Is grace always opposed to effort?

Question

Is grace always opposed to effort?

Answer

Yes, and no. Let’s first start with a brief definition of grace.

Grace is about getting what one doesn’t deserve – like receiving eternal life when one deserves eternal death. Compare this to mercy, which is not getting what one deserves – like though one deserves hell, not being sentenced to an eternal hell.

Essentially, grace is God’s love and mercy given to someone because God desires them to have it. Grace may not be earned, worked for, or merited. Absolutely no one is due grace; it is completely underserved. It is a free gift. It has absolutely nothing to do with our effort, but everything to do with Christ’s effort and finished work.

And though this was a valid brief definition, biblical grace is more than just unmerited favor. Grace is so alien to the natural man that it is often defined in such a way as to not reflect man’s ongoing depravity. So we then add that grace is divine favor shown where there is positive de-merit in the one receiving it (A.W. Pink). However, even all this doesn’t fully describe biblical grace. It is so amazing that, in many ways, it is beyond mere words. But you’ll know it when you have it.

Salvation isn't something that can be earned or achieved by merit (Eph. 2:9; 2 Tim. 2:9; Tit. 3:5). One can’t work for grace, nor can one earn grace as wages for work done. And though biblical grace has an extremely high price, it isn’t for sale. As is said in Isaiah 55:1, "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." Well, how then is it bought? Jesus bought it with his sacrifice alone and gives it freely to his people!

In initial salvation effort has no say. It has no value. It is silenced by the free gift of grace which even opposes our effort. However, after salvation, grace is not opposed to effort. Actually, after salvation grace demands effort (cf. Jas. 2:14-26). While one is not saved by good works, they are always saved unto them.

Paul tells us, "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age" (Tit. 2:11-12). So, is renouncing ungodliness and worldly passions an ongoing good work in the believer’s life? Does it take effort? Is living an upright, godly life of self-control a good work? Paul also says, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you to will and to act on behalf of His good purpose" (Phil. 2:12-13).

In sanctification we see a synergism at work – both God and the saint working together. Initially in salvation, grace is opposed to effort, even alien to it. But after salvation grace demands ongoing godly effort.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).