Oil and Water, Grace and Works


The old saying, “Oil and water don’t mix,” is certainly true, but so is the concept of grace and works.

This is a bugaboo for Christians across the board and across the ocean, as people are often confused about what the Bible says about these two opposite but complementary necessities of the Christian life. I prefer the term “grace works” as a vivid explanation of how this part of life is to be lived.

Americans, in particular, are taught from knee-high to a grasshopper than performing well is the ultimate thing in life, being successful and having high self-esteem. This puts the emphasis on how well we do. This spills over into our thoughts and responses to God, no matter what we believe. If you believe essentially nothing about God, more than likely you’d want to at least please Him in case you believe that at the end of your life – as most do – that there’s a reckoning of how you “did” down here. Bill Cosby used say, with typical humor, that if he asked his son how he was doing, and he responded with “no problem.” Bill said that meant he hadn’t killed anybody!

John 3:16 & John 3:18

As silly as this sounds, some people envision doing well and pleasing God if they “haven’t killed anybody.” Just kidding, of course. Despite this outrageous thought, most folks are constantly wondering if God really loves them, if their behavior is pleasing to Him, or He wants to fling a “bolt of lightning” their way. The first answer is yes, the second is sometimes, and the third one is not right now, at least not at everyone.

Let me explain. The Bible is clear – and it’s marked on the faces of football players – that God sent Jesus because He loved the world and that whoever believes in Him will have everlasting life (John 3:16). The following verse, 17, says God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world but THROUGH Him it may be saved. This is good news. This takes care of “Does God love me?” The answer is clearly yes.

Is He pleased? Yes, sometimes. Sometimes? Yes – if our life is a “faith walk.” I get this answer in Hebrews 11:6:

“It’s impossible to please God apart from faith. And why? Because anyone who wants to approach God must believe both that he exists and that he cares enough to respond to those who seek him” (The Message).

So, yes, we are loved always because that’s His nature, but faith in Christ is the way God is “accessed” and “pleased.” This is the whole message of the New Testament. People who believe there’s another way to God have to base their philosophy on something other than the Bible because it “ain’t” there.

How many Christians consistently walk in faith? Certainly, we should have faith for eternity – that God will take us to heaven – but faith for everything else? Do those little or big anxious, worrisome thoughts bug you, or do you take them by faith to God? Fear and faith are opposites. They cannot coexist.

Before I continue in this vein and on to grace works, I want to address the third part of the questions above – the lightning bolt reference. While John 3:16 is the headline verse for most people, John 3:18 isn’t:

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

I’ve heard people say all my life that “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Well, this is a “damned if you don’t verse.” A lot people think doing nothing with the decision about Jesus is ok. They’re not “bad people” – they just don’t do anything about God’s Son. They don’t seek to know, understand, repent or believe in Jesus’ finished work on the cross. This is tragic and unacceptable to the God of the Bible. Doing nothing is the same to God as being against Him.

Father Abraham: The Man of Faith

The Bible calls this man “the Father of Faith.” His life set the record straight for us on the matter of faith. It says quite clearly that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). This follows the promise from God to Abraham that from his loins (he was a very old chap, about 90) would come a nation of people – that meant Israel and from their race, an offshoot of believers called Gentiles or non-Jews. It goes on to say that Abraham believed BEFORE he did any works, and God reckoned (Greek word – logizomai) or considered him righteous in His sight.

The Dismas Dilemma

Let’s jump ahead several hundred years to Dismas. Tradition says he was one of thieves on the cross who hung next to Christ. He was a murderer, a thief, a violent man, unholy and a scoundrel. He deserved death and eternal punishment, most would believe. I doubt very seriously he had any Sunday school pins or a good record of tithing or church attendance to prove that he had good intentions. Yet, this vile man merely asked Jesus one question, as they both were dying on their crosses: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ’s response was, “No, you’ve not done any good works yet, Dismus, so sorry about that.”

No, that’s not what Scripture says was His reply. To the contrary, He said, “Today, you’ll be with me in paradise.”

No works, no complicated theologically acceptable prayer, no baptism, no catechism, no church membership, just “Remember me.” And apparently Jesus did because He can’t lie.

Paul, a grace man par excellence, reemphasized the salvation by grace only when he said in Gal. 2:16:

…“know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

And again, But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace, but if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work”(Romans 11:6).

Oil and Water

Here we have the oil and water that don’t mix. Grace working in us produces works. Grace is a free gift, along with faith, that produces good works. Scientifically and by example, oil and water don’t mix because oil is made up of non-polar molecules while water molecules are polar in nature. Because water molecules are electrically charged, they get attracted to other water molecules and exclude the oil molecules. This eventually causes the oil molecules, or lipids, to clump together.

God says that it is grace first, produced by Him, which produces works that are acceptable and pleasing to Him because they originate in faith.

Are works essential?

The Book of James says works are the proof of faith and not the reason for salvation:

“…Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.…”

James is saying that works demonstrates faith. How else could someone see your faith unless they see it in operation? Further, he says the demons believe in God (a bit sarcastic, eh?), but that faith produces nothing! In other words, it’s not genuine faith.

All told, it’s the motivation that matters

Paul made all this quite understandable in 1 Cor. 15:10. He saw himself as one not deserving to have seen the Lord because he was a “blasphemer and a murderer” (1 Tim. 1:13) of fellow Christians before he believed in Jesus. But check out his statement about how grace worked in him:

“But by the grace (the unmerited favor and blessing) of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not [found to be] for nothing (fruitless and without effect). In fact, I worked harder than all of them [the apostles], though it was not really I, but the grace (the unmerited favor and blessing) of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10 Amp).

His faith was not fruitless but was motivated by the grace of Jesus working through him. If we truly can believe in, trust in and allow this same grace to flow through us, works will follow.

2 comments on “Oil and Water, Grace and Works”

  1. Wow. You hit a home run with this one! As it turns out a bible study I’m in on Tuesday mornings discussed this very topic. I would love to forward this to them but wanted to ask you first. Maybe I should just direct them to your blog where they can also subscribe? Let me know.

    Sent from my iPhone. Please excuse any auto correct changes I may not have caught.


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