There was a recent article on liberate.org, balancing act, with which I really resonated. I’ve also been confronted in the course of my ministry on occasion with the assertion that I am over-emphasizing grace in my teaching to the neglect of some rubric for works. Perhaps grace needs to be balanced with love for neighbors, or grace needs to be balanced with love and worship of God, or grace needs to be balanced with our need to resist immorality. It is probably baffling to people that I don’t think this is right – because who is going to say that we don’t need to love our neighbors?! How could you possibly assert that such a position is biblical? Clearly what is needed is balance, they would say. Too much grace means license to hate and live selfishly.
Balancing Breathing with Suffocation
The problem is, sometimes we can spin out words that end up being nonsense when you examine their meaning. Saying that we need to balance grace with works is similar to saying that we need to balance breathing air with suffocation. There is no balance; you either breathe air or you die. People try to grasp some of these concepts about God by introducing the idea of balance in a nonsensical way.
Balancing God’s Love and God’s Wrath
Take the idea of the love of God and the wrath of God. If we try to strike a balance between these, then it means that God is basically schizophrenic: sometimes He is angry and wrathful and jealous and mean, and sometimes He is loving and kind and forgiving. Who knows what kind of “balance” God is going to strike today? Am I saying that the wrath of God is a myth? Isn’t that unbiblical? It would be unbiblical, and that is not what I’m saying at all. The love of God is the genesis of His wrath. He doesn’t love distantly and impotently. He cares what happens to us. He sees injustice, and because of His great love, He cares far more than we might be comfortable with. We deal with small injustices by sweeping them under the rug – and we call that “grace”. The care with which God views even small injustices and sin against people will not so easily go away. He upholds justice because He loves. Do you want to believe in a gentle “loving” God who pats your head and doesn’t care one whit about your pain? Of course not! You want God to have wrath because you want God to prove that He really does love you! You want to know that you matter to God, and that He has seen the injustice and pain that have afflicted you. So there is no “balance” between God’s love and God’s wrath. This waters down God’s love and eliminates the need for the gospel. God is love, and thus God has beautiful caring passionate wrath. He will not let any injustice go ever, because of His great love. He has publicly and carefully displayed His great love and His resulting wrath in Christ on the cross. Justice for our sins has been served. God and all who believe are satisfied with that. If you are not satisfied, if you think there is some addition you must make, it is evidence of disbelief.
Faith and Works
It is similar with the idea that we must balance grace and works. Faith in Christ means that you believe that God, by His own initiative, has saved us through the cross. There is no balance in that idea. Either God saves us completely to the uttermost once and forever, or He does not. If this must be balanced with our works, then clearly He does not save us to the uttermost. We save ourselves. If the whole world is permissible except one tiny little thing, we have proven that we will find that one little thing and eat it. The gospel is the exact opposite. If we have eaten of an entire universe of the forbidden, and yet have faith in this one little thing – the gospel – we are rescued. There can be no balance: either God saves us, or we save ourselves. One little drop of pee in your coffee, and you throw it out. One little bit of works in your redemption and you’ve rejected “so great a salvation.” There cannot and there must not be any balance at all. We need salvation, not better guidelines for living.
Wait a minute, you say! I’m not talking about salvation. I’m talking about sanctification. I’m talking about what you do after you’re saved. Oh my GOD. I have been having this conversation 100,000 times in some kind of crazy feedback loop. And, I’ll have it 100,000 times more. Let’s answer it this way today – let’s look at the book of James.
8 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 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. 13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
The point James is actually making is that flawed faith produces flawed works. If you have authentic faith, and your faith is wrapped up in mercy and has triumphed over judgment, you will have a certain flavor of works. This is the example of Abraham: his faith justified him. Faith is what reckons you righteous. If you believe in this perfect law of liberty, which is the sufficiency and great depth of mercy in Christ and Him crucified, it will change how you view people. You will be able to view people with care and compassion and mercy, because you believe the real injustice of their sins has been avenged. You see everyone as equal in this regard: rich or poor, all are sinners who need free-gift salvation.
Sanctification Trumps Salvation? This is Balance?
If you think that you are saved by Jesus, but that your bad progress in sanctification can trump that salvation, you are ironically going to fail at your works because you have a flawed faith. It is the faith which is the all-important factor. If you regard your works as a free gift for which you are grateful and not as some way to ingratiate yourself to God’s justice, you uphold justice and are free to do good, however imperfectly you may do so. But if you regard your works as the source of your faith, you will regard your works as your way of manipulating the good favor of God, and the free gift is made void. As James says later, if you really think you are so good, see if you can control your tongue. He doesn’t say that you can, he says that you can’t! What is the point? You need real one-way pure gospel grace that can’t be destroyed or upended if you want to do a few works. Faith in God-initiated God-bought one-way love towards you is your free ticket to great works.
In the end, faith in some kind of balance between grace and works is nonsensical and result in an entirely unsustainable life. Faith in the real grace of the gospel is an easy yoke and an unburdensome command. How long could you live balanced on a tightrope? Balance is a circus act because it is so difficult. The gospel is not a balancing act: it is a release into rest. Breathe easy, Christian: you have been saved.