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Saved by Grace and not by Ministry

Andrew Towner

I'm pretty sure we all know what it feels like. We're tired and stressed. We're too busy and are not enjoying the work. In fact, nothing is fun. We've been prioritising serving the Lord Jesus - we've taken on all that's been asked of us, and more besides. But we're still not doing enough. It isn't making us happy. We don't feel secure in God's love. Our assurance is shaken - are we really Christians at all? That's what life begins to look like if we're saved by what we do. It is stressful, lonely and depressing. And most of us have been there - the place where we're saved by ministry, rather than by grace.

This is an issue that I really struggle with. In my worldliness I find it so easy to let my activities define how I think of myself before God. Actually, all of us in ministry find this hard, and since all Christians are in Christian ministry, this is a topic we all need to consider.

The problem is that this mindset is so ingrained in us that we must spend a good while examining it and seeing how false it really is, before we can start to re-learn the great truth that we are saved by grace. So this article will examine the saved-by-ministry life and its problems in some detail, before contrasting it with the saved-by-grace life, and then coming to its problems and the solutions we can learn as we strive to live as those saved by grace.

The Saved-by-Ministry Life

It's as easy as ABC. When saved by ministry we become Active, Brittle and Cold. Active because we need business to be saved, so that ministry easily crowds out things like personal Bible study, prayer time, our close friendships and sleep. Brittle because how our ministry goes defines our standing before God, and when it goes badly our assurance is shaken. Cold because there is no enjoyment of God in all that we are doing. Let's look at those in more detail.

We are asked to do a chore or talk or something, and we need that activity for the ‘ministry points' it earns us (because that's how we're saved, right?) so we squash other things to fit it in. Often this makes us too busy to do the most important things in life, such as prioritise our time with the Lord (which isn't seen, so scores very few ‘ministry points' at all) or rest time, which is God's gift to refresh us. We're just too active.

Most of us struggle to receive negative feedback - and that continues throughout the Christian life. But when we're saved by ministry we're brittle because a good talk makes us the next John Stott / John Piper / Mark Driscoll / Becca Manley Pippert (in our own heads) and that guarantees us a front-row seat in Glory, whereas a bad talk makes us question whether we're really converted at all. We all know that horrible feeling when the person giving feedback says ‘lets have a look at the passage together' - which means we got it all totally wrong. Our heads and hearts drop right down into the depths - and you could draw a chart of our spiritual lives by plotting the marks out of 10 we discern ourselves to have scored in feedback sessions. We're brittle.

When we're cold there's almost no enjoyment at all. People are problems, service is drudgery, and our diaries are a pain. It is hard to get out of bed, and we wonder why we're bothering anyway. That's because there's no joy in and love for God - which should be the driving forces for all that we do. Instead we're indifferent towards God, and so unconcerned for those he calls us to serve. We're cold.

If you want to know how I came up with this ABC it was very simple - I just looked at my own heart while reflecting on the Bible. I don't write as an expert in winning this battle, but as one who has to keep learning to fight it. Because such ways of thinking are so ingrained in so many of us, we need to see how opposed to the true gospel of grace this mind-set can be. Throughout our lives we've learnt that we're loved when we do well - at school and university, in clubs and societies and teams, in our work-places and offices it is all the same: our successes score brownie points, and our failures lose them. Life basically teaches us that our value depends on our performance.

Of course the business of activity is not wrong in itself. It is absolutely right that God wants us to love him, and that such love is active. Love isn't primarily a feeling in passages such as 1Cor 13, it is primarily a set of actions: patience, kindness, humility, rejoicing in truth, protecting and so on. So David Garland says that Paul: ‘is not talking about some inner feeling or emotion. Love is not conveyed by words; it has to be shown. It can be defined only by what it does and does not do.' That is completely true. The issue here is to what extent our activities should define how we think of ourselves - and the answer is that they are almost entirely unimportant! God judges his people on the basis of Christ's perfect obedience, and any good works we try to offer are filthy rags. Our actions do affect our assurance - continual unrepentant sin should knock our confidence that we're Christians, and steady Spirit-empowered growth should encourage us - but all of us as Christians are clothed in white, washed in the blood of the lamb. Our activity may not be wrong in itself, but it is a totally insufficient basis for our justification before God.

Turning to brittleness, we must remember that sensitivity is not wrong in itself, and that it can be pride to ignore others' opinions. It is entirely right that we listen carefully to the opinions and feedback of the leaders God puts over us, and take our Christian friends' advice seriously. Such sensitivity is not wrong, it displays wisdom. But we must remember that our actions do not make us Christians, and do not define our status before God. We are justified by faith alone. Eph 2:8-9 are key verses: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no-one can boast" (NIV). We stand justified in God's courtroom wholly and simply on the basis of Jesus Christ's completed work on the cross. When we are brittle, we are denying the gospel - or at least failing to understand it.

This brings us to the issue of coldness, which is more obviously sinful. We must not think that God desires loveless actions. God wants our hearts. Jesus says the greatest commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). This is cashed out in loving our neighbour as ourselves - but there's no liberty to put the second commandment first. God does not want our activity without our hearts, he wants heartfelt action. Remember 1Corinthians 13, which reminds us that we can have the eloquence to captivate thousands, or speak the angels' language, or have the hugest theological brain, or move mountains in prayer, or even be a martyr and yet still be a nothing if we have not love. I cannot remember where I came across this, but in contrast to Descartes' motto of ‘I think therefore I am' Paul says: if you love, then you are; if you do not love, then you are not - you are a nothing, a non-being. I say this bluntly so that we can all be sobered by it - and thus turn to God.

It is astonishing how much we can seem to achieve and yet fail. And, as ever, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. John Calvin summarises 1Cor 13 as follows: ‘The main truth in this passage is this - that as love is the only rule of our actions, and the only means of regulating the right use of the gifts of God, nothing, in the absence of it, is approved of by God, however magnificent it may be in the estimation of men. For where love is wanting, the beauty of all virtues is mere tinsel - is empty sound - is not worth a straw - nay more, is offensive and disgusting.' David Jackman is equally clear: ‘The spiritual life of an individual, or of a congregation, is measured not by gifts or busy activity, not by size and impact, not by commitment to sound doctrine or keenness to experience God's power, but by love.' It is our hearts by which we are measured, and can measure ourselves - and loveless activity is a stench before God. What are we to do about our hearts?

All of this is great news, as I hope you've noticed? Its great news because we can't do anything about our own hearts. We can't change ourselves. That's why Paul says "who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord" (NIV). Only God can rescue us from our sin, and only God can change us in our imperfections. Only God can change our hearts. And he does. And he will. It is the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus Christ from death that works in us to give life to our mortal bodies (Rom 8:11). We go on being transformed by the once-for-all renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2). It is God's work alone - and that's great news! We are saved by grace!

Unless we despair of ourselves, we may fail to change. I love the Matt Redman song which starts ‘Who O Lord could save themselves, their own soul could heal?' It's the same idea as Matt 5:3, where Jesus says: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (NIV & ESV). My boss calls this healthy self-despair - the right despair that sends us in great confidence to God, our loving Father, trusting in Christ alone and not ourselves, asking for his mighty power to be at work in our lives. That is what can and will change our hearts.

The Saved-by-Grace Life

It's as easy as JKL. We're Joyful at our Redemption, Knowing God in Relationship, and cashing out our Love in Response. Lets look at each in turn.

Joyful at our Redemption

The primary joy inhibitors for most of us are either un-confessed & un-repented sins (which we thought about earlier) or our forgetting what we were and what we deserve. In that second case, meditating on Eph 2:1-3 is a real gift. We were dead in our sinful disobedience to God. We weren't seriously ill, or under the weather, or being patient with a tickly cough. We were dead. Dead! So just as we're pleased to get over a cough, pretty happy to no longer be under the weather, and really delighted to recover from serious illness, what is a proportionate reaction be to being brought to life? Extreme, deep, sustained joy! A preacher I once worked with used to regularly remind himself and us that we deserved being punished in hell right now - and that reminder is a great joy-giver. We were dead - could do nothing about it. Our need was infinite. Our actions in salvation were non-existent - even the faith we responded with is a gift from God (Eph 2:8). When we know we are saved by grace alone, there is great joy at our redemption.

Knowing God in Relationship

Biblically, redemption is not an end in itself. God saves us for a relationship. I worry that the recent and ongoing debates over Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Justification (which are vitally important and central to the gospel of grace and the character of God) have led to us forgetting that the purpose of atonement, propitiation, redemption and justification is relationship. We are saved to relate to God as our Father. Interestingly, this relationship could not be more central in Jesus' mind. He says that "this is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God" (Jn 17:3, NIV). He equates knowing God with eternal life. Our relationship is our eternal life! That's why the culmination of many biblical expressions of the gospel is that we are heirs with Christ (Eph 1:13-18 and Rom 8:15-39 for example). That's why the best model for prayer is the Lord's Prayer, starting "Our Father" - reminding us (especially when we pray) that we know God in a real, true and spiritual relationship.

JI Packer warned of this years ago in that great classic Knowing God, saying that ‘You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one's holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God's child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God.' It is all about knowing God in relationship.

Loving God is Cashed out in Response

Jesus himself said: "If you love me, keep my commandments" (KJV). All we do for God flows from our loving him. That love, as we saw earlier, is active love - all in response to what God has done for us.

Rom 12:1-2 are amongst the most beautiful verses in this stunning book. "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will." (TNIV) All that we are to do is based on all that God has done. Many of us struggle to understand Romans, but Paul gives a summary of chapters 1-11 right here: "God's mercy." Our response is offering ourselves back to God, which is our true or acceptable worship. This worship is made possible by our changed-once-and-for-all minds, and happens as that once-for-all change is worked out in every aspect of our lives. It is clear from Rom 6:18-22 and 7:21-25 that we have been changed once and for all. That change needs to go on being cashed out in our lives as God the Holy Spirit strengthens us. Our love for God is shown in our response to what he has done.

It is this gospel of grace that has changed our hearts. Col 3:1-4 is clear that we are now raised up with Christ, hidden in him and seated with him - and are called to set our minds and hearts there, where he is. That is Paul's key motivation for the lists of things we're to put off (verses 5-11) and put on (12-14). I remember speaking on a retreat a few years ago, in a room of very Godly people, and asking them to brainstorm things we should do as Christians. That was easy - three times we went round the room without stopping. I then asked us to brainstorm reasons why we should do them - and there was a marked silence of at least 20-30 seconds. It is so easy to know what we should do and not know why. But the gospel is the why. As Paul says: "Since then you have been raised with Christ ... therefore put off ... and therefore put on ..."

No doubt we are all familiar with much of what has been said so far. But the fact is that we all struggle with it - that's why that talk on which this article is based has been requested so many times from the 9:38 website. So lets look now at the problems with the saved-by-grace life, before turning to two final issues, asking how grace drives ministry, and looking at help for those struggling with this issue.

Assurance

The first problem is that we often doubt that we are saved. For some of us such doubts will be very serious and hard-fought. For some they will be shadows in the background. I think it really helps to get one thing very clear: assurance can only be on the basis of Christ's completed work on the cross. There is no other grounds for assurance. It has been well said that we should take 10 looks at the cross to every one look at ourselves - yet how many of us ever manage that! It seems to me that our actions do play some role in our knowing we are Christians (James 2 says faith isn't faith without them, and 1John makes a similar point). Likewise our true repentance is an encouragement that God is at work in us. But neither actions nor repentance are the basis for our assurance. Our assurance cannot and must not be based on any good works that we do. John Stott is quoted as saying ‘you cannot get to heaven by good works - though you cannot get there without them either' which is a great way of putting it. We often look for our assurance in the wrong place, or in the right places with the wrong proportions. Instead, we must look to the cross.

What should we do if we're struggling with assurance? Look at the cross. At my lowest ebbs I like to come back to some of the purple passages of the Bible: Rom 3:21-26, Ps 22, Phil 2:5-11, Rom 8, Is 53, Rev 21-22 and so on. But here's my bottom line: in John 19:30 the man who cannot lie said "it is finished" (NIV). My sin is paid for, my penalty is paid, my redemption is accomplished. Jesus cannot lie, and he says so at the pinnacle of his ministry. It is finished. I strongly recommend that we all memorise such verses, and learn to turn to the completed work of Jesus Christ alone as the basis for our assurance.

Grace

The problem we have with grace is that it is counter-intuitive and offensive. Really offensive. You're part of a team each being paid £1,000 to complete a fortnight's building work. 10 days in the foreman hires another few workers - and they're also paid £1,000 each at the end of the job! They're paid the same as you, but only worked three days! That's really offensive, isn't it? But it's a biblical picture of God's generous grace (Matt 20:1-16). Grace is being given what we don't deserve - it is counter-intuitive and can seem offensive (depending on who you see yourself as in the story).

What should we do when we forget grace, or find it confusing or even annoying? Remember the alternative - and imagine demanding that God treat you exactly as you deserve. It is a great reminder that without grace we would be nowhere - still dead in our transgressions and sins. And knowing the joy of grace in our lives will help us to enjoy God's grace to others too. Sure, God blesses people who you know to be sinners - but if he didn't, he wouldn't bless you either. Of course, that person who has been given the best and most prestigious of jobs isn't perfect and doesn't deserve it - but are we perfect and do we deserve that job or anything else at all anyway?

Two final issues: how does grace drive ministry? and what should we do if we are struggling right now?

How does grace drive ministry? We've seen that if we understand what God has done for us, we naturally turn to serve him. The difference between grateful response and trying to earn blessing is illustrated by these two very similar scenarios. Imagine you're trying to get someone to give you £1,000,000 - what would you do? Try to please and serve them, make them happy, encourage them, and so on. It'd be hard work, stressful and potentially very demoralising. Now imagine someone gives you £1,000,000 - what would you do then? Surely the same things - but with a very different state of heart and mind. Still hard work - but in joy rather than stress and with pleasure as opposed to being demoralised. No difference in what is done. All the difference in the world in how it is done and how it feels - and that's the biblical response to grace.

The other way grace drives ministry is through joy at God's full sovereignty. We couldn't have saved ourselves - it had to be God alone. And straight after Eph 2:8-9 we hear that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (NIV) The God who sovereignly saved us by his grace then sovereignly sends and leads us onwards - and we trust him, the God of all sovereign grace.

What if I am struggling right now? Here's five things that will help:

  • i) Focus on the completed work of Christ! Perhaps you could help yourself by memorising some key Bible verses to remind you of it (there have been a number in this article). Or you could learn the words to songs like How Deep the Father's Love and Before the Throne of God Above. Remember to pick God-centred verses and songs - when we need help with this we're often focussing too much on ourselves already.

  • ii) Remember that it is God who changes us, and that our job is to keep in step with the Spirit. Rest and relax in God's once-for-all-time changing of your heart, and resolve to walk in his ways by his power. That might include confessing and repenting of sin. It will certainly include thanksgiving for all God has done for and in us.

  • iii) Don't struggle alone. Tell some key friends. If you're in full-time gospel ministry, tell your boss. The main reason not to do so would be pride - so remember that God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble. Rejoice that God doesn't ask us to fight the fight of faith alone, but gives us brothers and sisters to spur us on and encourage us. And if your reason not to tell your boss is that you don't want to bother such a busy and important person, then remember that bosses are called to die for their teams as they serve them - and if you never tell them that sort of thing, you're denying them the chance to serve you in the footsteps and pattern of the Lord Jesus.

  • iv) Learn to recognise when you, or those you work with and for, motivate by wrong means. Ask yourself for whom you want to do things - do you seek approval from God, or others? Ask who your colleagues are motivating you to impress. Discern when the saved-by-ministry mindset is coming into your ears, mind or heart - and fight at those times!

  • v) Keep doing the simple things, and especially discern what things drain or refresh you. Often the world's escapism (cinemas, parties, clubs, sports and so on) may not be the best refreshment for Christians. They can help us forget out problems - but do they deal with them? Read your Bible or some other great Christian literature. Have quality Christian friends round for dinner. Put on a great Christian CD (my current favourites include Come Weary Saints and Awaken the Dawn). Maintain evangelistic opportunities with close friends. Perhaps some just need to get out of the house - with those CDs or one of your favourite preachers in your iPod. For most of us the struggle is as much physical as mental - do some exercise and get some sleep! Exercise doesn't have to be strenuous - some of us just need a brisk walk in the fresh air, others more vigorous activities. These things may not sound spiritual - but they are God-given abilities, and are God-given for a reason. So let's work out what habits and activities refresh us, and discipline ourselves to maintain them, for Jesus' sake, and for those we serve for his sake.

Conclusion

The fight to be saved by grace and not ministry cuts right to the heart of the gospel, and contrasts massively with our natural human hearts, so it is a fight we have to engage with - whether as full-time Christian workers in the world or as full-time Christian workers for the church. It is a fight to live out what God has done for us. It is a fight to believe what is true. It is a fight to keep in step with the Spirit as he transforms us into the likeness of Christ. It is a fight we have to keep on fighting - confident in his victory, and knowing this (Phil 1:6) that he who has begun a good work in us will keep on bringing it to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.