How God’s Grace and Our Effort Work Together

It seems endemic in our collective theological imagination that grace and effort are opposed to one another, on opposite ends of a spectrum.

In this way of thinking, to embrace grace is to move away from any kind of spiritual effort, and to apply effort in our spiritual lives is to move away from grace. This presents us with two options:

  1. “It’s all about effort, so get busy.” God helps those who help themselves. Sure, God may forgive your sins by grace, but if you want God’s best blessings, you need to prove you’re worthy of it through working hard at being good.
  2. “It’s all about grace, so relax.” God saves us by grace. We can do nothing to earn it, and therefore any effort put into the life of faith puts you in danger of “works righteousness.”

Obviously option #2 is closer to the gospel, but this framing of grace is deeply disempowering, because it doesn’t give us anything to do. It also makes much of the New Testament into nonsense, because it’s filled with injunctions to “make every effort” to add virtue to faith.

Ancient wisdom on grace and effort

Fifth century theologian and writer St. Mark the Ascetic comments on this dynamic in his work “On Those who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and Twenty-Six Texts” (quoted in The Philokalia):

Some without fulfilling the commandments think that they possess true faith. Others fulfill the commandments and then expect the kingdom as a reward. Both are mistaken.

The word reward is the key to untangling how grace and effort work together. Notice the mistake of the second group is not that they attempted to “fulfill the commandments” (i.e. put some effort into their faith). Their mistake is “expecting the kingdom as a reward” for fulfilling the commandments.

I’m reminded of a quote from Dallas Willard (may light perpetual shine on him), that helped me understand this dynamic. He said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”

How grace and effort work together

So the reason we’re confused about how grace and effort work together, then, is because we have conflated effort and earning. Our imagination for why we would put effort into our faith has to do with what we would earn as a reward.

But in fact grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.

And for its own part, effort is not opposed to grace but to passivity (a lack of effort/action).

Not to make this into a math problem, but if we combine these more truthful spectrums as an X/Y axis, it yields a 2×2 matrix (which is one of my love languages).

If we believe our effort earns us something from God, and we’re working hard toward that reward, we’re living in moralism.

If we believe our effort earns us something from God, but we’ve lost confidence we can obtain it, we’re living in cynicism.

If we believe in grace, but because of a fear of “works righteousness” live in passivity, we’re living in ¯\_()_/¯ (couldn’t come up with word for this one, let me know if you have a good idea). We’re just waiting around, hoping God’s grace will transform us “automatically,” but ultimately “ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:8).

Participating in grace

The upper-right quadrant of faith-as-grace-and-effort makes more sense of the way the New Testament talks about how our life in God works. It seems we need to take action if we are going to remain inside the grace we’ve been given.

For example, Paul writes to the Philippian church:

Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil 2:12-13)

Effort (“work out your salvation”) and grace (“for it is God who works in you”) work together to bring about transformation into Christlikeness.

Peter says it this way:

God’s divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life… For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith…” (2 Pet 1:3, 5)

God’ has given us everything we need, but in order to make it effective in our lives, it’s necessary to “make every effort” to add virtue to faith.

Here’s St. Mark the Ascetic on the same dynamic:

Grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ; and it becomes active within them to the extent that they actively observe the commandments. Grace never ceases to help us secretly; but to do good—as far as lies in our power—depends on us.

Let’s let Richard Rohr chime in, too:

Contrary to the grace versus ‘works righteousness’ dichotomy that became popular after the Reformation, it takes a lot of practice to remain fully open to undeserved and unmerited grace.

In other words, to quote Dallas Willard once again, “You cannot do it alone, but it will not be done for you.”

Grace and effort work together in our spiritual formation. Without God’s grace, there’s no hope. But without effort, all the potential will lie dormant. Transformation is possible, but it doesn’t happen without our cooperation. This is what it means to participate in the life God shares with us.

This work by Gravity Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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