Grace seems to be a hot topic these days. This is not surprising, as grace is a major theme in the New Testament. However, I am seeing a back and forth argument between those of the “grace camp” and those who are warning the body of Christ about the dangers of “hyper-grace.”
My goal is not to address this topic from either of these sides, but to present what I believe the New Testament teaches about the connection between grace and holiness.
There are two errors we need to avoid when it comes to this subject:
The whole book of Galatians essentially deals with the error of legalism. Paul warns against trying to approach God on the basis of our works or achieve holiness based on self-effort. He asks this question in chapter three: “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). The Galatians were slipping back into an Old Covenant mind-set of legalism.
The whole Christian life is to be lived by grace. We are saved by grace, and we are also sanctified—that is made holy—by the same grace. It is all based on the finished work of Jesus.
Like the Galatians of old, we can too easily slip into legalism. Walking in holiness is essential; but if we approach it based on self-effort, outward conformity to rules, and legalistic regulations, we will be striving in the flesh and living under bondage. To be clear: any pursuit of holiness that is based on legalistic self-effort is an affront to the work of Jesus and the grace of God.
Though we are not to pursue holiness out of legalistic self-effort, grace does not remove the requirement of holiness. This cannot be overstated. Any teaching of grace that removes God’s requirement of holiness is not the grace taught in the New Testament. God has always required holiness from His people, and grace does not change this standard.
I see an alarming trend today; anyone who calls the body of Christ to holiness is labeled “religious” or a “Pharisee.” They are said by some to not have a “revelation of grace.” Is this true? What does the New Testament teach? There are many commands in the New Testament to be holy. Below are just a few examples:
In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul says, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” Now if anyone had a revelation of grace it was the Apostle Paul. Here we see Paul exhorting the Corinthian church to pursue a lifestyle of holiness, walking in the fear of the Lord. The preceding verses are an admonishment to be separate from the ways of the world and be holy (Click to read 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
The story of the woman caught in adultery is one of the best illustrations of the difference between law and grace. After Jesus demonstrated the grace of God in the New Covenant, he said to the woman, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). The grace she received did not remove the requirement to be holy; but unlike the law it actually empowered her to walk in holiness.
Make no mistake about it: God requires holiness from His people. Over and over again we see this statement in Scripture: “Be holy, for I am holy.” Let’s not forget the command from Hebrews 12:14: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”
The fact is, there is a clear connection between grace and holiness. Titus 2:11-13 outlines this explicitly:
“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Do you see the connection? The “grace of God that brings salvation” teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live “soberly, righteously, and godly.” The true grace of God does not just remove the guilt of sin. It actually empowers us to live holy from the inside out. Grace teaches us to be holy. If the grace you received is not teaching you to be holy, you may need to evaluate whether you have received the “grace of God that brings salvation.”
Unlike legalism, grace-empowered holiness is not about trying to change our outward behavior to meet God’s holy standard. It starts with internal transformation and works its way to our behaviors. In a chapter-long rebuke to the religious leaders of His day, Jesus made this statement:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.”
The Pharisees emphasized cleaning the “outside of the cup”—outward behavior. Jesus emphasized cleaning the “inside of the cup”—internal transformation. But notice that when the inside is cleansed, the outside will “be clean also.” This is the power of the New Covenant. Grace that forgives, transforms, and empowers us to be changed from the inside.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking we need a proper balance between law and grace. These two are incompatible; they are fruit from two different trees. But don’t disconnect grace from holiness. May we see this connection, and walk in the power of grace unto true holiness!