If Salvation is By Grace Alone, Why Are There Requirements?

We are in the middle of this section of miracles in Matthew’s Gospel, and Jesus makes some statements about what it costs to follow Him. Costs? We hear often about free grace and about how nothing is required of us. We teach that salvation is a free gift. We teach that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Yet, through the Scriptures there seem to be quite a few requirements for Christ-followers. How can salvation be a free gift and come with requirements? How can the Scriptures say that salvation is by grace and, yet, also place requirements upon the believer? Does Jesus contradict Himself by teaching both of these things? Are the Scriptures incoherent?

Matthew 8:18-22

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea.

Then a scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.”

Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.”

But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”

The scribe (v. 18-20)

Now when Jesus saw a crowd around Him, He gave orders to depart to the other side of the sea.

Then a scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.”

I don’t know who this scribe is. Matthew has decided to keep us in the dark by not providing his identity. We can deduce that this scribe is one of Christ’s disciples. We deduce this from verse 21, which states that “another disciple…” The indication is that the scribe is the first disciple listed. The scribe cannot be Matthew, because Matthew does not become a character in his own Gospel until chapter 9, verse 9. This means that one of Christ’s other disciples at this time has a working knowledge of the Old Testament and had authority to draft legal documents, including bills of sale, contracts, and tax documents. This is what scribes did. 

The fact that this scribe is a disciple also indicates that he is following Jesus. He is going with Jesus to the other side of the sea and will be with Jesus throughout Jesus’ ministry. This disciple is not like the rich young ruler (19:16-30), who will hear of the cost and go away sad. This scribe hears the cost and, by all indication, follows Jesus despite that personal cost.

Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

Jesus’ statement, here, applies particularly to the scribe, whose identity and livelihood is in legal documentation concerning bills of sale. The scribes presumably earn their living by providing documentation authorizing ownership of property. To the scribe, Jesus states that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. The indication is that if the scribe follows Jesus, he will no longer be able to find his identity or his livelihood in doing the work of a scribe.

The other disciple (v. 21-22)

Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.”

The other disciple, like the scribe, seems to choose to follow Jesus despite the cost. We don’t get to know the identity of this disciple either. Before they leave Capernaum, where the first disciples started following Jesus, and travel to the other side of the sea, this disciple desired to get his father’s affairs in order or await his own inheritance according to who we ask. Most commentators seem to believe that this disciple’s father was not yet dead. They describe that it is, perhaps, the firstborn son’s responsibility to make sure that his father was honored in death and that it was important for the firstborn to await his inheritance. This cultural familial obligation kept families together and made it unlikely that responsible children would stray too far from home. This is one reason Jesus’ story of the prodigal son (21:28-32) will be so shocking later in Matthew’s Gospel. This disciple wants to keep his obligation as a good son and does not want to leave the land of his father.

But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”

We already know from the previous passage that Jesus doesn’t necessarily require us to cut all ties. Peter remained married, stayed connected with his mother-in-law, and retained property with a house. Jesus did not require Peter to leave his wife, renounce his mother-in-law, or sell his property. Neither is He requiring this other disciple to forsake his father. What He is saying is that neither cultural or relational obligations are a valid excuse not to follow Him wholly. The obligations of the world belong to the world. Let the world take care of its own obligations. We are Christ’s, and no longer of the world.

Shallow Christianity today

We ought to pay very close attention to Jesus’ words, here. Our excuses are very similar. Like the scribe, we might be interested in following Jesus but may be more concerned with our identity or livelihood. As a result, we say things like,

  1. I can’t go to church because I work on Sunday. I have to provide for myself and for my family.
  2. I can’t be with Christ’s body because of athletics. I need to do well because my future depends on it.
  3. I can’t be with the church because of school or homework. I need good grades so that I can have a bright future.
  4. I have too much to get done around the house to make it to Bible study.
  5. I’m too busy to add religion to my schedule.
  6. I’ll get my life figured out first, then I’ll think about Jesus.

Christ’s response to us is clear, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” To follow Christ is to prioritize Him and participation with His body (the church) above all else. If our identity or livelihood take precedence over following Christ, we show that we are not disciples like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19. To make any of the above excuses or a similar excuse is like telling Jesus, “I like you, but I love my job (or education, sport, team, housework, busyness, success, or status).” We are so good at doing this. Never would any decent man tell his wife, “I like you, but I love my job.” Neither does a true disciple have this sort of attitude toward Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

In the same way, we are concerned with our cultural and relational obligations. We may say things like,

  1. My spouse does not want me to be involved with that stuff.
  2. I have obligations to my parents first.
  3. It’s not culturally acceptable to follow Jesus.
  4. I will be excommunicated or worse if I even think about following Jesus.
  5. My spouse or parents would rather me do something other than participate with Christ’s church.

Our excuses are, many times, not even something that can be considered so noble.

  1. My preferences aren’t being met.
  2. I can’t get the kind of coffee I like.
  3. The music isn’t what I think it should be.
  4. The pastor isn’t funny.
  5. It’s just not convenient for me to follow Jesus wholly.

Christ’s response is also clear, here, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.” If this is Christ’s response to excuses that seem to us to be noble, I wonder what His response is to excuses that are obviously selfish. We no longer belong to the world and our ways are no longer the ways of the world. Our concerns are different. If our primary concern is to meet cultural obligations or relational expectations, we prove not to be followers of Christ.

We hear and teach that salvation is a free gift by grace through faith. Why does following Jesus, according to Jesus in this passage, seem to be so costly in this world? Jesus taught that the kingdom comes first and that the response of God’s people is repentance (4:17). He spent His sermon on the mount teaching that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works (5:1-7:29). In this context, He taught that good trees produce good fruit (7:17). So, our actively following Jesus is the result of a regenerate heart according to Christ’s instruction. So, in a sermon, message, or lesson that is works-based or that doesn’t consider context, improper application might be made. We might hear that if we want to follow Jesus we must first be willing to follow Christ at the expense of our jobs or be willing to leave the presence of family. This is not the correct application. Instead, we recognize that the scribe and the other disciple are already following Jesus sincerely. Because they are genuine followers of Jesus Christ, they are willing and choose to follow Christ across the sea. It is the free gift of salvation (root) that produces the willingness in Christ’s true disciples to follow Him wholly (fruit).

So, proper application insists that we examine our own lives. If we make any of the above excuses or any similar excuse, then we actually show that we do not have regenerate hearts. We need to return to the basic Gospel. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. When we truly know Christ, the evidence will be that we come to willingly follow Him wholly and we choose Him above all else. If we are truly disciples of Christ, we proclaim, “Jesus, I like the blessings that you have given, but I love you and count all as loss simply to know you.”

If you are one of those people who like Jesus but love other stuff, please examine your own heart. It may be the case that you are religious or claim to be a Christian but are actually lost and unregenerate. In your life, there will either be repentance and full devotion to Jesus or you will go away sad like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19.

Following Jesus is not what most religious people think it is. They hope, I think, that by following Jesus they will somehow receive some worldly blessing or overcome some personal struggle. We forget that Jesus is concerned with the glory of the Father, not with glorifying us. Jesus, and our family in Him, actually becomes more important than earthly, biological family. God’s design is not that we should remain submitted to our parents, but that parents would steward the children given to them, discipling them and releasing them to godly life and ministry- whatever the cost for God’s glory. Those who follow Jesus also become willing to give up the luxuries of this world, suffering all things for the sake of the elect. A deeper, more lasting satisfaction is found with Christ than with the world anyway.

How can salvation be a free gift and come with requirements? How can the Scriptures say that salvation is by grace and, yet, also place requirements upon the believer? Does Jesus contradict Himself by teaching both of these things? Are the Scriptures incoherent? Salvation is a free gift, but it necessarily produces a rejection of worldly values. It is not the case that we must obey Christ in order to be saved. It is the case that, if we are saved we will willingly choose to obey Christ. This is why Jesus teaches that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15). Obedience is the fruit, love is the root. We should not confuse the two. In fact, this truth gives us a way to observe our own lives and to work backwards from the evidence (the fruit of obedience) to discern whether or not we are actually disciples of Christ (having the root of Christ’s love). Whether you have never made a decision to follow Jesus or made an ingenuine decision earlier in your life- If Jesus is calling you to be His disciple today, repent and believe. Jesus will accomplish His work in you.

So, what is your response when Jesus gives orders to step into the boat? Do you get in? Do you really follow Jesus?

Questions:

  1. Are there requirements for Christians?
  2. Can we merit salvation by keeping these requirements?
  3. If salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, how can Jesus require anything of His people?
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