In his book A Brief History of Time, physicist Stephen Hawking shared this well-traveled anecdote:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
According to Christian theology, what is the ratio of grace to works in the salvation equation? 1 to 0. Not one speck, not one microgram, not one atom of works there. It is all grace or no grace. Wring and wrestle all you want, but it is grace all the way down.
This “all-the-way-down-ness” of grace is essential to authentic Christianity. Thus Paul’s logic in Romans 11:6—if salvation is by grace, it cannot be by works, because if it’s by works, it’s no longer grace, and if it’s no longer grace, it’s no longer Christianity.
And you see the depths of the impact of grace in the way Paul speaks about the remnant in Romans 11:5-6 being chosen by grace, saved by grace, and sustained by grace. Clearly, grace runs deeper than simply inspiring a conversion experience.
The importance of distinguishing between works and grace in Christian teaching is not simply to distinguish the doctrines and definitions but to distinguish what actually works to transform people and what doesn’t. The truth that every other religion in the world misses is this: commandments have no power.
Another thing we notice in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 is a rather peculiar bit of information about this information we call the gospel. The gospel is news, yes, but it appears to be more than just mere data. It’s like a newspaper headline—“Son of God dies for the sins of the world”—but it does things no other newspaper headline could ever do.
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, we see that the good news of grace isn’t just power enough for our conversion (“you received”) but for the ongoing declaration of our definitive justification (“in which you stand”) and the progressive sanctifying work we are undergoing and future glorification we will enjoy in heaven (“by which you are being saved”).
It is important to think about the gospel this way, not just because this is what the Bible teaches about the gospel, but because it helps us distinguish the gospel’s power from the law’s power. In our churches too often we believe the way people change is by receiving more instruction. Instruction is good, and we need it. There’s lot of instructions in the Bible, and we shouldn’t ignore them. But the way the Bible says people actually change, deep down in the heart, where the sincerity is seated that makes our behavior worship of God instead of worship of self, is by believing in the gospel.
In 2 Corinthian 3:18 Paul says that it is by beholding the glory of Jesus Christ that we are transformed from one degree of glory to another. Truly “seeing” Christ in the gospel as supreme and satisfying and saving is what empowers us to worship him. The law cannot do that!
But we do the logic of the law and think it works the other way. And so does everybody else. We know how people change—we just tell them to get their act together! But do you know that what will change the world is not a millisecond of your complaints against it? This is why every day on Facebook our friends and families link to article after article of opposing political and religious demagoguery and nobody ever changes their mind. Certainly nobody ever changes their heart because they were told to behave differently.
So while every other religion and philosophy in the world says change comes from within and “salvation” (however it’s defined) is achieved by the right behaviors, only Christianity teaches that real change comes from outside of ourselves and that salvation is achieved by Christ’s behavior. And because only Christ’s historical, atoning work provides eternal life, it is only this work that goes all the way down to our deepest needs.