I received an email from a friend asking for some explanation of salvation by grace. He asked: "Is God's Grace unconditional, or it is conditional with ACCEPTING the Crucifixion of Christ (John 1:17b)? What should one DO to be saved by Grace?"
It's a good question. I thought my answer to that question is also relevant in the context of looking at the ethical teachings of Jesus, so I've reproduced it below.
I think one of the problems with the issue of grace and works is that many scholars (beginning with Martin Luther) have made it an either/or situation. Are we saved by grace OR by works? When we answer, according to the Scriptures, that salvation is by grace, then some people will argue that works have no value then. However, Paul does not set grace against works – rather, he sets grace (or faith) against “the works of the law”, which were those particular aspects of the Law which distinguished Jews from Gentiles and led to Israel’s nationalism and exclusiveness. In Romans, for example, Paul is not arguing against works, or the Law, but is arguing the case for the inclusion of the Gentiles. He argues that we are saved by faith, and that those features of the Jewish Law which made them a distinctive group have no relevance to Gentiles.
I say that as a way of background to answering your question, because some people have wrongly argued that “good works” have no value, on the basis of their misunderstanding of Paul’s argument against “the works of the Law”. In fact, Paul elsewhere commends good works (quite frequently in fact) and James says that faith is demonstrated through works. In Paul’s terminology there is a big difference between “works of the law” and “good works”, and good works are the sign and seal of our faith.
“Grace” literally means “a gift”. There is nothing we can do to deserve or earn it – otherwise it would be a payment for services performed, not a gift. So in this sense grace is unconditional. Your reference to John 1:17 is interesting. Just a few verses earlier (v. 12-13) John said this: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God”.
John says some important things here.
(1) First he said we are to “receive Him”. Salvation is God’s gift (grace) but we have to receive it. If we do not receive it then we will never benefit from it. In this sense, we could say that grace is “conditional” on us receiving it. In other words, unless we do something to receive it (or accept it, to use your word) then it will have no effect on us.
(2) Secondly John says that if we receive Him He will give us the “right” (Gk. exousia = literally, the power of choice) to become the Sons of God. So it is dependant on us to make the choice to become a Son of God.
(3) But then John emphasises that our new birth is entirely the work of God - “born of God”.
In other words, what we do is to make the choice to accept everything God has on offer to enable us to live the new life - which is another way of saying we are to have “faith” or “trust” in God (faith and trust mean the same thing) to provide us with everything we need to live this new life. The new life, being born again, is the work of God. We cannot change ourselves through our own efforts.
But God, on the other hand, will not change us without our co-operation. This is why “grace” and “Spirit” are almost interchangeable in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, because God’s grace is exercised through His Spirit. It is the Spirit which works in us and enables and empowers us to do God’s will and to live the Christian life. Then the Spirit working in us will produce “fruit” - which is the evidence that God is at work. Much of what we "do" (what both Paul and James would call “good works”) are not the results of our own efforts, but are the signs that God is at work in us, and God works in us because we “trust” Him to do it (“faith”). So we could say that for His grace to have an effect in our lives it is dependant on us having the faith/trust in Him to do it.
I hope this helps. I think the most important things for us to do are to:
(a) receive whatever God offers;
(b) choose to co-operate with Him; and
(c) submit to His authority (the “Lordship” of Jesus).
Then the works (or “fruit”) that are produced in our lives are really the works of God and God gets the glory.
One example of this in practice is baptism. Some people say that “baptism is essential to salvation”. In other words, being baptised is something we must do in order to be saved. I would put it differently: I would say that salvation is God’s free gift, and that a person who has received or accepted that salvation will then be baptised as the sign and seal of their new birth. Do you see the difference?