One vivid memory from my childhood is my mother’s love for exercise equipment. We always had some piece of exercise equipment in the house. I can remember a stationary bike, a rowing machine, a stationary bike with moving arms, a resistance workout bench, and a stair climbing machine were all, at one time or another, positioned neatly in our house in different places…holding laundry. Though the equipment was purchased with full “intent to use,” and the knowledge that regular use would lead to better health, the truth is simple: they were rarely ever used for exercise.
It became a running joke: I used to give my mother a hard time when she would look at a new piece of exercise equipment. “This doesn’t have enough room to hold more than four hangers,” I’d say. “This one can hold some folded blankets, but nothing more.” Yes, it really was that bad. And many of you know exactly what I am talking about.
The value in exercise equipment exists only through consistent use. Simply owning a rowing machine doesn’t make you healthier, it just means you own a piece of equipment whose purpose is to help you along your journey toward fitness. It is the doing that matters. You actually have to row.
But imagine you could buy a piece of equipment that did the hard work for you. What if you were guaranteed to see results simply by making it a part of your life (as most owner of exercise equipment vainly hope)? If there was a guarantee of this kind of return, everyone would have a rowing machine.
This is what God’s grace is like. It is guaranteed to bring results and change your life. It can do nothing else. When God sent his son to live a perfect life on our behalf, (to do the work for us) and die a sacrificial death on the cross in our place (to pay the price for us) it was so that we could be made into a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that exercise bike could make the same promise? “If anyone purchase me from the store and take me home, he will be fit. Behold, the fat is gone, all things have been made trim.” God’s grace is the only force in the universe that can make this bold and wonderful claim. Through the grace offered by Jesus Christ you are made new. You are not merely given the tools to be made new, or taught how to improve yourself until you are new. No, you are a new creation simply through God’s amazing, life-transforming grace.
Nowhere in Scripture does God command us to make ourselves new. Why? Because God knows we cannot do that. Look at what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:2-4:
For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (ESV)
See that? God, through grace, has done what the Law could not do. Law cannot create, it can only condemn. Grace does not condemn, but transforms death into life through the finished work of Jesus Christ. We are made fit without having to exercise!
Now comes the even more mind-blowing truth: it is grace alone that keeps us fit, as well! Martin Luther once said that grace “gives our works a work-out.” Our lives now change from demanded exercise to grateful responses—exercises—of faith. Many people, though, think that once we are saved, we must maintain our righteousness through obedience. We get back on the exercise bike, determined to maintain by our own effort the sculpted spiritual physique that came as a pure gift from God. We submit ourselves “again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Paul ran into this type of regression in Galatia. In Galatians 3:2-3 Paul asks a question that we must all consider carefully. He said,
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
If grace was enough to save us from sin, renew us, and put us in a right relationship with God at the beginning, is it not enough to grow us in faith also? If we are trying to grow ourselves—or at least maintain our spiritual standing—then we are assuming that grace is actually not enough and that God needs our help in the matter. Is this harsh? Yes, it is. But the point must be made. If we can make ourselves holy by any effort, before or after salvation, then the cross is insufficient and a travesty.