The Conundrum of Grace that Works

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)

I have always loved Christian biographies and autobiographies. I have unashamedly told many friends and relations that, outside of the Bible itself, I find more spiritual nourishment in the stories of these men—broken and marred by sin as they are, as they experience and proclaim the grace of God—than anywhere else. There is a lot of good that one could procure by reading stories about Hudson Taylor, George Müller, David Brainerd, Adoniram Judson, and hundreds of others within the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1).

However, I recently found myself in a conversation with a dear friend when the subject of God’s grace and our efforts came up. We were both struggling with the thought that it seems as though, throughout history, God’s choicest saints were also those that tended to work the hardest in the work and proclamation of the gospel.

This thought seemed strange to both of us.

Yet somehow, as we can see above, Paul’s hard work did not diminish the glory and sovereignty and grace of God at all in his ministry. If anything, it amplified it. Paul bursts forth with praise and thanksgiving for God over and over for the works that are produced by the gospel.

In speaking about proclaiming the gospel, Paul declares, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me,” (Colossians 1:29).

After Paul defends his ministry to the Corinthian church, setting forth the case that his sufferings have attested to his apostleship more than any of the “super-apostles” that are denouncing him, he sums up his defense by partially quoting Jeremiah 9:24 when he says, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” (2 Corinthians 10:17).

And in one of the most powerful passages that illuminates the saving grace of God that comes through faith in His Son, Paul culminates the passage with, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” (Ephesians 2:10).

So what are we to make of all of this?

For one, God’s saving grace is completely unmerited on the part of the believer. To think that one could act good enough or perform enough good works is a sentiment that has so many passages within the New Testament that denounce it that I would easily run out of room attempting to quote them here.

Secondly, throughout the Bible, laziness is deplorable, so the answer cannot be a simple “Let go and let God” sentiment that has unfortunately infiltrated into much of the church today. In terms of the work of the kingdom, one would be hard-pressed to find any scriptural warrant for this thought, but may rather find themselves taken aback by its condemnation (Matthew 25:26-30).

What I think that we can learn from these passages (and others like it) is that there is a sense in which working hard will expose us to the grace of God in ways that we would have previously thought impossible. And I think that it will come through seeing how insufficient our hard work actually is, and how reliant we really are on the grace of God for all things, both hard and easy, big and small.

So why bring this up to the church? For one, we have recently experienced a large amount of God’s grace in the joining of what were two separate local church bodies. The grace experienced in this conjoining is almost certainly achieved through the hard and faithful work of many. Yet who would have thought that God’s grace would manifest itself in this way?

Additionally, we are still living in a city within a world at a time when the need for the gospel is immense. We must work towards the display and proclamation of the gospel of God’s grace in the death and resurrection of His Son. And by His grace, we certainly will.