How great is God’s grace? The familiar hymn tells us that it is “greater than all our sin.” But does the broad expanse of God’s grace give us license to live however we like? Should Christians ever fall into the habit of writing off their own sin?
The answer is a seemingly obvious “No,” but there are many in the church today who effectively dismiss the severity of their sin, relishing in God’s grace. For them, any attempt to live holy, disciplined lives is tantamount to works righteousness. Instead, the believer must choose to rest in the completed work of Christ and the seemingly infinite grace He supplies.
In that skewed worldview—and in direct contradiction to the testimony of Scripture—grace and faith stand opposed. Such a false dichotomy is a direct assault on the true nature of salvation and sanctification. In short, it’s an attack on the lordship of Christ.
By Grace Through Faith
Salvation is solely by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). That truth is the biblical watershed for all we teach. But it means nothing if we begin with a misunderstanding of grace or a faulty definition of faith.
God’s grace is not a static attribute whereby He passively accepts hardened, unrepentant sinners. Grace does not change a person’s standing before God yet leave his character untouched. Real grace does not include, as Lewis Sperry Chafer claimed, “the Christian’s liberty to do precisely as he chooses.”  Lewis Sperry Chafer, Grace, 1922 (reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 345.
True grace, according to Scripture, teaches us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Grace is the power of God to fulfill our New Covenant duties (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:19), however inconsistently we obey at times. Clearly, grace does not grant permission to live in the flesh; it supplies power to live in the Spirit.
Faith, like grace, is not static. Saving faith is more than just understanding the facts and mentally acquiescing. It is inseparable from repentance, surrender, and a supernatural longing to obey. None of those responses can be classified exclusively as a human work, any more than believing itself is solely a human effort.
Misunderstanding on that key point is at the heart of the error of those who reject lordship salvation. They assume that because Scripture contrasts faith and works, faith must be incompatible with works. They set faith in opposition to submission, yieldedness, or turning from sin, and they categorize all the practical fruits of salvation as human works. They stumble over the twin truths that salvation is a gift, yet it costs everything.
Those ideas are paradoxical, but they are not mutually exclusive. The same dissonance is seen in Jesus’ own words, “I will give you rest,” followed by “take My yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:28–29). The rest we enter into by faith is not a rest of inactivity.
Salvation is a gift, but it is appropriated through a faith that goes beyond merely understanding and assenting to the truth. Demons have that kind of “faith” (James 2:19). True believers are characterized by faith that is as repulsed by the life of sin as it is attracted to the mercy of the Savior. Drawn to Christ, they are drawn away from everything else. Jesus described genuine believers as “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). They are like the repentant tax-gatherer, so broken he could not even look heavenward. He could only beat his breast and plead, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
That man’s desperate prayer is one of the clearest pictures of genuine, God-wrought repentance in all of Scripture. His plea was not in any sense a human work or an attempt at earning righteousness. On the contrary, it represented his total abandonment of confidence in religious works. As if to prove it he stood “some distance away” from the praying Pharisee. He understood that the only way he could ever be saved was by God’s merciful grace. On that basis, having first come to the end of himself, he received salvation as a gift. Jesus said that man “went to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).
Our Lord’s point in relating that account was to demonstrate that repentance is at the core of saving faith. The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means “to think after.” It implies a change of mind, and some who oppose lordship salvation have tried to limit its meaning to that.  G. Michael Cocoris, Lordship Salvation—Is It Biblical? (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1983), 11. But a definition of repentance cannot be drawn solely from the etymology of the Greek word.
Repentance as Jesus characterized it in this incident involves a recognition of one’s utter sinfulness and a turning from self and sin to God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9). Far from being a human work, it is the inevitable result of God’s work in a human heart. And it always represents the end of any human attempt to earn God’s favor. It is much more than a mere change of mind—it involves a complete change of heart, attitude, interest, and direction. It is a conversion in every sense of the word.
Faith & Obedience
The Bible does not recognize “conversion” that lacks this radical change of direction (Luke 3:7–8). A true believer cannot remain rebellious—or even indifferent. Genuine faith will inevitably provoke some degree of obedience. In fact, Scripture often equates faith with obedience (John 3:36; Romans 1:5; 16:26; 2 Thessalonians 1:8). “By faith Abraham [the father of true faith] . . . obeyed” (Hebrews 11:8). That is the heart of the message of Hebrews 11, the great treatise on faith.
Faith and works are not incompatible. Jesus even calls the act of believing a work (John 6:29)—not merely a human work, but a gracious work of God in us. He brings us to faith, then enables and empowers us to believe unto obedience (cf. Romans 16:26).
It is precisely here that the key distinction must be made. Salvation by faith does not eliminate works per se. It does away with works that are the result of human effort alone (Ephesians 2:8). It abolishes any attempt to merit God’s favor by our works (v. 9). But it does not deter God’s foreordained purpose that our walk should be characterized by good works (v. 10).
We must remember above all that salvation is a sovereign work of God. Biblically it is defined by what it produces, not by what one does to get it. Works are not necessary to earn salvation. But true salvation wrought by God will not fail to produce the good works that are its fruit (cf. Matthew 7:17). No aspect of salvation is merited by human works, but it is all the work of God (Titus 3:5–7). Thus salvation cannot be defective in any dimension. “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). As a part of His saving work, God will produce repentance, faith, sanctification, yieldedness, obedience, and ultimately glorification. Since He is not dependent on human effort in producing these elements, an experience that lacks any of them cannot be the saving work of God.
If we are truly born of God, we have a faith that cannot fail to overcome the world (1 John 5:4). We may sin (1 John 2:1)—we will sin—but the process of sanctification can never stall completely. God is at work in us (Philippians 2:13), and He will continue to perfect us until the day of Christ (Philippians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24).
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