The Place of Bygone Grace
So then what is the function of bygone grace or past grace? Answer: it puts solid ground under our faith in future grace. Somebody can be really troubled with my emphasis on the future, faith in the future. They’d say, “Aren’t you belittling Christ? Aren’t you making light of the cross when you constantly stress that the power of the faith that transforms is a future-oriented faith in grace that’s coming to you? Doesn’t that treat the cross as small or insignificant?”
Let me try to explain how the past grace demonstrated at the cross and the future grace that is arriving to me moment by moment relate to each other. I’m arguing that the solid ground under faith in future grace is in the past.
Romans 8:32 says,
He who did not [past tense] spare [past] his own Son but gave [past] him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Now that’s a rhetorical question. Whenever you have a rhetorical question in the Bible that doesn’t have an answer after it, you’ve got to supply the answer. And when you supply the answer, you can turn the rhetorical question into a statement. What would the statement be? The statement would be: surely, since God did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, he will most certainly give us all things with him. That’s the logic there, the logic of heaven.
Because he died in the past, because Christ died in the past, he provided a foundation that makes God’s commitment to all who are in him, for the future, absolutely certain. Omnipotent grace is on my side forever because of the past work of Jesus. If I’m united to Christ, I may have complete certainty that everything God is, he is for me, from now until eternity, because of the past work.
The logic is called an a fortiori. It’s from the greater to the lesser. If this happened, surely that will happen. And here (this is the astonishing thing), God’s providing me with everything I need in the future is a piece of cake, if he gave me his Son to death. I remember Dan Fuller used to draw on the chalkboard a big mountain, and then a long hill, and he had a train. The train was my life, and it was just loaded down with sin, and there was no way it could get to heaven. There’s this huge mountain of God’s wrath and my sin. So here’s my little train, and the cross — the work of God in bearings my wrath in Christ, and providing my righteousness in Christ, and covering my sin in Christ — pulled me to the top of the biggest obstacle between me and heaven. Then he drew the train going downhill on this side and said, “You’re just high-balling it to heaven when you’re on this side of the cross.”
That’s the logic of this verse. If he did the absolutely hardest thing imaginable — namely, take the second person of the Trinity, bring that person into human flesh, appoint that that person would be slandered, and spit upon, and beaten, and crowned with thorns, and have nails driven through his hands, and die the most ignominious and the most painful death for sinners like me — then it’s a piece of cake to get me to heaven after that. That’s the logic.
Therefore, when I say that faith in future grace is resting on a massive foundation, that’s the way your mind must work. When you look to the future and you start to wonder, “How can I count on the arrival of future grace to provide all that I need to do God’s will?” you do turn around and look back. You say, “There’s the reason: Christ crucified.” You rehearse the logic of this verse. I think that’s probably my favorite verse in all the Bible.
God Keeps You
You see the same logic in Romans 5:9:
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood [past], much more shall we be saved by him [future] from the wrath of God.
Do you see that “much more” right there? That’s equivalent to “will he not?” That’s the same logic. You get this logic into your brain and into your heart, you will be able to slay the devil very effectively, hour by hour.
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:10)
It’s a done deal. Those whom he justified, he glorified, which is why all that talk about “you must be holy in order to be saved in the last day” doesn’t keep us awake at night with anxieties about, “Oh, am I going to be holy tomorrow?” No, you won’t — unless this is true. God keeps you. You don’t keep yourself.
What Is Faith?
If that’s what grace is, and that’s how it’s future oriented, and that’s how it’s dependent on the past, what is it? What is faith? In this book, Future Grace, this is the definition that I operated with:
Faith is a being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus — not just an assent to truths, past or future, but heartfelt valuing and treasuring of all that God promises to be for us in Jesus.
Here’s one text to underline that point: John 6:35 says,
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Now, notice the parallel. Come is parallel to believe. So I take that parallel to mean that in Jesus’s understanding here and in John’s understanding, believing is a coming to Jesus to eat bread that takes away hunger and thirst. That’s my definition of faith on that verse. What is believing? Believing is spiritually (not physically; it’s not something you walk to) coming to or embracing Jesus, such that you find him a hunger-satisfier and a thirst-quencher. Of course, we’re talking about soul hunger and soul thirst. My definition of faith — it’s not the only one; it’s just, I think, a very important one for learning how to kill sin with it — is a being satisfied with all that God is, or promises to be for us, in Jesus. There are so many other verses to that effect, but maybe just look at John 7:37–38:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”
So believing is a coming in such a way that you have drunk and are overflowing.
How Does the Holy Spirit Produce Obedience?
What’s the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling obedience? Now, if grace is power, and grace is future, and faith is being satisfied in it, where’s the Holy Spirit? I’ve had people listen to my effort to explain the way faith severs the root of sin and be mystified as to how the Holy Spirit is working. Because the Holy Spirit, according to Galatians 5:22, is the one who bears the fruit of love. Paul says that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love. I’ve said that faith produces love. Now look at Galatians 5:6:
In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
So faith produces love and the Spirit produces love. How does that work? I think the key is given in Galatians 3:5:
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
Now you’ve got the Spirit acting, so we have this text accounted for, and you’ve got faith present, and so you’ve got that text accounted for, and they’re brought together here. The way it describes it is that God provides the Spirit through, or by hearing, promises, or the gospel, with faith. So the gospel is preached, and the Spirit arrives in and through the faith that the word is awakening. In fact, it’s indistinguishable as to whether the Spirit or the word is awakening faith. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Faith is opened and enabled by the Holy Spirit. Does he who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles by the Spirit do it by works? No. He does it when you hear the gospel, the promises of God, with faith. Faith is the channel through which the Spirit bores itself. You don’t create the channel; he creates the channel, and he flows through it while he creates it.
Why Does the Spirit Unite Himself to Faith?
Now, here’s the question that I think is very, very crucial to ask: Why does the Spirit unite himself to faith as a way of bringing about works of love — that is, Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit just make you a loving person without restricting his method to always doing it through your faith in Jesus and his promises? Why doesn’t he just touch you, being God, and cause you to be a humble person, cause you to be a loving, kind, generous, patient person? Why is he always binding himself to hearing promises with faith, so that wherever faith isn’t, he isn’t producing love; and wherever faith is, he is producing love. Why does the Holy Spirit link himself so firmly to my faith? It seems like, “Come on, Holy Spirit. You’re God. You can just kind of bump around and cause love everywhere. You don’t have to just do it where there’s faith.”
The reason, I think, is in the fundamental mission of the Spirit given in John 16:14 where Jesus says, “He will glorify me.” “That’s why I’ve sent him. He will glorify me,” Jesus said. The fundamental mission of the Holy Spirit is to make Jesus look indispensable and really good. That’s his job. If he’s going to produce the fruit of love, he has to do it in a way that makes Jesus look really indispensable and really good. Therefore, God ordains that he always does it in and through faith in Jesus, faith in promises.
If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to be overflowing in love to people, you shouldn’t just get on your knees and say, “Come, Holy Spirit. Come fill me. Come make me a loving person. Come do your mighty fruit-bearing work. Amen,” and get up and go and try to do it. That’s not the way to do it. Everything I just said is right and good and you should do that. But you know now, from the Bible, the Holy Spirit is saying, “I produce love through your dependence on Jesus’s promises. Therefore, when you pray for my fullness, when you want to release my power in you, open your Bible and memorize Matthew 6:25–34, and believe it as you walk to work, and I will mightily work through that faith, liberating you from anxiety and producing all the love that freedom from anxiety produces.”
In other words, you’re involved in this work of the Holy Spirit. The way you’re involved is by fixing your mind’s eye on the promises, the blood-bought promises of Christ, which are absolutely sure for you. You lay hold on them, and the Holy Spirit is there and working. The experience of the Holy Spirit is the experience of undoubting faith in the promises of God, liberating you from the lies of sin that all come from greed and fear. That’s why the Spirit works through faith in future grace.
What Is the Role of Gratitude?
Now this very controversial question in regard to living by faith in future grace: What’s the role of gratitude in the motivation of obedience? Let me just preface where this came from. I could name favorite theologians that you and I have, probably, who have said that the dominant motivation of the Christian life is gratitude; the motivating power of a life of obedience is gratitude. Nothing that I have said up till now says that. Where am I going? I mean, here I am trying to build a structure of motivation that has spiritual power in it that conquers sin and produces love, and I haven’t even mentioned the word gratitude. What’s wrong with me?
Faith, Not Gratitude
I began in that little trailer, down there in Barnesville, Georgia, to see whether or not I could make sweeping statements, because they’re very risky when you have your favorite theologians who are living saying the opposite of what you say. Nowhere in the Bible is gratitude connected explicitly with obedience as a motivation. I know one where people often go, and I think there’s an answer for it.
Christian obedience is called the work of faith (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11), never the work of gratitude.
We find expressions like live by faith (Galatians 2:20) and walk by faith (2 Corinthians 5:7), but never expressions like live by gratitude and walk by gratitude.
We find the expression faith working through love (Galatians 5:6), but not gratitude working through love.
We read that the goal of our instruction is love from a good heart and a good conscience, and sincere faith (1 Timothy 1:5), but not from sincere gratitude.
We read that faith without works is dead (James 2:26), not gratitude without works is dead.
When Jesus deals with the disciples’ hesitancy to seek the kingdom first because they were worried about food and clothing, he did not say, “O men of little gratitude.” He said, “O men of little faith” (Matthew 6:30).
Faith in future grace — not gratitude — is the source of radical, risk-taking, kingdom-seeking obedience. That’s an overstatement. I wouldn’t say it that absolutely.
Trust Him for More
Let me see if I can say it differently: I picture gratitude and faith as two absolutely indispensable acts of the soul. If you have no gratitude, you’re not saved. If you have no faith, you’re not saved.
I see them in my soul having a conversation with each other, talking about their assigned roles from God in my life. They each have a role to play. Gratitude is standing on the waterfall where the future cascades over the present of my life and gathers in the reservoir of history, and he’s looking back. He always is looking back, and he’s singing his heart out over what he sees of God’s accumulated history of grace, both in redemptive history recorded in the Bible with the cross standing at the center, and in my little 59-year history of all God’s blessings. He’s looking out over the past of my life and the past of history, and he’s just saying, “God is great. God is faithful. O glorious God, I thank you for all that you have done for me.” That’s gratitude speech.
Faith is listening to him, and that is very important that faith hear that. Gratitude turns to faith and says, “Do you see that? Do you hear me? Now do your job.” And faith is looking to the future: “You do your job.” And faith says, “On the basis of the cross, he did not spare his own Son. On the basis of 53 years of knowing God, who has never let me down one hour of my life, I will now embrace with complete certainty the promises of God for my future.”
You can see, I do not belittle gratitude. Gratitude has a function in informing faith what it can bank on and celebrating past. I don’t want to be too picky here. I hear people pray, “I thank you for what you’re going to do this afternoon.” I don’t think there’s any sentence in the Bible like that. It’s not a sin to pray like that. I think it’s much more biblical to say, “I totally trust you for all the good you’re going to do this afternoon.” If you want to project yourself forward and express gratitude already for what’s going to happen, there’s kind of a time machine going on here. But in the Bible, gratitude is massively, gloriously happy with what God has done for us in the past, and we ought to sing it and celebrate it like crazy.
Three Reasons Gratitude Can Endanger
What I’m concerned about is this notion that you look to the past, notice how much good God has done for you, and then as you turn to the future, and it isn’t faith in future grace that becomes the energy of your life; it’s a payback mentality. “He’s done so much for me, now what can I do for him?” That’s what I fear about the gratitude ethic. I know that the people have the way of thinking about gratitude. They don’t mean that, but I think a lot of people labor under the notion, “Well, if it’s gratitude that’s supposed to make me a kind person today at work, then how does that work? How does that really work?”
The temptation to say, “God has done so much for me. What can I do for him?” is very great, but it is very dangerous for these three reasons. I would just like to disabuse you of all use of gratitude in this way.
1. Repaying God is simply not possible.
We can never pay God back, not one penny’s worth, because every move we make in love and holiness is a move that God himself supplies. If you say, “I look back. I’m so thankful that you died for my sin, Lord Jesus. And now, I will, in gratitude, recompense, pay back, and I will tithe, and I will not commit adultery,” every step you take that is presumed to be payback isn’t payback — if you believe 1 Corinthians 15:10: “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” I’m going deeper into debt with every step I take.
Here’s the good news: You must remain a debtor to grace forever. There will be no amortization schedule set up now or in heaven by which you make payments to reimburse God for grace. The first reason is: it can’t be done because every good deed you do, you do by grace and thus incur another debt. Isn’t that wonderful?
What shall I render to the Lord
for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
It just doesn’t get any better than that. It’s like: “You’ve filled my cup a thousand times. What can I do to make some kind of appropriate response?” Answer: “I’ll lift up my cup and call on the name of the Lord.” Now, you could take that in two ways. Maybe it’s a toast. I don’t think so. I have no problem with that, but the reason is because the next phrase is: “I will call.” It’s not like a toast and you say, “To God,” but rather, “You’ve filled it a million times. I want to show that you’ve not run out at all. Here’s another opportunity,” and he calls upon the Lord. Do you want to make God’s day? Hold up an empty cup.
2. Repaying God nullifies grace.
The second reason why that’s so dangerous to try to do a payback way of life is that if we could succeed in paying God back for all he does for us or for any of it, to that degree, it would nullify grace and turn it into a business transaction. Grace is free or it’s not grace. Grace does not establish an amortization schedule of obedience payments.
3. Repaying God directs our attention backward.
The third reason why we can’t live like that, mustn’t live like that, is that thinking of obedience as empowered by gratitude tends to direct our attention backward to bygone grace rather than forward to future grace. In this way, the debtor’s ethic tends to divert us from the wealth of grace yet to be known, and distracts us from the very power of obedience we need — namely, future grace. You can’t run your car on gratitude for yesterday’s gas. There’s got to be fresh grace every day, and you’ve got to depend on it, and depending on it is what liberates you for love.
Faith Fights for Future Grace
Therefore, our passion for holiness involves a fight for faith in future grace. I don’t need to say much about this. I wrote the book When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy to answer this, because it’s the biggest challenge of my life. A passion for holiness involves a fight for faith in future grace. We battle against sin by battling against unbelief. Tomorrow night, I will preach a sermon and one of the texts will be Hebrews 3:12–13:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
That’s the battle: exhort one another every day, lest there be a heart of unbelief. Unbelief is always clamoring at the elect, at the regenerate. It’s clamoring at us. We show that we are elect not by coasting in misunderstood eternal security, but in fighting with the power of God-given security. That’s why I say it involves a fight. Paul says,
“Fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12).
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
“Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith” (2 Corinthians 1:24). So it takes work.
The last text to look at tonight is Philippians 1:25:
Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.
That’s why Paul remains on planet Earth. That’s why I’m a pastor. That’s why you should be in a small group with other people, so that you could exhort one another every day, lest there be in you an evil heart of unbelief. What people say to me at appropriate times is God’s appointed means of keeping me in the faith. If I start to play fast and loose with the means of grace and say, “I don’t need exhortation. I don’t need worship. I don’t need Bible reading. I don’t need prayer. I don’t need fasting. I don’t need any of these things,” I’m a goner. I will go to hell. The means of grace are given so that my regenerate condition will show itself through their vigilant means.