Why do Christians have such a love-hate relationship with grace? It is the pinnacle of Christianity – what sets it apart from the other major religions and yet we struggle with it so.
Buddhists eight-fold path must be walked, the Hindu must pay the price karma demands, Jews and Muslims must obey their own law codes. Each of these offers a way to earn approval. It is the God of Christians alone who dares to make love unconditional. Which makes our wrestle all the more embarrassing. Out of all religious folk – we are the ones who should know better and so often don’t.
Morality makes sense. Grace does not.
We humans tend to work best with a set of rules. It makes us feel safe and secure. It makes us feel in control. We follow the rules, and we are rewarded. Morality and justice are concepts we understand because the sums add up. Don’t do wrong by another, or wrong will be done to you. The sums balance. Grace, however, is not for accountants who want to balance the books. It’s counter intuitive. Grace is hard. Grace is irrational.
Andrew Tallman absolutely nails it:
“See, although moral purity is difficult, moral purity isn’t the hardest thing about obeying Jesus. The hardest thing is emulating God’s ridiculous, foolish, impractical grace: forgiving enemies, giving to people who have behaved stupidly, and putting your own welfare at risk for those who won’t appreciate it.
These commands aren’t just hard, they’re downright irrational, which is why we don’t do them. In truth, we all secretly believe that these most distinctive characteristics of God are actually ridiculous and embarrassing, a judgment we share with Jonah, the Pharisees, and the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal sons. Hence, the real mark of Christian obedience isn’t personal moral purity, but a life which imitates the absurd grace of God. That’s why real Christian repentance must begin here, not with those other sins.”
The blasphemy of grace
To those who strive to obey the rules of morality – grace is blasphemous. Why should others be given things we have worked hard for? Why should we do things for people in need if they aren’t grateful for it afterwards? Why should another get promoted at work, when we have worked just as hard? Why should aid be given to those overseas, when we are struggling with our own finances? Why should Muslims be treated kindly when there seems to be a growing anti-Christian sentiment? Why should we treat those politically opposed to us with kindness when they treat us with such animosity? Why should refugees get given special treatment when we had to apply through the regular channels to immigrate? We want the sums to add up – but we’ve forgotten how far into the red our own ledger was. Were the angels shocked at God’s apparent blasphemous act of allowing the murder of his own son for an ungrateful humanity?
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, it is not of yourselves, it is a gift of God. Not of your works so that no one can boast” Ephesians 2:8-9
How quickly we forget
Like Mr Tallman says; Grace is embarrassing and absurd. And it will stay that way, our hearts will fight it until we remember: we were saved by unconditional grace. We were saved by an irrational act. We walk out our Christian lives by the continued flowing grace of God. Matthew 5:43-48 says that God’s unconditional love extends even to his enemies, offering them the common grace we find in creation. God’s grace is supposed to flow through us, to show the world what God is like. This is why Paul says,
“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” 1 Corinthians 4:7
Everything we have is a gift, so how can we enter our own moral performance into our ledgers as if to put ourselves into the black, and justifying our withholding of grace from those whom we deem unworthy?
We can’t approach grace and morality like an accountant, with justice in mind. Our debt is too great, and if we cry out for justice – beware! Justice may yet still have its day.
Is grace a nice idea for you? An old story? A beautiful picture? A great doctrine? Do you look back with nostalgia at grace? Is it a memento of long ago? Is it something that only others need? Or do you cling to it like a drowning man to a plank of wood? Only the drowning man knows its true worth. It’s not rationality and intellect that save drowning men, and neither is it enough to simply understand grace as an idea. To a drowning man, a plank never looked so beautiful and wonderful. It’s beauty and wonder make grace irresistible.
Grace is truly irresistibly beautiful when we realise how desperately we still need all of God’s grace. We need his common grace – the air we breathe, the food and water we consume, our mental faculties and physical abilities are all his free gifts to us. And we must also know and feel what it cost God to give stubborn, grace-witholding humans the saving grace we didn’t deserve. God died to give us this grace. We must acknowledge that God gave grace knowing that some of us would be ungrateful, some of us would be angry, and some of us would take all of his, and offer none in return. God gave anyway.
What kind of being behaves like this to people so undeserving? God’s grace not only convicts us of our own lack of grace, but it is a powerful reminder us of how deep, wide and long God’s love for us is. And we too can say, as Charles Spurgeon once said; “I am lashing myself to the plank of free grace, for I hope to swim to glory on it.”