The following is an excerpt from my book Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us. The relationship between grace and obedience is a gnarly issue, and too often you have to hack your way through a theological jungle to sort out the problem. In general, there are three different explanations Christians give to how grace relates to obedience.
Some Christians say that obedience is good but not necessary. What Christians do or don’t do is icing on the cake. It would be good for you to respond to Jesus with obedience, but either way, we’re still saved by grace through faith. If we smuggle obedience in the back door of salvation, then grace is no longer grace. We’ll call this the “free grace” view.
Others say that God has done His part and that now it’s our turn to do our part. God saves, but we are responsible for obedience. God is certainly available to counsel us when we need Him, and He has call-waiting. But ultimately, it’s up to us to work out our salvation.
I don’t think either of these views accurately captures the relationship between grace and obedience. Because neither of them talks about energism. Energism is the third view, and to my mind, it’s the most accurate way to understand the relationship between grace and obedience.
The word energism was coined by New Testament scholar John Barclay. He came up with it after studying Galatians 2:8, where Paul said that the same God who “worked [energesas] through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked [energesen] also through me for mine to the Gentiles.” The word worked translates the Greek word energeo, from which we get the word energy. Here, Paul talked about God working in and through Peter and Paul in their ministries. And in the very next verse, Paul described these same ministries in terms of “the grace that was given” to both Peter and himself.
God, in His grace, worked in Peter and Paul—two sinners unworthy of favor and incapable of doing anything on their own—to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. Energism, therefore, refers to God working in and through us to do his will. If we talk about obedience as our response to God—God does His part; now we do ours—this places too big of a wedge between God’s work and ours. When we get saved, we become united with Christ and indwelt by the Spirit, so that it’s impossible to untangle Christ’s empowering presence, the Spirit’s transformative work, and our own regenerated response to God.
That is: Our union with Christ drives us to obey. Our will, emotions, and desires are meshed with His. The Spirit who indwells us empowers us to obey. We have been clothed with the risen Christ, so we cannot understand ourselves apart from Him. With such cosmic artillery, it’s impossible that a genuine Christ follower—clothed with the righteousness of Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit—will not render obedience to God. We say with Paul, “Not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
This is why I love to emphasize the scandal and radicality of grace, and yet I can also say that our obedience is vital for our Christian existence. Our obedience doesn’t determine God’s love toward us, any more than grapes force the sun to pour out its heat upon the vine. It’s the sun’s heat (God’s love), the rich soil (Jesus’s death and resurrection), and the abundant water (the Spirit) that produce grapes.
Or we can switch it around a bit. The Vinedresser enjoys the vine. He cares for it. Nurtures it. Thinks about it often. He prunes it. And apart from the Vinedresser, there would be no grapes. But what about that bad year? There was a drought. A fire. A big rig lost control on the nearby highway and careened into the vineyard. And there’s no fruit that year. Maybe a grape here and there, but they’re small, shriveled—hardly noticeable. It’s been a bad year, and the Vinedresser is working extra hard to make next year’s crop more fruitful. Maybe some extra pruning will do the trick. The Vinedresser is grieved, and He’s certainly not thrilled over the shriveled grapes. But He still loves being a Vinedresser, and He’s still passionate about His vine. The number of grapes—some years there are none—doesn’t determine, sustain, or elevate the Vinedresser’s enjoyment of making wine.