Studying Scripture is hard work. Obeying Scripture is, perhaps, an even harder work. In reading Scripture, it is easy to think that our obedience depends on our own careful efforts. Yet, even our diligence can disappoint us at times. We are prone to distraction and sin. Thankfully, our sanctification is not dependent on our own efforts any more than our justification was. Without the grace of God, we could never have been declared righteous before God. The same is true of our sanctification. Without the grace of God, we will neither be conformed to His image nor spend eternity offering our worship to Him.
When we read our Bibles we ought to see God’s grace as foundational. It is present from beginning to end, and is central to a proper understanding of Scripture. What God has done for an undeserving creation has always preceded what He has expected from it. In other words, the indicative (God’s grace) always precedes the imperative (God’s command). There is a progression in Scripture that evidences the gracious activity of God as coming before the expression of His expectations to man. Five examples will serve the purpose of illustration:
First, God’s creative work recorded in the early chapters of Genesis precedes His command for man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply” and to “cultivate and keep the garden.” What God prepared for them and how He designed them enabled them to fulfill His commands to them.
Second, the giving of the Law in Exodus 20 illustrates how God’s deliverance preceded God’s law. Before issuing the Ten Commandments, God reminds the people of Israel who He is and what He has done: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2).
Third, in the first eleven chapters of Paul’s letter to Rome, he describes how God has provided salvation for sinful man. In the last five chapters, he describes how man ought to live in response. Romans 12:1-2 marks the transition, “therefore… in view of God’s mercy, present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and blameless for this is your spiritual act of worship…”
Fourth, in the first three chapters of his letter to Ephesus, Paul explains what God has done for sinful man. Being dead in his sin and unable to save himself, God provided to man the only possible solution—salvation by grace through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ. The proceeding chapters provide the explanation of how the believer is to live in response.
- Fifth, in Philippians the command to “have the mind of Christ” as one living in imitation of Him (2:5) is made possible through the gracious work of Christ who humbled Himself by taking on flesh and endured the Cross. Through His obedience to the Father and His death on our behalf, the Father highly exalted Him and delivered us from the power of sin. The “Christ hymn” in Philippians 2 describes the activity of God’s grace.
What God has done for us always comes before what He demands of us (even though it’s not always to be found in the immediate context or preceding passage). His greatest display of grace was through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through whom our obedience has been made possible. Enjoying God’s grace without obeying His commands leads to license. Attempting to obey God’s commands without realizing our dependence on His grace leads to legalism. When reading God’s commands to us, we must remind ourselves how God has already provided, through Christ, all that we need in order to live in obedience. Discovering this tension in Scripture, our responsibility and God’s provision, will guard us from a man-centered reading of Scripture and guide us toward a gracious reading of it.
Blessings in Christ, Gabe