty sure my own strength of purpose is not sufficient in and of itself.

    • brentwhite Says:

      This is why the question of eternal security isn’t as important to me as it’s “supposed” to be. If we examine our lives and see that we’re not bearing the fruit of repentance and inward change, then it may be because either: we backslid and fell from grace or we never really were regenerated in the first place. Either way, this is a crisis!

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    I left early Friday and just got to this post today. A “tension” there certainly is! I am almost to the point of just throwing my hands up in despair of ever knowing the answer to the query of whether we can “fall from grace.” There just seem to be scriptures on both sides of the issue, as well as philosophical or theological arguments to support either. At the least, of course, we should be “worried enough about it” to keep our spiritual devotion as high as possible and desist from “persistent sin.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree, Tom. If we care enough to “worry” about it, then we probably have nothing to worry about, right? I do think part of my job as pastor is to make those who ought to be worried about it, worry about it—if you know what I mean.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    I guess we should really be more concerned about getting more folk “into” grace. 🙂

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