Our hearts should overflow with love and gratitude when we contemplate the marvelous grace of our loving heavenly Father. The book of Romans deeply impresses us with the truth that our good standing before God is not a reason for. self-righteous boasting; rather, it is a reason for raising our voices in praise to God; for it is the result of His wonderful grace, and not our own goodness.
It is saddening to see such a lovely truth perverted so as to lead souls into error, but the truth concerning God's grace has been tragically perverted almost from the beginning of the gospel's proclamation. In Romans 6, Paul deals with a perversion which would use God's grace as an excuse to live a life of sin. The teaching of the book of Romans has been so grossly perverted that it is always a matter of urgency to present its true teaching and to refute the erroneous perversions of the book.
Grace has been defined as "unmerited favor." In his letter to the Romans, Paul demonstrated that all men are in need of God's grace because all have sinned (Rom. 3:910, 23). Since we have sinned, we deserve to be the recipients of God's holy wrath. Nevertheless, by God's grace, He is willing to forgive us our sins, so that we can stand before Him free of guilt, just as though we had never sinned. The forgiveness is possible only because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross by which He paid the price for our sins. Since this justification is undeserved, it is a gift of God's grace. (Note Rom. 3:24-26.)
In the Roman letter, Paul contrasts justification by grace against justification by works. Consequently, some have erroneously concluded that there are no conditional works which we must perform in order to be justified. That this is an erroneous conclusion can be readily seen by a consideration of the many passages that teach the necessity of man's obedience. Among these are Matt. 7:21, Heb. 5:9, 2 Thess. 1:7-9, James 2:24, and Acts 2:38. Jesus clearly teaches that obtaining everlasting life involves human labor (John 6:27-29). Indeed, in this very Roman letter which so strongly emphasizes justification by grace, Paul shows the importance of obedience when he observes that the very purpose of gospel preaching was to produce obedience (Rom. 1:5; 16:25-26).
The question arises, if human work is involved in obtaining salvation, how can the salvation be of grace? The answer lies in the fact that the works we perform do not earn the salvation which we receive. If we have not earned our salvation, then it is a gift of grace. God requires that we meet certain conditions, but when we have met those conditions we still do not deserve to stand justified before God. Even after meeting His conditions for forgiveness, we still deserve to be punished rather than forgiven; yet, by His grace He forgives us so that we are just in His sight.
The idea of many is that if we have to meet conditions to receive our salvation, then our salvation is not a gift of grace. This simply is not true. Sometimes I offer to give my little girl a quarter to go into her bank, but I make the gift conditional – she has to say "please." Saying please does not earn the quarter, but she does not get the quarter unless she says it. Although she must say please, she does not earn the quarter; hence, the quarter is a gift given by my grace. The meeting of conditions does not nullify grace! Suppose I offered you a thousand dollars on the condition that you said "please." Would you deny that the thousand dollars was a gift of grace, simply because it was conditional?
The principle involved can be illustrated by a number of Biblical incidents. The Israelites had to meet certain carefully specified conditions in order to receive Jericho (Josh. 6), Naaman had to meet conditions to be miraculously healed of His leprosy (2 Kgs. 5), and the blind man had to meet conditions to receive his sight (John 9); yet, all these gifts were given by grace, because the works performed did not merit the gifts. After Naaman had dipped seven times in the Jordan, he could not arise from the water and proclaim that he had earned his cure by his works; no, his cure was still a gift given by the grace of God, for which Naaman owed God his praise and gratitude.
The only works which would negate grace are works which would earn our justification, so that it is deserved; that is, meritorious works. When Paul says that justification is by grace rather than by works, he is speaking of meritorious works. He simply means that our salvation is a gift which we have not earned, rather than something we have earned by our own good works. This is the point of Eph. 2:8-9. In the book of Romans he uses the term "works" to refer to perfect law-keeping – living a sinlessly perfect life. If one lived sinlessly, keeping God's law perfectly, he would thereby earn his justification, hence would need no grace. His reward would be owed him due to his perfect works (Rom. 4:4). In the book of Romans Paul contrasts justification by grace on the conditions of an obedient faith, against justification by keeping the law perfectly so that the reward is earned and there is no grace involved. Hence, when he denies justification by works, the works to which he refers is perfect law-keeping; he is not denying that certain non-meritorious conditions must be met.
In fact, Paul makes it clear in the book of Romans that jusification by grace is conditional when he says, "Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand" (Rom. 5:1-2). It is by faith that we have access to God's grace; hence, in order to be justified by grace, one must have faith (belief). Justification, therefore, is conditioned on human effort, for believing is something which men do.
Some would reply that faith is not a work performed by men, but Jesus teaches that it is. Read very carefully John 6:27-29. Jesus told the people to labor in order to have everlasting life (v. 27). Having been told to labor for everlasting life, the people asked what kind of labor they should do in order to work the works of God (v. 28). Jesus replied to this question by saying, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent" (v. 29). He thus referred to believing as work. Certainly, faith requires human effort. It does not come miraculously, apart from human effort, but through the mental effort that is involved in studying the word of God (Rom. 10:17). It involves the mental labor of thinking, reasoning, weighing evidence.
Some maintain that Jesus means that faith is a work that God does, as He miraculously produces it in the human heart, hence, that Jesus is not referring to faith as a work which men perform. However, it is obvious that the subject under discussion was what men must do. In verse 27, Jesus had taught that men must labor for everlasting life; then, in verse 28, the people had asked what works they must do. It was in answering the question regarding what works men must do that Jesus said believing was the work to be done.
Further, the Roman letter demonstrates that the faith which brings justification is faith which motivates men to obey. In Romans 1:5 and 16:25-26, Paul affirmed that the purpose of gospel preaching was to produce, not merely faith, but the obedience of faith. This principle comports with his statement to the Galations that the thing which avails is "faith which worketh by love" (Gal. 5:6). He points out to the Romans that it was through their obedience that they became free from sin (Rom. 6:17-18). Therefore, it should be understood that anytime we read that justification is by faith, the faith which is referred to is faith which moves men to obey (Gal. 5:6); and faith does not save until it has moved men to obey (James 2:17-26).
It is clear, then, that justification by grace is conditioned on a working obedient faith. Those who have never become Christians must be led by their faith to repent (Acts 3:19), confess Christ (Rom. 10:9-10), and be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3-6; Gal. 3:27). When they have met these conditions, they still do not deserve salvation. These are not works by which one earns salvation. Nevertheless, because of their faith which produced these acts of obedience, God will graciously grant them the forgiveness of sins and they will stand justified despite their unworthiness.
Those who have become Christians, but later sin and thereby bring themselves under condemnation again, must be led by their faith to admit their sins (1 John 1:9), repent of them, and pray for forgiveness (Acts 8:22). When they do so they will still deserve punishment, but by His grace God will forgive them.
Truly, God's grace is conditional. Men cannot impenitently persist in sin and receive God's forgiveness, whether the sin involves immorality or corruption of the work, worship, and organization of the church. There is no promise of forgiveness apart from meeting the divinely appointed conditions. Let us praise God from the depths of our hearts that He will so graciously forgive us upon the meeting of these conditions, so that we who are so undeserving can stand justified and pure in His sight despite all our iniquities.