Finding the Balance Between Grace and Works

two women in swimming pool
Photo by bruce mars on

My long time friend, Mary Rock, once said to me, “In the river of God, it’s like you’re doing the breast stroke and I’m on a raft with a cooler.” She was referring to the fact that I tended to be very works-oriented and she was very grace-oriented. I thought she was telling me that I was doing it the wrong way and she was doing it the right way, but when I questioned her about it, she said, “No, I think maybe we should both hold onto the raft and kick.” In other words, we both were too far to one extreme and needed to become more balanced in our pursuit of God.

A lot of the way each of us approach having a relationship with God has to do with the temperament we were born with, although the way we were raised plays a big role also. Most people are a blend of two or more personalities, with one being more dominant. I am a melancholy/phlegmatic or beaver/golden retriever personality. Melancholy personalities tend to be perfectionists (very detail-oriented) and can become very works or performance-oriented, especially if you were raised by someone who also has a works driven personality. My friend Mary is a sanguine/choleric personality or otter/lion. Otter personalities are very playful, life-of-the-party type of people who like to joke and make others laugh and cholerics are very task-oriented, they tend to be workaholics. My friend Mary is primarily the otter personality (although she has a lot of drive), which is what made her more grace-oriented, I believe, but when she would say things like “I hope the rapture doesn’t take place while I have p.m.s.” (lol), I realized she had some of the same type of works mentality that I did.

When I say a works mentality, I mean that I would feel like I had to earn God’s approval by constantly trying to perform perfectly and if I messed up, I had a hard time feeling forgiven, even after asking the Lord for forgiveness and even though I tried really hard, I never felt like I could be quite good enough to make God happy with me for very long (see my article entitled “Parable of the Sower Part II/Dealing with a Root of Rejection and Perfectionism” for a more detailed explanation of this).  I had not learned how to enter God’s rest and trust in the finished work of the cross instead of my performance. When I say this, I am not talking about trying to turn the grace of God into a license to sin. Jesus said that whoever loves him will obey him and keep his commandments. I am talking about how we approach our relationship with God, our pursuit of him.

Romans 9:30-32 says:  30 What then shall we say? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness has not attained it. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as it were by works (NIV). We can be born again and have a personal relationship with God, but still be pursuing the Lord as if we are under the law. I knew the word of God and could quote it, but a lot of it was head knowledge and not heart knowledge (I knew it in my head, but it did not change the way that I felt and acted). I still carried a false sense of guilt and condemnation and felt like I constantly had to be working to earn approval through studying the Bible, prayer, fasting, church attendance, etc. and those are all good things that we should do, but the question is what is our motivation? Fear of rejection and not being approved of or love for God? God wants us to be able to enter into His rest and enjoy our salvation.  Hebrews 4:10 says “For anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.” (NIV). Hebrews 10:14 says:  “He has made perfect forever, those who are being made holy.” (NIV). In other words, our position in Christ is that God sees us as having the righteousness of Christ credited to our account (as being perfect, once we have accepted Jesus into our hearts), but he continues to work in us to make us holy and conform us more to the image of his son (practical holiness).

Another really good scripture is Romans 4:3-5:  3 What does the scripture say?  “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Also, Ephesians 2:8-9:  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” I remember when I was struggling, trying to get this concept in my head, the Lord gave me a mental picture of a cake with holes punched in it and pudding being poured over the cake, filling in all the holes and it’s like the Lord was telling me, “This is how my grace is, it covers all your faults and failures and makes you complete in my sight.” That mental picture gave me peace.

I know that the Lord expects us to do good works and produce good fruit, but trees and plants do not have to struggle and stress themselves out to produce fruit, they only have to stay connected to the root or vine and get plenty of water and sunshine, etc. It is the same for us, the only way we can can produce good fruit is to stay plugged into the vine (Jesus, see John 15). Jesus said that he could do nothing of himself, he only did what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19) and we cannot do anything profitable through our own power either. If we make spending time with the Lord our priority, the works and the good fruit will begin to flow naturally, or supernaturally, I should say. God bless you all.

Kelly Rowe