If you think about it, the phrase “The fight for grace” is an oxymoron. To fight for something implies that we gain it by effort and struggle. But as Paul reminds us in Romans 4, grace that is earned is not grace at all. Grace is a gift and we cannot fight to achieve it. We cannot gain God’s grace by any effort of our own, be it ever so strenuous. Grace seems so simple, but because there are many who don’t understand it, and many others who want to twist our faith for their own purposes, a fight for grace is, in one sense, essential.
The whole history of the Church, from Pentecost on, can be interpreted as one long fight for grace–not for God’s grace; that’s a free gift–but for a true understanding of what grace really is. At least one New Testament book, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, was written primarily to be a tool in the fight for grace. After describing his own experience of salvation and call, Paul asks (Galatians 3:1-3*), “You foolish Galatians. Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed to you as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by obeying the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
Paul knew very well who the culprits were. Today we call them the “Judaizers.” They were Jews who
taught that to be truly Christians the Gentiles had first to observe the Jewish law, in particular that the men had to be circumcised. So he spends two chapters explaining the glories of free grace. But the false teachers who were throwing the Galatians into confusion were never far from his mind. So, in 5:2, he says, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you allow yourselves to be circumcised, Christ will be of no value at all.” These days we might make off-color jokes about men who went around circumcising other men, or think them deranged. Paul was more direct, reflecting the anger brought about by his fight for grace when he said (5:12), “But as for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way ane emasculate themselves.”
We tend to think that Paul prevailed and perhaps he did for awhile. But legalism is very strong and determined and has all the power of Hell behind it. Exactly how many years it took is not clear, but by about 500 A.D., in both eastern and western branches of Christendom, the legalists had won. In the Middle Ages being a Christian was all about outward observance, being baptized, confirmed, and married in the church, receiving the Lord’s Supper regularly and dying “in the church.” Grace wasn’t ignored–they paid it lip service–but it was not understood.
Over a thousand years later a young monk named Martin Luther was sitting in his cell studying the Book of Romans. He had tried very hard to keep the whole law but found that, even living shut up in a monastery, he had failed. So when he read the words, “Therefore no one will be justified in his sight by observing the law; rather through the law we become conscious of sin,” (Romans 3:20) he was angry and cried out, “Then how can I be justified.” But he read on; “But now a righteousness from God has been made known, to which the law and prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:21-24). There it was, the grace of God. Luther later said, “When I read that the gates and doors of paradise swung open and I walked through, a justified man.”
The result was the Protestant Reformation which loudly proclaimed that salvation was by grace alone. But while it would be nice to say that grace thereafter prevailed we cannot (alas) do so. Before the great lights of the Reformation, Luther and Calvin, were cold in their graves the rule-makers were back at it, insisting that true Christians had to be baptized a certain way. Since then their numbers have increased; people who say that true Christians have to walk down an aisle at an evangelistic service or have certain experiences of salvation or subsequent to salvation, like the experience of sanctification or the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Today there are those who will tell you that God can’t do something, such as give you some gift or blessing, if you don’t do something for Him first. They will tell you that God can’t hear your prayers if you are harboring some unconfessed sin in your life or that you can’t be healed because you aren’t good enough.
All these people are the heirs of the Judaizers Paul contended with at Galatia. He described them as having “fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4), and that is exactly what they have done. It is because of this kind of person, who seeks to manipulate others through guilt and shame, whose god is not the God of the Bible but rather a small, mean deity unworthy of worship, no greater than we are ourselves, that the fight for grace goes on. So watch out for the enemies of grace: they are out to steal your joy in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Grace is the central doctrine of the Christian faith. Without it the death of Christ would be meaningless. What is grace? Essentially it is unmerited favor. We can do nothing to receive God’s favor, so we have no reason to boast in our own achievements (Ephesians 2:8, 9, Romans 3:27). Ephesians 2:8, 9, even teaches that the very faith to believe is a gift from God. We can do nothing to deserve God’s favor and all the law-keeping in the world will not earn it, as thousands of people who were better law-keepers than we are have discovered, Martin Luther among them. Only God’s grace can save us from the punishment for sin. Only God’s grace can allow us to live joyfully in His love and His peace. So we must fight for grace against any who, either explicitly or implicitly, deny it..
But we must never forget that we are contending for more than a doctrine–we are advocating a way of life as well. One of the great texts about grace is Ephesians 2:4-10. It is instructive to take the words that describe God in verses 4-7 and combine them with the command of Ephesians 5:1, “Be imitators of God.” The result looks like this; “great love (2:4) . . . be imitators of God, rich in mercy (2:4) . . . be imitators of God, made us alive (2:5) . . . be imitators of God, incomparable riches of his grace (2:7) . . . be imitators of God, kindness (2:7) . . . be imitators of God.” Put simply, it is no less a part of the fight for grace to live graciously with those around us, to be, “the fragrance of the knowledge of Him,” (2 Cor. 2:14) to everyone we meet every day of our lives. They may have done nothing to merit it, indeed they may have much to deserve our anger and condemnation, but we have done nothing to merit God’s favor and much to incur His displeasure. Yet we have His grace, and the command to iimitate Him.
*All quotations are from the New International Version, Copyright 1975, 1978, by the International Bible Society. Used by Permission