I have an ongoing appreciation for John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In fact, I’ve read Pilgrim’s Progress at least twelve times and it has played a pivotal role in my understanding of salvation. There is one point in the narrative where Christian, the main character, is asked about his past. He simply replies, “My name is now Christian, but my name at the first was Graceless.”
By introducing these contrasting ideas in his allegory, Bunyan touches on a significant idea. Before we experience justifying grace, we are incapable of developing the sanctifying graces of the Christian life. The fruit of the Spirit can only flow out of a life controlled by the Spirit.
There is a familiar parable that describes this relationship between grace and gracefulness. Jesus taught this parable, as he often did, from the perspective of exaggeration and absurdity.
“The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus declared, “may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (Matthew 18:23). In a few short sentences, the picture is created of a man who is in a completely helpless condition. He has amassed an incredible debt that is impossible to repay (equivalent to millions of dollars today). This man’s need inspires pity from the king who promptly forgives him and releases him from the obligations of his debt. The servant should be overwhelmed with gratitude, but one detail in the story makes the reader question whether he truly appreciates what has just been done for him. As he comes away from his audience with the king, the servant sees someone who owes him a much smaller amount of money. In anger, he demands immediate payment and, failing to receive what he believes is rightfully his, throws the man in prison. It’s almost as if the ungrateful servant hasn’t realized how much he has been forgiven and thus has no compassion or grace to spare for anyone else.
Of course, from a human perspective it would be absurd to behave like the ungrateful servant. We instinctively understand that being treated with grace and compassion inspires us to change our behavior towards others. The unspoken question then becomes obvious. How much more should the grace of God change our treatment of others? God’s grace is not just limited to the forgiveness of our sins but the creation of spiritual life within us. This parable suggests that Christians should expect God’s grace to impact both us and the people within our sphere of influence.
Judgment or grace
Romans 3:23-24 introduces the problem of our incredible debt alongside the most incredible gift. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
It is biblically correct to say that justification is redemption. In other words, we are saved entirely by a freely given, and undeserved gift that we have no ability to earn or repay. But it is also biblically correct to say that even if we are justified we can fall away from our redemption through failure to apply God’s grace to our lives. Thus we can affirm that, “justification is a full, complete pardon of sin. The moment a sinner accepts Christ by faith, that moment he is pardoned. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to him, and he is no more to doubt God’s forgiving grace” (ST May 19, 1898, par. 11). And yet we can also state that “genuine faith will be manifested in good works; for good works are the fruits of faith. As God works in the heart, and man surrenders his will to God, and cooperates with God, he works out in the life what God works in by the Holy Spirit…. It is by continual surrender of the will… that the blessing of justification is retained” (ST March 20, 1893, par. 3).
This inherent lesson can be found throughout scripture and explains what would otherwise be a contradiction. Paul is able to assert “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But Paul can also declare “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
At first glance, Paul’s theology seems confusing and inconsistent. If he teaches, as he does in Romans 3, that all have sinned, then we should all fail the kind of judgment that he refers to in 2 Corinthians. We commit evil before we even have the chance to come to Christ. Like the ungrateful servant, we can’t scrub out the record of our accumulated debt. We stand condemned and reliant on grace. So how is it even fair for God to judge us on our works?
“Therefore,” Paul explains, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
The biblical record seems to indicate that the judgement isn’t based on our lost condition prior to Christ, but our reception of him. The grace of God is supernatural and should be able to accomplish miracles in our lives. The miracle of a transformed life is the tangible evidence that we have believed and accepted God’s gift of justification. If measurable, observable changes do not occur in our lives, then it is safe to say we are lacking God’s gift of grace.
The tale of a fig tree
The risk of recognizing our need for spiritual graces is that we will try and produce them without reliance upon Christ. This risk is so particularly dangerous to spiritual life that Jesus cursed a fig tree as the means of a practical illustration. Returning to the fig tree sometime later, Jesus expounded on his lesson. “Have faith in God…. Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:20-25).
A tree, to produce fruit, must have life working within it. A farmer is not concerned merely with leaves or any other apparent indicator of life. Rather, the farmer is concerned primarily with the production of fruit. And so it is with God. The final judgement concerns itself with our obedience because truly righteous living is only possible when God’s miraculous grace is at work within us. We may have a semblance of spirituality and obedience that impresses other people. But without spiritual power, spiritual fruit will be lacking.
Carnal human nature is impressed with good deeds that are relatively easily to accomplish by our own efforts. These things make us feel spiritually successful and give us hope for future salvation. But the fruit that God mentions in the New Testament is impossible to forge or self-create.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).
These evidences of God’s grace concern themselves with social relationships. It isn’t the monk locked up in a solitary tower who has the most forbearance, kindness, or gentleness. It isn’t the well-off christian who has never experienced anything particularly difficult who can prove that they have the most love, joy, peace, or self-control. But the lack or possession of these characteristics become evident in the midst of everyday difficulties.
The mother struggling to be patient with her screaming toddler, the husband feeling rebuffed by an insensitive spouse, the twenty-something college student who is crammed into a dorm room with someone they don’t like and yet feels simultaneously lonely – these are the opportunities that are given to us every day to surrender and submit to the miraculous power of God’s grace.
John is clear. “Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11). Salvation is a gift – but it is a gift that changes us within the context of our relationships. Have you been changed? If not, the Bible testifies that your lack can be supplied only by a relationship with the Savior who died for you.