When I talk about grace (which is pretty much all the time), I sometimes get some helpful advice from people who want to clean up my message. Grace doesn’t just mean that God forgives us, ha ha ha. Grace means that God empowers us to actually be righteous. It is righteousness gasoline. They seem to say, “that’s what you really mean, right?”
Of course this is awkward because I know they mean well and I don’t want to come off as some kind of doctrinal policeman. I want to take some time to really reflect on this and give a solid answer. I found that it is difficult to find even cherry-picked verses to support the idea that grace is mainly rocket fuel for righteous behavior. We might try this:
5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.
See! Grace = Empowerment
See?! Grace really is about supplying moral excellence and self-control and perseverance and godliness. It isn’t just forgiveness.
Let me translate this. Forgiveness of our trespasses is small potatoes. We’re not interested. We want to go back to the importance of our good works. We don’t want a namby-pamby faith that just forgives. We want a manly demanding difficult gospel. We want that sting of judgment back. We want to have the chance to be one of the elite righteous Christians that have moved beyond the need for mere forgiveness on to real-life repentance and moral transformation and even miracle-working power. Here’s a verse to prove I’m right, and let’s stop talking about all that “Jesus died for your sins” pablum. We all know that, let’s put it behind us. Grace is really empowerment, not mere acceptance.
Grace = Forgiveness AND Empowerment?
I could take the idea that grace is really both – it is forgiveness AND empowerment. And that may be true, but it is a dangerous road. Because what they understand is this: grace is power to act such that I can earn my salvation by my deeds. This is really wrong and quite harmful. If I run afoul on Romans 7:15ff, and prove to still be some kind of sinner, doesn’t that mean that I don’t have the real grace that empowers me to live righteously? So we have undermined our assurance of salvation with this kind of thinking. The deeds that spring from faith spring from a faith in the power of the gospel for SALVATION (Romans 1:17). Many times the real answer to these kinds of questions is orthogonal. The solution comes from a direction you don’t expect. You have to stake your claim in the scorched ground of a fruitless forgiveness if you want to see the genuine fruit come forth. It’s as if God says, “defend this little patch of lentils to the death, and you will win the war.” And we might say, “Really?! How can this patch be that important?” But it is. It is big raw dumb giant eternal forgiveness, raw unadulterated redemption, that holds true whether you change or not, that alone has the power to produce real virtue. Scandalous forgive-everything grace is the only soil that produces good lasting fruit. Fruit is the offspring of the helpless. The fruit tree cannot control where it is planted, nor how it is watered and fertilized, nor how much sunshine it receives. It can only stand there and be catered to. It cannot even really control its own fruitfulness. It can only grow and produce in its season. So are we. The soil we have sprung from is salvation through Christ crucified. He died for our sins while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8).
Back to the Context
Now back to 2 Peter 1. In cherry picking these verses, we have cut out the crucial context:
1 Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: 2 Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; 3 seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. 4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. 5 Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, 6 and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, 7 and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.
The Kind of Faith that Works
Perhaps people think that the first four verses here are just fly-over territory, greetings and such. I happen to think these verses are crucial context. The faith that supplies all of these virtues is a faith born of the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is a faith born of grace and peace multiplied to us in the knowledge of God. It is a faith which sees (Ephesians 1:18) that His divine power has already granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness. It is a faith which hears God’s own glorious and excellent call. It is a faith which knows His promises and apprehends their precious and magnificent nature. It is a faith which, prior to supplying any of these virtues, by pure gift and raw lavish grace, has become a partaker of the divine nature. Notice that it is this faith in the unconditional and foreordained provision of God Himself that has effected our escape from the corruption that is in the world by lust.
It is this kind of faith which is able to supply moral excellence and the rest of it. If you skip that stuff and go straight for the moral excellence and brotherly kindness without any real grasp of the provision of God for you which came prior, you don’t really have the first ingredient in the list – faith. People say, “I know so and so who became a Christian, and then lived like hell. You can tell they were never really a Christian.” And this is true – they were presented with a moralistic caricature of the Christian message, but it wasn’t the gospel. So of course they never exhibited these fruits in a lasting way. They couldn’t possibly have had the first ingredient. Gospel faith is a faith which counts the things in this list as gifts, not requirements, because it believes first in the promises of God through the blood of Christ. If the promises are based on these qualities as requirements, it nullifies the blood of Christ, which could not possibly be genuine faith. These qualities have become barter items, and such faith will prove unable to produce genuine virtue.
The Nature of Your Faith is All-Important
So the difference between having these virtues and lacking these virtues starts at the beginning: the nature of your faith. And that faith is a conviction that God has an unchanging unwavering one-way love and multiplied lavish grace towards you. It is a faith that says His grace is far more stubborn and persistent than our sin. If you don’t think that, you will lack self-control and perseverance, because you will be stuck believing there is a boundary to His love for you, and you will be constantly wondering if you have crossed that line. So every time you doubt, you will not have that faith which supplies moral excellence and knowledge and self-control. You will be stuck finding significance and fulfillment someplace besides His grace, and you will not persevere because you believe in a mean monster God who judges you and hates you and only offers a tenuous capricious acceptance to you.
It is the nature of your faith which is all-important if you are interested in displaying these virtuous qualities. It must be a faith which does not deify the qualities and worship moral transformation. Belief in God’s radical grace is the soil from which true virtue grows. There is no other. The gospel is not merely empowerment for good works. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:17-18). If you have the idea in your head that salvation is ho-hum boring stuff, your deeds are going to suffer. Lavish grace allows you to count your own deeds as peripheral fruits, but real ones, in your rapture over the overwhelming genuine love of God for you.