Charles Spurgeon once said, when asked how he reconciled divine sovereignty with human responsibility, that he did not even try—he never sought to reconcile friends. If we think about it rightly, from the vantage of those jealous for moral probity, we will never try to reconcile grace with works—that would be like trying to reconcile an apple tree with its apples. And, if we think about it rightly, from the vantage of those jealous for the wildness of grace, we will never try to reconcile grace with merit, for the two are mortal enemies and cannot be reconciled.
But those who insist that apple trees must always produce apples will make the friends of free grace nervous, not because they have anything against apples, but rather because they know the human propensity for manufacturing shiny plastic apples, with the little hooks that make it easy to hang them, like so many Christmas tree ornaments, on our doctrinal and liturgical bramble bushes. But on the other hand, those who insist that true grace always messes up the categories of the ecclesiastical fussers make the friends of true moral order nervous—because there are, after all, numerous warnings (from people like Jesus and Paul, who should have a place in these particular discussions, after all) about those who “live this way” not inheriting the kingdom. Kind of cold, according to some people, but the wedding banquet is the kind of event you can get thrown out of.
So what is the relationship of grace to hard, moral effort? Well, hard, moral effort is a grace. It is not every grace, but it is a true grace. It is a gift of God, lest any should boast. We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, and this is a description of someone being saved by grace through faith, and not by works (Eph. 2:8-10). This is the meaning of our text—“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” We are called to work out what God works in, and absolutely nothing else. If we don’t work out that salvation (as evidenced by the fruit of it), then that is clear evidence that God is not working anything in.
If we work out some pressboard imitation (a salvation that has the look of real wood!), then that shows that God is not working anything in there either. Moralism is just a three-dollar flashlight to light the pathway to Hell with. And of course, if we are guilty of the opposite error, if our lives are manifesting a lineup of dirty deeds done dirt cheap, the only real sin we are avoiding is that of hypocrisy. Overt immorality is the fifty-dollar flashlight.