If our salvation and eternal life is based on what Jesus did and does – not on what we do, then the obvious question which must arise at some point in time is: Why work if it’s free? If the workers in the parable we looked at last week can arrive at the end of the day and receive the same wage as those who started at first light, what is the point of working hard all day? Why should we pick up our cross and follow Jesus; why should we respond to the many exhortations and pleas in the New Testament to walk in holiness and purity; why work out our salvation in fear and trembling; why strive to live up to a standard that has already been achieved for us in Jesus and credited to us by God’s amazing grace?
The Apostle Paul gives us one answer in his first letter to the Corinthians. I have mentioned these verses a number of times already in this series but they are important enough to examine again in light of the question before us. I believe this is perhaps the key statement from the Bible in our whole understanding of grace. Paul says:
“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God …”
He knows that if he had to be good enough for God, then he was out of the race!
“But by the grace of God I am what I am …”
He didn’t do anything to deserve this – He is an Apostle by the grace of God …
“… and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)
God’s grace had its effect in him. Paul seems to suggest that a deeper appreciation of grace inspires hard work and empowers us to pick up our cross and follow Jesus and take the ministry of Jesus into the world. Grace causes that work to be a joyous, free offering. It makes the giving of our money such a joy – a liberating experience of gratitude. In fact, grace impacts every area of our life – or at least, it should. This is not surprising if we understand grace to be ‘the empowering presence of God.’ It stands to reason that the presence of God in us will have an effect. So with that understanding as a backdrop, let’s look at this very reasonable question: ‘Why work, if it’s free?’
Firstly because you love the person who has loved you. This is as profound as it is simple. God loved us to the bitter end and love begets love. You will do things you never dreamed of before when the love of God really hits home deep within your heart. Fear of punishment or expectations placed upon you can never have that effect. We wantto respond in love and service when we are impacted by God’s love. I believe one reason many people don’t love God more is that they have not yet comprehended the height, width, breadth and depth of God’s love for them as Paul prayed we would in Ephesians 3. It is not that we are bad people with no love to give, but the magnitude of God’s love has not yet taken root in our hearts or minds. When it does, it will change every area of our life … and that’s a promise! That’s why Paul said in Romans 2:4 that “It’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance.” The threat of law and punishment never has worked and never will work. It will never make people good or willingly obedient. It will never make them love God more.
Preaching law simply cannot and does not produce joy, gratitude and hard work in people. To make God’s free grace conditional may make people work harder and do more for God and for the Church for a while, but it’s not the good news of Jesus Christ – it’s not the gospel! Like it or not, God has declared that it’s free and when you understand grace in all its truth, you’ll be so free that no one will be able to manipulate you or intimidate you again. Your response to God will be a free response.
The second reason why we should work hard in the kingdom of God is because it’s enjoyable. I know that sounds a bit simple and ‘unspiritual’ – but it’s one of the major reasons why I do what I do. For me, the ministry of Jesus Christ is beyond compare. It’s not easy! Don’t ever let anyone tell you it is – but it’s enjoyable. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the power of God’s love change a human life right in front of your eyes! When you get to see God work in people around you it is the most incredible experience known in this life.
The third reason why we should work hard for God and give freely of our time, talent and resources is for the rewards of doing so. I’m not talking about acceptance, we cannot work for acceptance. That’s given to us freely in Jesus Christ. However, the Bible does say that we can, and will, work for rewards. There is a difference. At the very end of the Bible we read these words:
“Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (Revelation 22:12)
God says: I am going to reward you in light of what you’ve done when I come back. Let’s look at some more from Paul.
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Christ Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11)
You cannot work for your salvation. You cannot build your own foundation in the Kingdom of God. Your foundation is Jesus Christ and you can’t lose that. You can breathe a sigh of relief and praise God! But if you build on that foundation, you’re not adding to your acceptance, but you are leaving the imprint of your own personality on the work of Christ. Look at the next verses:
“If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; (the loss of his rewards)he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:12-13)
He will be saved, but with the smell of smoke on him. It’s entirely up to us whether we build on that foundation that Jesus has laid in our lives. Don’t we want to work hard to bring Him something? Will we have anything to lay at His feet? Will there be any blessing with which we can honour Him? Some scars on our bodies or on our hearts for having served Him? Some work which says: ‘I know this doesn’t buy me acceptance but this is my love offering of gratitude to you. It cost me, but who cares! My salvation cost You so much more.’ Our good works don’t need to be heroic. Jesus said ‘if you give a cup of water in My name you shall not lose your reward.’Concerning the widow who gave those two insignificant little coins, Jesus said: ‘This is great – this will be remembered – this deserves a reward.’ It doesn’t have to be significant in other people’s eyes. If it’s done for Jesus, from the heart – it’s precious.
In the end Paul said: ‘I’ve run the race, I’ve fought the good fight.’ At one point he says: ‘I am the least of all the Apostles, I am what I am by the grace of God’ but then he turns around and says: ‘I’ve run the race. I’ve done a really great job of preaching the gospel. My Churches are standing all over Asia as a crown for me.’ He says, ‘There is a crown laid up for me.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:19; 2 Timothy 4:8).
When the going gets tough the rewards can often keep us going. Even though this ministry is the most enjoyable thing in the world – the going still gets tough! There is a real live enemy out there who is seeking to devour us and drag us down and away from God. Listen to Paul again:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles …
This is a man who was shipwrecked and beaten and jailed and had many attempts on his life and was finally tortured to death …
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on that (reward)which is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but that unseen (reward)is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Paul was motivated by the eternal rewards on the horizon. If you have problems with that, then let me tell you that Jesus did exactly the same thing in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus looked beyond the suffering, the humiliation, the alienation from His Father and death itself – He looked beyond the pain of ministry to the reward of faithful ministry. We read about it in Hebrews:
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)
For the joy set before Him, Jesus endured the cross. If you don’t think that Jesus was rewarded for His ministry by the Father, then you need to think again. If your ministry or your work for the Lord isn’t inspired by an overwhelming sense of God’s love for you; or if your work for the Lord isn’t inspired because it’s enjoyable, then look to the rewards – it’s entirely biblical and right.
A lot of the ‘Christian’ or ‘Spiritual’ work that is done in the Church today is not prompted by these motives. Sadly, too much of what is done can be prompted by something that is left over from the law and punishment of the Old Covenant. It is motivated by what people, or even God, might think of us if we don’t do what is expected. I am doing everything I can to take that pressure off you so that anything and everything you do will be a free response to God’s love. If your good works for Him is not motivated by a positive reason – the Bible calls them dead works.
For example, most Christians would agree that Bible reading and prayer are important components of the Christian faith, but they have become a kind of ‘law’ for so many people. There are lots of good reasons why we should pray and study the Bible. However, we should never, ever, do anything, especially those two, in order to get even with our tortured conscience or to be accepted by God or others! Jesus already prayed enough for you with respect to your relationship with God. His prayers and His knowledge of the Word have been credited to you when you believed – they are part of the free gift of God’s grace. So your standing in Christ, your relationship with God is not, and cannot, be affected by how much or how little you read the Bible or pray. Your quality of life and your intimacy with God will be greatly impacted by those things, but never your position in Christ, before God.
Of course, behind this whole world of manipulation and dead works is the Devil himself.
“And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray . . .”
This is one of Satan’s key ministries: leading people astray – deception.
“. . . He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.” (Revelation 12:7-10)
Satan’s primary ministry to you is accusation and the way he does that is through your conscience. Your conscience will never be fully converted in this life. It’s the part of you that is wedded permanently to the Old Covenant. Satan uses it to punish you for breaking the law. Your conscience isn’t evil, not at all – it just happens to be the place where the enemy of God does his best work.
The devil can’t get at us theologically if we know the truth. We know that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; so he gets at us through our conscience at the ‘feeling’ and emotional level, through accusation. We may know that truth, but not experience it. If we don’t know how to deal with our conscience we will suffer no matter what we believe about grace. As a result, we will launch, more often than not, into dead religious works.
The real problem with dead works is that they lead to dead ends. You can’t do enough to get even with your conscience because there will always be something wrong with your motives. If you do manage to do something well, the devil accuses you of pride and drags you down again. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. That’s why the only remedy for a sick Church and a sick society is the unedited, pure gospel of God’s free grace. The answer to the Accuser and your accusing conscience is the blood of Christ.
“Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony . . .” (Revelation 12:10-11)
We overcome the Accuser by the blood of the Lamb. Put very simply: in the Bible blood always means death. The blood of a sacrificial lamb is death on behalf of guilty parties the lamb died for. That’s true in the Old Covenant and that’s true in the New Covenant. So for you, as one under the New Covenant, the blood of Jesus, shed for you, silences the Accuser. The Accuser will say: ‘You have sinned. You have not obeyed the law of God. You must be punished.’ Your conscience says yes, and up to that point you can agree with your conscience. Remember, there is nothing you can do to get even with your conscience. You can’t feel bad enough or sorry enough for your sins. God hates sin! All of God’s wrath was poured out on His Son and the blood that flowed from the wounds of Jesus demonstrates that all the accusations that come against you are null and void. Those sins have already been punished. You can now deal with your conscience by speaking to it and saying: ‘The blood of Christ cleanses me from all sin and there is now no condemnation. Therefore, no accusation is going to take root in me.’
Now you may believe in your heart that the grace and power of God is free, but you will need to constantly apply that truth to your conscience. Let’s look at Hebrews again:
“When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death.” (Hebrews 9:11-14)
Our consciences will be cleansed from dead works – the compulsion to work to get even with our conscience will be gone. Let’s skip to the next chapter in Hebrews:
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience!”
You cannot believe hard enough, or study hard enough, or memorise well enough to give you assurance – because your conscience will undermine your assurance. Your conscience works at the emotional level – out of reach of sound theology.
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love andgood deeds.” (Hebrews 10:19-24)
We’ve come a full circle. Now you’re free and your conscience is free. You no longer do things to earn the acceptance of God or man. You now do things freely. So let’s spur one another on to love and good works. Now that we are completely cleansed – let’s get to work. Why work if it’s free? Paul said: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
God sets us so free that we do not have to respond to Him in any way at all. Paul experienced that amazing free gift of God at work in his heart, so he was thrilled to be where God was and to be doing what God was doing. He was inspired and overjoyed to be a part of broadcasting the news of God’s amazing grace to everyone. Love for God overflows and expresses itself in every part of life. When we open ourselves up to experience His overwhelming love and His amazing grace, we will be changed.
There are many great reasons to work hard in the kingdom of God. God calls us into His joy. He wants us to be in relationship with Him and to enjoy His presence in everything we do. He also tells us that He rewards us for kingdom work. but He never, ever wants us to feel obligated to perform to any standard to win favour with Him, to ease our conscience or to please other people. Grace will have its effect on any heart that is prepared to freely accept all that God gives to us freely.
How then shall we live? Working hard for God, by His Grace and for His glory!