Is Faith in Future Grace Biblical? The Foundations of Sanctifying Power
So we’re shifting gears now into the second unit: Is it biblical? Is living by faith in future grace biblical? And there are a whole lot of pieces to this, and we’ll just take them one at a time.
Faith Is the Great Worker
Faith is the great worker. That’s what I have assumed, and that’s what these texts teach.
1 Thessalonians 1:3: “[We remember] before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
That phrase work of faith is the same in 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “Fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.” I take that to mean work that flows from faith. When you have faith, a work, those works flow from it.
Acts 16:18: Jesus said to Paul, ‘I send you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” So faith is the agent of sanctification.
Or Galatians 5:6: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” So faith works through love.
1 Timothy 1:5, same principle: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” So love is flowing from faith.
Hebrews 11:8: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called.” All of Hebrews 11 is meant to show that. Hebrews is the amazing book of living by faith in future grace. So Abraham, by faith, obeyed. And you’ll see soon that that his faith was faith in future grace.
The grace we have faith in is not only God’s disposition to save the unworthy, but the power of God exerted to bless us in the future with all that we need. I didn’t think of grace in those terms when I was growing up. I just thought of grace as the disposition of God to send his Son to die for me. But I never thought of it as a present power, arriving moment by moment from God. But texts like these are so amazingly, massively relevant for living by faith in future power — that is, grace.
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
So there you have 1 Peter 4:11 all over again. Paul faces a challenge in his life, and he knows that if God is going to get glory, he has to do it in the strength that God supplies. But he knows he has to do it. God has given us a will. God’s given us arms and legs, brains, lips, and we have to act. You’ve got to get out of bed in the morning. You’ve got to drive your car. You’ve got to tap the keys at your computer. You’re called to act. And so he says, “I acted. I acted. In fact, I labored more than all of those other apostles.” And then when he was done at the end of the day, he said, “Not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
What Is Grace?
So what is grace? It’s the ever-arriving, moment-by-moment enablement to act in reliance upon God. It’s the strength to act for Christ’s sake, moment by moment. And the key to the Christian life is learning, moment by moment, to live there, rest there, to be able to say that every hour of your life: “The last hour I spent at work, I worked. But it was not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” We need to discover the secret of living like that, which is what I’m trying to do.
Grace to You and with You
The summer that I was working on Future Grace down in Barnesville, Georgia, I can remember sitting in a little trailer out by my parents-in-law’s lake — little, teeny shed-type trailer that you buy to store stuff in. So I put a desk in there, and I put a chair in there, and I brought my computer. I remember discovering for the first time in my life that at the beginning of every single one of Paul’s letters, it says, “Grace to you.” And at the end of every single one of Paul’s letters, it says, “Grace be with you.” I had never read that in any commentary anywhere. Nor had I ever heard anybody ask, Why is that “to” at the beginning and “with” at the end? Every letter without exception, as the letter begins, “Grace to you,” and as the letter ends, “Grace with you.” What’s going on? What is this grace? Why to? Why with?
And here’s my effort at an answer, which shows what kind of grace we’re talking about in living by faith in future grace. Paul knows that as he writes these letters, they get read in churches. In fact, he requires that they’re read in churches. And so somewhere in the service, Paul, as it were, begins to speak as they read his letter. And he stands there in the letter and says, “Grace be to you. As this letter is being read, I offer grace to you. Grace is flowing to you. Now, through this letter, this is grace coming to you.” And as the letter draws to a close, he pictures himself there taking his farewell, having spoken to them. He’s done, and he knows that they’re about to close the parchment. And he says, “And grace be with you. I’m taking leave of you, but grace is not taking leave of you. When you leave this little cave or building or wherever you are, grace is going to go with you.”
I found that so amazingly encouraging that Paul addresses me, as I enter a book, a letter that he’s written, “I welcome you into the experience of grace. Grace is going to flow to you here. And as you take leave of me, you will not take leave of grace. The grace will just keep going with you all day, every day.” Which is so different than just thinking about grace as the dispositional origin of the incarnation or what the cross came from. It is an abiding, ever-arriving power of God to meet my spiritual needs.
Here’s another illustration of that kind of grace. I love these texts.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord. (2 Corinthians 8:1–3)
Where did this start? “We wish to make known to you the grace of God.” So what is the grace of God you wish to make known to me, Paul? “We wish to make known to you the grace of God that has been given in the churches of Macedonia.” What did it look like, Paul? When grace was made known, given, in Macedonia — what did it look like? “Well, it didn’t take away affliction, but it produced an abundance of joy. It didn’t take away poverty, but it overflowed in a wealth of love, liberality.”
So do you want to see a snapshot of what grace does? When grace lands on a people, affliction remains, poverty remains, and joy abounds and releases radical, selfless love to others. “I testify that according to their ability and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord.” What grace did was produce love, or, to put in the piece that’s missing, faith in grace severed the lying roots, “You need to keep your money. If you give this lavishly, you won’t have . . .” And it just slashed that root in two, because they saw God’s grace as so completely sufficient. You can see it again in 2 Corinthians 9:8:
God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
That’s got to be one of the most amazing promises in the Bible. God is able to lavish grace upon you, minute by minute by minute, so that you have all sufficiency for everything he wants you to do. “In everything, that you may have an abundance for every good deed.” He couldn’t pile up more superlatives, could he? What would happen to your life if you believed that? That would be called believing future grace. Living by faith in future grace is believing that’s going to be true at 10:00 tonight, and 3:00 tomorrow during the MRI, and ten years from now when the Alzheimer’s has taken its full course. That’s true, and in it, I rest. What would your life look like? What an amazing thing.
Grace for Weakness
That’s what I want more than anything: I want my life to be a resting in that grace because, if it’s true, it’s just amazing what it will do to liberate you from anxiety and all the sins that anxiety produces. And anxiety kills a lot of marriages and kids and ministries. Here it is again:
He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
You remember this is because Paul is saying, “Would you please take away this thorn in my flesh? It hurts.” And Paul asks three times, and he gets a no every time. And Christ says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you. My grace is sufficient for you. Power is perfected in weakness.” And then Paul responds the way I want to respond: gladly.
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Grace magnifies Christ when we trust in it. Therefore, though grace was given to us in eternity past (2 Timothy 1:9), and was the disposition of God that moved him to send his Son to die for us (Romans 3:24), it is also power exerted by God in every arriving moment from the future to meet all our needs — to meet all our needs.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). And I take that to mean not that you won’t starve to death because Romans 8:35 says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” And they all can, on this earth, happen to Christians, but they won’t separate us from Christ.
I take “all these things will be added to you” to mean you will have absolutely everything you need to do what God wants you to do. You won’t have everything you think you need to be as happy as you think you should be, but you will have absolutely everything you need to do God’s bidding, God’s will. That is a stunning promise. On this we depend and trust: faith is not just faith in God’s past work in history, but faith in future grace. So all of that to illustrate the meaning of the word grace when I talk about living by faith in future grace.
Why Emphasize the Future?
Now, let’s talk for a minute about the future orientation of faith. It trusts in future grace. And here, this was one of those powerful discoveries of mine, because I think I grew up mainly thinking of trusting God as looking back to the cross and trusting him for the forgiveness of my sins and for salvation. And it is that — and is so much more.
Faith Looks Forward
So here’s the future dimension of faith in the Bible:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
So that’s one definition of faith in regard to the future: faith is resting and assured in things that are our future — hoped for.
He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. (Colossians 1:22–23)
Continuing in faith means: keep laying hold on the things that are offered in the hope of the gospel — future things.
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. (John 14:1)
There’s something about not being troubled that indicates you’re not trusting God. And we’re always troubled about the future. It’s what’s about to come that troubles us, even if it was brought about by the past. It’s the future that gives us anxiety. Here’s one other text on this future orientation.
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
This trial, this life-threatening trial that came into Paul’s life had a purpose: so that he would stop depending on himself and start only depending on God, who, in the future, raises the dead. In other words, if you want to bring somebody to the closest point to see if they really trust in God in the future, you bring him to the point of death. And Paul had been very evidently battling with some self-reliance, and God struck him down and said, “If it takes a downfall like this to bring you to rest in the future grace of God beyond the grave, then I’ll do it because I love you.”
Whatever It Takes
I don’t know if you pray like that. I did it again this morning. I hope you do. When you’re reading your Bible day by day, you get pictures of how you ought to be. And you get pictures of what the sweetness of fellowship with Jesus would look like. And you look at yourself, and you realize you’re falling short. And how do you pray then? I think we ought to pray, I pray, “Lord, whatever it takes to be free from pride; whatever it takes to be free from lust; whatever it takes to be free from greed, from anxiety, from self-reliance; whatever it takes to become a loving, humble, kind husband and good father; whatever it takes, do it to me. Cancer, financial difficulty, church strife. I won’t prescribe. I will just take the pill.”
Do you want holiness? Do you want to be loving, humble, free, radical enough to pray, “Lord, if it takes that kind of experience in order to bring me to this kind of self-abandonment, use your own wise, good-physician wisdom.” Therefore, faith is future-oriented and embraces a future governed by God’s grace, and therefore, is superior to the future promised by sin.