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Gracious Duties

When is talk about a believer's responsibilities gracious or ungracious?

In church circles where the beauties of grace are passionately proclaimed, some people inevitably will worry whether a gospel emphasis opens the door to licentiousness. However, others will begin to wonder if it is any longer appropriate to challenge one another to be holy, or to correct anyone who does not follow Scripture's mandates. Grace does not forbid giving directions, promises, corrections, and warnings. Only cruelty would forbid such help.

While obedience to God's law will not sanctify us, we must understand that not all attempts to apply the Bible to modern life are "legalism."

While obedience to God's law will not sanctify us, we must understand that not all attempts to apply the Bible to modern life are "legalism."

James Buchanan writes, "Man's method of sanctification is by law; God's method of sanctification is by the gospel. The former is by works; the latter is by faith, unto works." If we only tell people their duty, then we wrongly communicate that human works will heal their souls. But if we never specify the duties that God's Word requires, then we deny God's people the blessings he wants them to know and multiply through their obedience to his law.

The following guidelines can help us consider how to talk about biblical duty without denying grace:

How can talk about duty be gracious?

  1. To help rescue from an empty way of life is gracious.
    The apostle Peter reminds us that living according to our own codes, however religious or proper they may seem, commits our lives to vain endeavors (1 Peter 1:18). It is not gracious to leave people to the pursuit of emptiness.

  2. To teach to say no to ungodliness is gracious.
    Paul reminds us that grace "teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions" (Titus 2:12). Grace is not a universal solvent to wash away God's standards. Understanding the character of the God who lovingly pardons us teaches us to say no to what denies him and damages us.

  3. To lead to the blessings of obedience is gracious.
    The psalmist and our Savior tell us that blessing accompanies the one who walks in God's ways (Psalm 1; Matthew 5:3-12). If we do not specify what these ways are, then we obscure the path others must walk to God's fountains of blessing.

  4. To teach that there is discipline for disobedience is gracious.
    The writer of Hebrews says that God will discipline us, rather than allowing us to continue down dangerous paths, because he loves us (Hebrews 12:6). Hebrews also tells us that no discipline is pleasant (Hebrews 12:11). Warning others, to prevent them from experiencing such disciplines, is a gracious act.

How can talk about duty be ungracious?

  1. To teach that there is merit in obedience is ungracious.
    Jesus himself teaches that when we have done all that we should, we are still unworthy of his household (Luke 17:10). To teach that we can earn God's affection through our "filthy rags" of righteousness, or that doing our duty somehow fulfills our infinite debt to him, damages the foundations of faith in Christ's once-for-all, full, and complete payment for sin (Romans 6:10-14; Hebrews 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18).

  2. To teach that God rejects for unrighteousness is ungracious.
    God's mercy would not be merciful if it applied only to the righteous. The kindness of God will lead to repentance when we understand that our wrong does not cause him to turn his back on us (Romans 2:4). While the prodigal son of Jesus' parable was still "a long way off" the father ran to him (Luke 15). Our wandering does not send God away.

  3. To teach that God does not require holiness is ungracious.
    We have been redeemed from the curse of the law—it can no longer condemn those forgiven by Christ—but God has not left us without guidance for how to please him and protect ourselves from spiritual harm (Romans 8:2; Galatians 5:13-15). Genuine love for God is intensely preoccupied with doing his will, and the regenerated heart cannot be satisfied without it (Romans 7:22).

  4. To teach the Law apart from grace is ungracious.
    Simply to tell people to do good and not do wrong, leaves them with the understanding that their work wins God's love. Even though it is taught with the best intentions of improving conduct, a "sola bootstrapsa" (human striving alone) message undermines the gospel and leads away from the true basis of holiness (Ephesians 2:8-9).

From Holiness by Grace, by Bryan Chapell, copyright2001, pages 1012. Used by permission of Good News Publishers/Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, crosswaybooks.org.

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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