I have a default system at work, a reflex that springs into motion whenever I fall short in my walk with the Lord. I’m talking about my tendency to turn to works rather than to God’s incredible grace to reestablish my standing with Him.

I believe most of us have such a system; it is why Paul emphasizes God’s grace again and again throughout the New Testament. In letter after letter, he hammers home the sufficiency of grace for our right relationship with the Lord.

Yet this default system—the urge to turn to works to make up for our shortcomings—is constantly at work in us. The reason I preach grace so often is because I need it! At times my church must think I overdo it, because people say to me, “I know I’m under grace, but what is my responsibility?” That is a good question. In a covenant of grace—one in which God has done everything required for our salvation—what part do we play?

For many of us, the concept of grace holds no power in our daily walk. We know God has bestowed on us precious, costly gifts in His Son and the Holy Spirit; therefore, we think we should not fail or fall short. So when we do, we’re surprised. It does not compute that we could still be awful sinners after all God has done for us and we picture Him shaking His head in regret.

We convince ourselves we can do better and so we double our efforts at prayer, at Bible reading, at getting involved in ministry. We do this knowing full well our works do nothing to gain right standing with God. Do we really think more works are what God wants from us? Two hours of prayer instead of one? Does He really want us busier?

Only two things result from these efforts to save ourselves. First, we avoid facing up to our sinfulness. Second—and much worse—we rob ourselves of drinking from God’s deep well of grace. Paul faced this dilemma early on in the church. When the Christians in Galatia tried to please God through works of the law, Paul confronted them: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:1-2, ESV). Paul was asking, “Do you really think you can improve on the cross?”