Grace is a gift (Romans 5:15ff). It is freely given (Romans 3:22-24; Ephesians 1:6). It cannot be earned or merited. It is undeserved. Like oil and water, grace and these things are mutually exclusive of each other. If it can be earned, it’s not grace. If it is of grace, then it cannot be earned. This is exactly the point Paul makes in Romans 11:6.
“Yes, yes, yes . . . but isn’t it true that there can be conditions for receiving a gift?”
There are conditions and that brings us to the issue of emphasis. Which should we stress more: the grace of God or the conditions that need to be met by man? Which is primary and which is secondary? Which direction does the Scripture point us?
The Scripture leaves no doubt that the grace of God is primary and our response to His grace is secondary. Both are very important and receive quite a bit of attention from the writers of the Bible, but they are not of equal importance and shouldn’t receive equal emphasis.
The grace of God is primary because of its precedence. It’s the principle John alludes to when he says, “We love because He first loved us,” (1 John 4:19). All of our trusting acts of obedience would be meaningless if God had not first acted in grace toward us. We were drowning in an ocean of sin and misdeeds. We were too far from shore, too weak to swim, and too much in touch with reality to kid ourselves that we had any chance of surviving on our own. Jesus entered into the water to save us. It’s true we had to cooperate with His rescue efforts, but it’s also true that our actions would have made no difference if it weren’t for Him.
But it’s more than simply a matter of precedence. The Bible teaches that grace of God plays a contributing role in everything that we do. For example, whether it’s believing (Acts 16:24,18:27), repenting (Acts 11:18; Romans 2:4), or baptism (Titus 3:3-7), the N.T. writers are unequivocal about the place of grace. In fact, it’s really not accurate to speak of what God does and what man does in relationship to our salvation (or anything else). The picture from Scripture is what God does on His own and what He does with in conjunction with man. Passages like Philippians 2:11-12 and Hebrews 13:20-21 reinforce this and teach us that God’s grace is involved in every part of our life. Our faith then is the outworking of His grace so that when everything is said and done, we are His “workmanship,” (Ephesians 2:8-10 and also 1 Corinthians 15:10). We aren’t self-made and the idea that grace is something that just “pushes us over the top” is not a biblical one!
This is the gospel/good news. Although we must speak about trust, obedience, and even the potential abuses of grace—these are all minor chords in the song we have to sing. The major chord in our song is the grace of God. I think the writer of the old spiritual, Ezekiel Saw The Wheel, had it right and said it well when he wrote,
“The little wheel runs by faith,
But the big wheel runs by the grace of God.”
Roll on, big wheel!