Balanced Preaching on Grace and Works

Maintaining balance is one of the greatest challenges a preacher faces. When preaching is mainly a reaction to error on one side, there is serious danger of error on the other side—at least in the perception of the hearers. A good example is preaching on grace and works.

The Protestant reformers reacted against the Catholic doctrine of salvation by works. John Calvin, especially, reacted to the point of teaching that what one did and how one lived had nothing at all to do with his salvation. This error is as serious as the Catholic error.

In recent years many of us have been accused of preaching salvation by works instead of by grace. I must say that I have never heard a sermon which stated that salvation is by works without grace. I have heard many (and preached some) which emphasized the necessity of obedience without mentioning grace.

There may be several reasons for our emphasis on obedience. One is that obedience is man’s responsibility, while grace is God’s. We have to plead with men to do what they must do, but God extends His grace willingly and freely. Furthermore, almost all Protestant preaching emphasizes grace, while saying little about works; if works and obedience are mentioned it is usually to say that they have nothing whatsoever to do with salvation—that salvation is by grace alone. Because grace is constantly emphasized by others, we may feel little or no necessity of even mentioning it. This is a mistake.

It is a mistake to attempt to counteract the doctrine of grace without works by preaching works and neglecting grace. While gospel preachers never preach that one is saved by works without grace, professed Christians sometime seem to have this concept. And it just may be the result of unbalanced preaching.

On the other hand, emphasizing grace while neglecting the necessity of obedience is equally unbalanced and will lead to the opposite error. I am afraid that some are now making this mistake. A constant diet of such unbalanced preaching will lead a congregation to conclude that obedience is not very important, and far too many individuals show evidence of that concept. Preachers doing such preaching are very defensive, asking, “Am I preaching error when I preach the grace of God?” Of course not! The problem is not what is being said, but what is not being said.

If faithful obedient Christians live in constant fear of being lost, they may not be hearing enough preaching on grace. But when people who are knowingly practicing sin still feel good about themselves, they are probably not hearing enough strong teaching on obedience and godly living.

One who would preach the truth on God’s grace and human responsibility must preach just what Paul preached—salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). He preached God’s grace and a condition with which man must comply—faith.

One who would preach the truth concerning faith and works must preach what James preached: “You see then that by works a man is justified and not by faith only” (James 2:24). James made it clear that faith was necessary, but he pointed out that “faith with out works is dead” (James 2:26).

To preach that we are saved by law-keeping and therefore need no grace is error. But to leave the impression that because we are under grace we are no longer bound by any law is equally erroneous. We are “under law to Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21); we must “fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We must look “into the perfect law of liberty and continue in it” (James 1:25) for we will be “judged by the law of liberty” (James 2:12).

To preach that one must live a perfect life to be saved is error. But it is also error to leave the impression that because one is under grace he may live as he pleases. This is turning “the grace of our God into licentiousness” (Jude 4); “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness, and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12).

To teach that we can hope to be accepted in the judgment because we are sinless or on the basis of meritorious works is surely error. But to leave the impression that our works have nothing to do with it is equally erroneous. Again and again the scriptures warn that every man will be “judged according to his works” (Matthew 16:27; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 2:23; 20:12, 13).

The word of God presents a balanced treatment of every subject. Too much reading from uninspired sources, too much reliance on human teachers or on our own feelings can lead us either into error or into an unbalanced and reactionary presentation of truth. But if our study time is dominated by a study of the scripture text, our thinking will more likely be balanced and our preaching will reflect that balance. Our goal should be to say with Paul, “I have not shunned to declare to you all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).


Sewell Hall, “Hallmarks: Balanced Preaching on Grace and Works,” Christianity Magazine (Jacksonville, FL: Christianity Magazine, 1996), 5–6.