I have now finished reading John Piper’s response to N.T. Wright concerning justification, entitled The Future of Justification. While I could go on about some of the things said in it, there was one particular point that struck me. In critiquing Wright’s understanding of first century, Second Temple Judaism, Piper points out that it very well could be (as Wright asserts) that the first century Jews had doctrines speaking of the grace of God toward them and yet in reality were not resting in that very grace to save them, but relying upon their own supposed self-righteousness to make them right before God in the final judgment.
This made me start thinking about how many of us in the Evangelical world believe in the grace of God in Christ (as a nice and even excellent theoretical doctrine for many), but in reality do not rest in that grace provided in Christ, just as the Pharisees did not, according to Jesus Himself. This even makes me consider many of the students in our student ministry who seem (at least outwardly) to have no zeal whatsoever for the things of God. I’m not just talking about a zeal to be “good” and “moral,” but a zeal for knowing God more in the Scriptures, seeing His grace in bigger and brighter ways through the work of the cross, and taking that grace to those in our surrounding communities and to our neighbors through missions, ministry work, witnessing, living lives of holiness, … not just to be good, self-righteous, moral people, but to give God glory through works that please and honor Him.
Now I’m not saying this as a blanket statement for all Evangelicals or all students within the ministry I love and volunteer in. But I see and hear a lot of people talk about the grace of God, give the right answers, who talk of the free offer of salvation in Christ, and yet lives go untransformed by grace in reality. It seems many times there is little fruit. Are we really resting in grace, in reality, objectively? Or do we merely believe in it from afar without getting wet, so to speak?
This made me even stop and evaluate my own life, as it should. How can I critique others if I don’t stop and critique myself first? (You know the whole “taking the log out of my own eye to take the spec out of yours” thing?) Do I rest in grace every day? May God have mercy on my soul, because sometimes I don’t in all honesty. When I don’t, the results are evident in my life, for sin and vileness pours forth from my heart in various ways. And my lovely, sweet, selfless wife gets to see the best of that. May God have mercy on me, a grave sinner. This is a call to myself as well to rest in the grace of God alone for all things, salvation and progressive holiness.
Believing versus resting in grace is such a simple distinction with such vast implications for our lives. This is a frightening thought to me: affirming the doctrine of God’s grace without experiencing that grace unto salvation, and of necessity, true inner life-change by the Holy Spirit.
In American Evangelical Christianity, we can wax eloquently about all kinds of orthodox doctrines, have them written out on our websites, or in a pamphlet, and yet when I see the actual effect in people’s lives of these doctrines they propose to believe in, and see startling statistics about how a majority of Evangelicals now believe that Jesus is not the only way to get right with God, I have to wonder about the state of belief in people’s hearts within our own circles. The rampant materialism, the idolatrous pursuit of career as if it could save us from hell, the fake smiles in church toward other people who are absorbed in the same idolatrous materialism we ourselves are mastered by, the singing of songs to God in praise to Him while later cursing in our hearts in all kinds of ways? We need to not only believe in God’s grace, we need to rest in it, experience it in power, by His Spirit alone, in a way that He then effects real change in our hearts.
Can I see into what people are actually thinking and believing? Absolutely not, nor do I presume to. Yet people are making confessions concerning what they say they believe about Christianity and the Gospel that are a far cry from being Biblically accurate. In addition, the outward result in people’s lives is one that is not consistent with that confession (in no way saying people need to be perfect, for that is unbiblical, but that there is no general direction toward holiness). This is concerning to me. It is a frightening prospect: people believing the Gospel in vain. It is something Paul, Peter, John, James and Jesus Himself all warned about repeatedly in the Scriptures. Why is it we hear very little of these warnings in our churches; warnings that are so prevalent in Scripture, almost as much as the grace of God is? May it be because we have succumbed to the worldly culture of “niceness” and “positive thinking” we are absorbed in as a cultural norm nowadays?
As a movement of Christianity, are we merely believing in grace or actually resting in it? Have we come to an end of ourselves and our supposed moral goodness (I mean actually come to an end of ourselves, not just a theoretical doctrine) and have we really rested in Christ alone for salvation? If you rest in grace, you are necessarily believing in it as a stated doctrine. But it is possible to believe in grace as a doctrine without actually experiencing it and resting in it, which is what we need in order to be saved. And may I state this is true even for us in the Reformed community. No one is exempt from this horrible possibility. This is exactly what the Pharisees and many (not all) Jews were doing during Jesus’ time. This makes me think of the frightening passages in Hebrews that speak to this very point:
“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” – Hebrews 2:1-3
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.” – Hebrews 6:4-8
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:26-31
According to these passages and other like them, it is possible to believe in grace (theoretically) and even ascribe it to God as an attribute of His character and nature, and even experience that grace to a degree, and yet not rest in that grace in reality, by His grace alone and thus, as a result of this unbelief, go to hell. THAT is scary, as it is supposed to be. These passages are not in Holy Scripture without good reason, for many many people have gone down this very path. Jesus even said that at the judgment seat in the end of time that, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'” (Matthew 7:21-23).
These passages are meant to show us the reality that many people who claim to be not only believers in grace, but “rest-ers” in grace, that though they acknowledge a doctrine (in this instance, the grace of God), their hearts are far from it and are indeed NOT resting in that grace in reality. They are open to condemnation even now as a result (John 3:36). This is the entire history of Israel, back and forth, back and forth, resting in His grace and then falling from it, resulting in God’s punishment. It has also manifested itself in the history of the church time and time again, with various movements resulting from bad (salvation) theology popping up again and again. And yet it seems to have reared it’s ugly head within a majority of Evangelicalism now. We have stated confessions in our churches, on our web sites. But do we really believe the content of those confessions and charters?
Now, “What is the will of the Father who is in heaven,” that Jesus speaks of, you ask? To believe (like really and actually believe and rest) on the name of the only Son of God who united Himself to man, as one of us, lived a life of complete perfection before the Father on our behalf (because we couldn’t), suffered the wrath of God in the place of believing sinners, and rise from the grave triumphant over sin, death, Satan, and hell. If you believe in Him alone, rest in Him alone, trust in Him as the only source of salvation, knowing that in yourself you cannot do a thing to save yourself, but rather trust that Christ interposed His blood on your behalf, you will be saved. “But what if I just can’t believe it? It’s so hard to believe such things!” Cry out to God, just as the father of the possessed boy cried out, “Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Beg for God’s mercy to open your eyes to the truth of it. It is your only hope.
You must believe this in order to be saved from God’s wrath that we all deserve. But in order to believe even, you must have your heart transplanted by His power alone in order to taste and see that the Lord is good in the first place. Jesus spoke about this very thing to Nicodemus. In John 3:1-15, He said in order to see, let alone enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you must be born again. Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ statement was one that would naturally result from all of us. “How can a man be born again a second time from his mother’s womb?” But Jesus was not speaking of a second physical birth, but rather of a birth of your spirit, a regenerating of your soul from spiritual death to life. You must be born of God in your inner being, have your spirit made alive by His power alone if you are to see Him, His salvation and thus trust Jesus Christ alone for eternal life.
Here’s my challenge to all of us. Check your soul. Do you believe in the grace of God made possible by the blood of Christ, sealed in His resurrection? Well good … as James says, even the demons believe this … and shudder. The right question is, are you resting in His grace provided for you on the cross? Has the grace of God truly invaded your soul? You will know, for you will see fruit in your life: a desire to pursue Christ, a pain in your soul when you sin, a supernatural joy that cannot be explained any other way than by God’s presence in your inner being, made possible by His effective work in you.
For those of us who are resting in grace, the challenge to us is the same: are we resting in grace not only for salvation, but for true inner life change, and not resting on our supposed moral power and wills to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to make our lives different? Only God can work in us to change us and make us holy. It is His sovereign power and effective change that we need to be pursuing everyday in Scripture reading/studying, prayer with Christ (as in actual communion with His presence, not just making Him a PEZ dispenser for our various pleasures) and fellowship with other believers who can encourage us and prod us on toward holiness and pleasing the One who saved us and justified us by His grace alone.