Identity and Imitation: Getting First Things First

The Essence of Grace

Why is grace so important to the chemistry of the heart from which godly lives emerge?

To answer, we first have to understand what grace is. Grace is God’s unmerited favor—“God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense,” Phillips Brooks once said. Since God is entirely holy, we cannot earn his approval based upon our efforts. He’s perfect; we’re not (Rom. 3:23). In our sinful humanity, we constantly mess up, serve selfish interests, or fail to measure up to the standards of goodness that mark God’s holy nature. So, to enable us to enter into a holy relationship with him, God provided his heavenly Son, Jesus, to pay the just penalty that these failures and shortcomings (which the Bible calls “sin”) deserve.

Jesus suffered for our sin, and we are credited with the result: our spiritual slate is wiped clean.

Because Jesus was spiritually perfect, his sacrificial death on a cross fully countered the guilt of those counting on him to settle their problems with God. Jesus suffered for our sin, and we are credited with the result: our spiritual slate is wiped clean. We have the spiritual status Jesus did before he accepted the shame of our sins. That means we are holy in God’s eyes. Jesus took our sin; we get his righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21). That’s why grace is about getting God’s richest blessings at Christ’s expense. God provides for us what we could not provide for ourselves. That’s the essence of grace.

Who before Do

Who we are in loving relationship with God is not determined by what we do; rather, what we do is determined by who we are. That’s why the apostle Paul encouraged believers in ancient Ephesus, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1). The command to imitate God (that is, to be holy as he is holy) is based on the family relationship with him that his grace already established. In essence Paul says, "Make who you are determine what you do”; he does not say, “Remember, what you do determines who you are" (see similarly Col. 3:12ff.). The identity God’s grace establishes determines the behavior we imitate. Who we are establishes what we do—and not the reverse!

God’s grace motivates our behavior; our behavior does not manufacture his grace. We live in response to his love, not to qualify for it or to make him produce it. Our obedience is a prayer of thanksgiving, not a bribe for blessings.

God fully purchased our redemption with Christ’s blood. Our task is not now to live as though that were not enough, but to relish the opportunities to walk in the relationship he secured. Later chapters will explore this identity-obedience dynamic much more fully. For now, it is enough to understand that God’s gracious claim on us is our greatest cause for serving him.

His grace does not detract from our devotion but fuels it.

Hearts before Flowers

One of my favorite church people is someone I met during the earliest years of my ministry. Maudette had been widowed many years, lived alone, and loved flowers. Though her advanced years kept her from tending her garden carefully, it provided a riot of colors and rare varieties that she loved arranging around the platform of our church.

Maudette came to our church only on Sunday evenings. She went to morning services at a church she had attended since she was a child—a church that had sadly drifted from its gospel moorings. Maudette stayed loyal to that church, hoping that her influence might help the succession of young preachers rediscover the gospel. But she came to our church in the evenings for what she called her “weekly dose of Bible.”

Unlimited Grace

Bryan Chapell

This book helps us see evidence of God's grace throughout Scripture so we see that far from encouraging sin, grace fuels and empowers the obedience that God commands.

The difference in the churches was never more evident than at Maudette’s funeral. It was held in her childhood church. Her pastor said a few opening words, praising Maudette’s many years of faithful Sunday school attendance. Then it was my turn to read from Scripture, and I read the passages she had chosen about the grace of God for all who trust in Christ. Next her pastor gave the eulogy, assuring family and friends that Maudette was in heaven because she had attended church so often, was a sweet person, had a beautiful garden, and shared her flowers with the church.

Then I preached the sermon, as Maudette had requested, retelling the gospel truth that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Eph. 2:8–9). I loved rehearsing how Maudette’s appreciation of her Savior’s unconditional grace had kept her lovingly decorating his house for so many years—even after the stresses of age began to decay hers. But I wanted people to understand that the beauty was an expression of her love for Christ, not a payment or bribe to make him love her more.

My wife later said that attending that funeral was like watching two preachers boxing. One would throw a “goods works” left jab; then, the other would throw the “gospel” right cross. Who won? I don’t know who won that day. I do know that Maudette wanted the gospel to win for the day her loved ones would face eternity.

Her hope was not in her flowers but in her Savior. She did not want who she was before God to rest on what she had done in her garden. Fragile flowers are beautiful, but our hope of eternity needs to rest on something far more firm. What we do must not determine who we are, but who we are by God’s grace should determine what we do.

This article is adapted from Unlimited Grace: The Heart Chemistry That Frees from Sin and Fuels the Christian Life by Bryan Chapell.

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