HIS Utmost for MY Highest: Reflections on Grace versus Works and Oswald Chambers’ Holiness Devotionals

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

I have been reading through some of Oswald Chambers‘ devotionals in his famous work My Utmost for His Highest (you might have noticed that my title plays on his).

But my title plays on Chambers’ for a significant reason that I would describe as the vast difference between works-based salvation that requires Christ’s one-time, perfect atoning sacrifice on the cross plus various of our efforts, versus Christ’s sacrifice (for our sins) that is imputed to us by grace through faith–any good works after that being because we are already saved*.

HIS Utmost?

To be specific, it is only because of Jesus’ “utmost sacrifice” on the cross that I have any hope at all of attaining the kind of salvation Jesus discussed with one, Nicodemus (see his story below), who, of all people back then, being the very accomplished, top-tier, law-abiding religious leader that he was, should have behaved himself right through the pearly gates, first in line.

But even as learned and high-ranking as Nicodemus was in the Jewish religious hierarchy, he apparently still had questions about what this radical new teacher, Jesus, was teaching and demonstrating.

Nicodemus was most likely still wondering about his real standing with God, too.

I mean, who among us is ever completely, absolutely, unequivocally certain that how we are living “for God” is exactly what God requires of us?

There is, after all, this thing called sin (of commission or omission) ever tempting and often succeeding.

There is, after all, also this thing called gut-level honesty.

So one night Nicodemus asked Jesus about some of things he had heard Him teach. Here is the narrative:

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” [Note: as a highly educated man, Nicodemus would have understood the prophetic allusion concerning the “lifted-up” snake.]

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:1-16)

And, when, with gratitude and humility, we come to learn this ourselves, to immerse ourselves in this truth–the words of Jesus to Nicodemus sounding hallelujas in our hearts–we also come to comprehend this:

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:6-9, NIV) 

(More on these “heavenly realms,”  “highest positions,” as it were, below.)

In other words, without grace by faith I can’t even hope to “perform” even one little iota of anything that can either please God or somehow “prove” I am righteous–or in any kind of high spiritual position.

Because even if I do all the things suggested in the writings of Chambers, who reflects the “Holiness” tradition of faith (a tradition promoting a “second work of grace leading to Christian perfection“), because God does require perfection–just a different kind–I’d only be lying to myself that I had attained any kind of “utmost”.

Because there is only One Who is perfect. And “it ain’t me” nor could it ever be.

It ain’t you–or Chambers or Nicodemus–either.

That said, I would, of course, yes, become quite a nicer, more compassionate, humanitarian-oriented person if I behaved rightly.

But you don’t need to be a believer to do that.

There are many motivators–philosphies, rules, standards and laws, no to mention parents and other authority figures–that prompt and aid us in behaving well, one way or another. And that’s a good thing.

It’s just that, the way God (mercifully) set up spiritual salvation not even our “Sunday best” behaviors could ever suffice because perfect justice requires perfect recompense.

In other words, our “utmost” is only because of grace gifted us by faith in Jesus‘ “utmost” on the cross.

For MY Highest?

In his devotion for January 1st, based on Philippians 1:20, a verse that encapsulates St. Paul’s dedication to live for Christ “in (his) own person by fearless courage” (Moffatt’s translation), Oswald discusses how God, in trying to get us on the right spiritual path, “has to work up to a crisis in our lives because we will not heed the gentler way.”


Though, sadly,  too often true.

But–and this is the “good” part of the Good News–there is, in fact, another “way”.

With all due respect to the young devotional writer of the Holiness persuasion, there is a “gentler way” to be had, heard, and heeded. One called the “grace way”–the way “worked” high on that cross at Calvary.

(The call of this devotional writer is to underscore THIS.)

Not gentler for Christ, of course, who bled out there, but for we who should have bled out there. For He did it for our sins, in our place, because we could not, by our efforts, accomplish what perfect justice requires.

And what more “gentle” the calling to any kind of holiness, whether formal faith tradition or simple lifestyle, than to follow HIM who did the heavy lifting, the penance required. As Jesus Himself put it,

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) 

If we know this “grace way”–if we are taught this part of the Good News–how much more so will the power of its attraction draws us to beholding Christ, instead of being so burdened with ourselves and our faulty, often discouraging and defeating, efforts.

And we have this promise, also from Him, if we look “up to Him” not “down on us”:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) 

Ruggedness remains, but grace maintains–makes easier the path, and leads us forth in confidence, not condemnation.

But Paul knew that, too:

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Another “Highest”?

Another sense of the term “highest” that also indicates a closeness to Christ, that place where we are seated high up in the aforementioned heavenly realms, is also due to that same moment, the apex of spiritual history, played out at Golgotha.

To elaborate further: without the radical grace purchased by Jesus Christ Who came as both man and metaphor to illustrate the phenomenal love God the Father has for us, He, Who would allow such evil to kill His own Son on a cross, we would still be thumbing the countless, dog-eared rule books of behavior-based religion to find some kind of final or sustained action or group of actions that could make us right with God.

I mean, has any solution mankind ever found to eliminate evil, whether perpetrated against Jesus or anyone else, ever worked to finally stop it?

Even if people don’t have a spiritual sense of the balance of justice, the temporal sense indicates there has to be something, anything, to overpower and end such evil and the suffering it causes.

I mean, how many laws and rules and regs has even the most freedom-seeking, man-made governmental system tried (and mostly failed) to attempt to accomplish this human effort!

Spiritually speaking, which is my context here, and again with all due respect to Chambers, and to the sincere holiness doctrine devotees throughout time, whatever the iteration, God did have a better plan.

More incredible yet, Jesus agreed to it.



Because…impossible for mere, flawed mortals.

And due to my own religious background immersed in “man-designed, works-based spiritual solutions,” I have become increasingly grateful for God’s plan–and anxious to share it for others who are also weary of the works-based load.

From the Mother of All Works-Based-Salvation Religious Systems…

My sensitivity to this topic, i.e., law versus grace, flesh versus spirit, behavior-based righteousness versus grace-based righteousness, and/or some kind of second work of grace versus Jesus “finished” act purchasing grace for us on the cross, stems from being wholly immersed in the Mother of All Works-Based Traditions throughout my childhood and early adulthood: Roman Catholicism.

I have written extensively in many posts of how that affected me as a child and young adult–and how it overrode any mention of “grace” within the confines of its doctrines where grace was not gifted a believer due to Jesus’ actions alone but earned through myriad rites, rituals, prayers, “obligations,” and other behaviors (literally hundreds).

Many others have also written of their own experiences coming out of not only the Roman Catholic behavior-based salvation tradition but also many others, including Holiness.

Although Jesus may be cited and preached in those doctrinal silos as the way to salvation, He is not presented as the only way (truth and life).

…to the Father of All Mercy, Grace, and Love

But my purpose here is not to rehash all that, but to encourage the reader who might not yet have heard of  salvation by grace through faith alone, through Christ and Christ alone–a similar sentiment to what Paul wrote, but much more elegantly, in his letter to Titus:

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

I Mean–Can You Believe It?–on Christ Alone!

I have detailed in depth only one of Chambers’ pronouncements reflecting the Holiness doctrine (though examples abound on every page) in a post of a few weeks ago, “When God Pleads with Us.”

But “Shame”…

But I hesitate to provide more examples so as not to draw any undue attention to such teachings that can be very discouraging and shame-sustaining versus shame-inviting.

By shame-inviting I mean the appropriate kind of shame for wrong-doing we know well and good we did that urges us to return (in the grace-based tradition) to the open and forgiving arms of God the (prodigals’) Father, in our angst and in our honesty, to be saved, healed, and/or delivered by His grace.

Yet again.


By shame-sustaining I mean that vaguely-plaguing stuff, for lack of a better term, that urges us ever, with weighted heart and mind, to look around and up for that lightning bolt of God’s wrath because, well, we KNOW darn well we deserve it…sheesh…who’s perfect, anyway?

And perhaps we either have never heard of the Gospel of Grace or it was barely noticeable amid umpteen piles of rules, regs, assumptions, and presumptions about how to get saved, remain saved, and act correctly along the way to figuring out What God Demands Of Us (versus What Jesus Did For Us).


(Side note: and, of course, some of the works-mongers know full well that promoting this kind of Never-Requited brand of salvation inspires its “prophets” to work for profits instead of preaching truth…)

Or maybe we just run screaming from the whole confusing and condemning-sounding mess.

But, mostly, I don’t want to highlight works-based teachings because that might actually repel people from God instead of compel us to Him, by love-based grace, right on up there to the seat next to Him in “the heavenlies”!

In a nuthshell: Perfect atonement was “worked” by the only Perfect One, the unblemished lamb, as it were, aka the Lamb of God, Who alone could do it.

Could be it.

Solving the Question of Salvation

And I believe God wants us to remember that always, so that, the question of our salvation answered, we can get ON with “growing up” as believers–and allowing the Holy Spirit to “transform us into the image of Christ” which, of course, solves the problem of behaving correctly as well.


As grace-teaching preachers put it, and as also noted above, “we do good works not to get saved (not to become “utmost righteous”) but because we are saved.”

I love how this is written up in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 (with a little extra emphasis provided):

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate[a] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Selah, please “pause and think of that,” whenever you are tempted to think you have to perfect yourself, but you know, deep down, it is impossible.

Solo Christ, Solo Sacrifice

Now, have other people suffered as acutely and intensely during similar or even worse tortures and murders?

Perhaps and yes.

But for entirely different reasons, reasons the so-called “good thief” hanging on the cross next to Jesus’ revealed:

One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 “And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” (Luke 23:39-42)

Having lived fearful and ever-doubtful of my own salvation under the most complex, ever-morphing, first official–and arguably most comprehensive–form of legalism that eventually drove me away from God, as noted above (aside: hmmm, now “who,” rather “what entity” would like that to happen?), I will always rejoice as close as I can get to Him, now, because of grace.

Correction: I will sing, dance, learn, grow, love, listen to, and REST in Abba Father’s presence because of grace.

Need more encouragement?

I mean, it’s awfully logical and very righteous-sounding to believe that if we behave right that means we are righteous. The world works that way, after all.

But consider also one more thing Jesus said to that guilty-as-charged, suddenly “woke” thief hanging next to Him:

43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

No more time for any behavior, let alone good “needful for salvation” for that guy, to be sure!

No more behavior-based salvation needed for us, either…

What SHE Said

I am reminded here of a testimony from a young, former Miss Something or Other (USA? Universe?) told years ago when I was a new believer, given on some Christian talk show.

Because, she said, she was still immersed in the zeitgeist of the era at the time of her salvation, i.e., “sex, drugs, and rock-‘n-roll,” she thought she could never, ever live up to what she thought she had to, to be a real Christian, but, to paraphrase what she said:

After I got saved, I had this almost unquenchable desire to read God’s Word, and fellowship, and listen to sermons, and it seemed the more I “filled up on God,”  the addictions and desire of my old life were kind of  “pushed out”.

In other words, by immersing herself, too, in the presence of God, by whatever means she could, she was transformed externally as well. Of course, some healings and deliverances are longer-term, multi-layered processes, but by grace through faith we still get there.

Selah, and think of THAT, too!…

Rest and be refreshed in God’s grace today…right there in the throne room ‘neath the “shelter of His wings.” Made possible for you today thanks to Jesus Christ, and Him alone.

And He’ll take care of the rest.

Post Script: as I wrote the last line, above, I was reminded of a song from the seventies, my “baby Christian years,” that spoke to me of God’s Grace and Jesus’ prominance in that. Enjoy!!


*Here is a classic, biblical definition of the salvation doctrine.

This entry was posted in Commentaries, Devotionals, encouragement in hard times, most recent posts, salvation by grace, spiritual transformation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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