I’ve found that the above title has a knee-jerk response from most in Christian circles, and quite a different one from those who merely have a spectator view of the faith or none at all. I for one have always found that interesting to say the least.
Grace Has Still Fallen on Hard Times
Inside of the three branches of the Christian church, the view of God’s somehow grading on the curve as his primary position gets people, especially Christian leaders, extremely nervous. The apostle Paul of course grins from the heavenly sidelines, recognizing that as he began to unpack this very consistent doctrine in his 13 out of the 27 letters of the New Testament, the same naysayers would also sweat profusely.
On the one hand, he would be called a legalist for upholding the law’s original intent as good and holy, and to be upheld. And on the flipside, the word “antinomian” would be hurled at him, due to the fact that in a very real sense Paul reiterated exactly what I am doing before you today: That God really does grade on the curve!
Fast forward 2000 years, and much ink has been spilled ever so tediously, somehow trying to play a balancing act between the two. So much so that as of today, I’m not quite sure any of us yet understand where we stand with the one who gave his very life for us to accomplish something definitively. In fact, my late and beloved father, who was a pillar in his own church, struggled with his assurance of salvation for the better part of his life. And as I have watched this void of “settledness” in regards to grace’s finality towards us ruin many people in the faith, it still attempts to raise its ugly head in my own life. It is therefore equivalent to a constant refrain ringing in our head such as, “He loves me, he loves me not”; never, ever arriving at a resolve to this most fundamental Christian truth.
The Three Horsemen Weigh In
I’ll even go out on a limb and say that Protestantism (arguably the original heralders of “grace alone” through “faith alone”), can’t even make up their mind what they want to be when they grow up on this issue. And though Catholics and Orthodox believers have come over to the protesters side on this in some ways, they take great issue with what they would call being “fast and loose” with the fact that God wants us all to be Holy. And to be sure, the biblical record gives us plenty to talk about here as well. Yet the conundrum I’m seeking to unpack here kind of goes back to my last blog when I was speaking about the fact that “Bad Theology Hurts People”. And I would be so bold to say that this one issue of very important theology is the one we need mostly to get absolutely correct!
Of course, part of the problem that those labeled as “cheap grace” supporters get from the cautious, “Yeah, but…we need to be holy” people, is that this will, and often does, lead to treating the fact that “God grades on the curve” as a license to do whatever we want. And they are correct. And it doesn’t take long to find ample evidence to that end everywhere we turn.
On the opposing stance, those who think they have the proper balance between grace and law, have their own legalistic code that they pretty much make up as they go along, which usually has to do with the particular aspects of the law code that they are keeping quite well out in the open, but others abysmally so when the doors are all closed to our viewing. Jesus talked a good deal about this problem, especially as he chided the Pharisee in all of us, that though we may be good teachers, our actions across the board tell their own story (Matt. 23:1-3).
The Center of Biblical Tension
And so there is this back and forth that occurs within the church at large, where it almost looks as if grace is what you get when you say, “I do”, but after that, our daily lives are like the “do more, be more” chant that comes at us constantly from the world. There doesn’t seem to be much difference as far as I can tell. Therefore, we conclude that Christianity is mostly on par with every other religion because it all boils down to achieving something akin to some enlightenment or nirvana, and thus it becomes one of many options on the religious buffet line and not much more.
Now it would take me far beyond the scope of a readable blog to unpack the give and take in the scriptures on this issue. However, suffice is to say, that the true grace of Jesus Christ, as U2 reminded us, “is the thought that changed the world”, and it still is.
In fact, through the many dangers, toils, and snares that I have already waded through, the most consistent theme I can find in the holy record is that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am chief. So then, what he came to do, he accomplished. Which means that if somehow God thought you and I could do it, then Jesus would have had no reason to come in the first place. And if God truly sent his son to die a brutal death to save us from our sins, then there is absolutely nothing we can do to undo that. He died for past, present, and future sins; taking them into himself, and absorbing their weight with His love and said, “it is finished”.
The Old Testament of Grace?
Now for those who want to contend, we don’t have to stop with what the New Testament speaks of regarding this issue, or of the few areas that are points of necessary contention. All we really need to do is walk through the annals of the biblical record starting from the very beginning. And if we dare do that, the record of God as it relates to his people is one of continual mercy, grace, and restoration, amidst times of allowing man to have his own way and suffer the consequences thereof. Once the prophets begin to speak on the issue of the actual heart of God, the constant echo is one of God longing for his people to simply “come back”. So much so that He himself will provide the very means for them to do so, especially as the record of man clearly shows, that if left up to him, all hope would surely be lost. Jeremiah then reminds us that there will come a day when God himself will write on the tablets of men’s hearts His laws, and that everyone from the very least to the greatest “will” in fact know him, and that their sins will be forgiven and remembered no more (Jer. 31:31-34).
God Does the Heavy Lifting, Always
It is interesting here that God is the one that is doing the actual heavy lifting from start to finish. We wrongfully assume that if we read the Bible more, go to church more, tithe more, don’t swear, drink only 1.2 glasses of wine per evening and force ourselves to watch Pureflix, that this is what gets us off the naughty list. This is what ensures our entrance into the pearly gates. And so we say to everyone, “whosoever will may come”, and that grace is amazing for all, but, once we baptize them into the faith, it slowly becomes all about the law once again.
The truth is that the matchless grace of God is the very ingredient that God uses to garner love and affection from his people. Judgement never does this. It always repels. It always chases the would-be lovers away. This of course does not mean that God does not have standards that He desires for his people. However, his acute knowledge of man’s checkered past, is that he absolutely cannot achieve what God’s law demands. In other words, his very best efforts miss the mark by a country mile! And that the good that we would desire in our inward man to do somehow constantly escapes us (Rom 7). We need a solution. We need a Savior. We need someone to throw us a lifeline before we drown in our own attempt to fight the rescuer and instead try and save ourselves, yet again.
Two Peas in a Pod
And despite this really good news, the world has no signs of letting up on its demands from us. It wants us to eat right, not smoke or chew, go to the gym 6 days a week, and follow our dreams at all costs, which typically includes “zero” work-life balance. And we falsely believe that if we somehow follow their lead, we will have finally achieved something worth speaking of, and all will run as fast as they can to listen to what we now have to say. So we gladly pay their monthly subscription fees so that we can get our own gig eventually. And it is this awfully tempting tedium that consumes most of us so much, that we haven’t slowed down long enough to see if it even really matters, and whether or not this exhausting American Dream is actually killing us instead.
As I said earlier, the church (“bless its heart”), teeter-totters back and forth from extracting its own version of the same from us, while occasionally dropping some grace morsels for good measure. Yet as I listen, and as I long to find where the graceful waters flow in perpetuity, I increasingly come up empty handed with a cup that seems to always be empty. Therefore, once again, I walk away devoid of any hope beyond my own ability to pull myself up by my religious bootstraps. And just as Jesus warned of the religious leaders own missionary zeal that ended up making its converts twice the demons of Hell as themselves, we too have often found the enemy, and it is also us (Matt. 23:4,15).
Making Grace Great Again
So, I’m not looking for any new Christian self-help book. I won’t be buying a new spiritual disciplines journal anytime soon either. And I’m pretty sure a new study Bible won’t be the missing link to get me where I should be. But what I am attempting to practice daily in my life (and perhaps this is a word for you as well), is that I want to spend each day basking in the grace of God whose red checkmark on my paper says it all. And then I think I’ll post it on my wall for me to clearly see. And maybe I’ll even remind the rest of the class to look at theirs a bit more often. And as I continue to strive to please the one who gave His very all for me, I will rest in the fact that I serve a God who really does grade on the curve, and He always will. And I don’t know about you, my friend. But for me, that is about the greatest news I’ve ever heard!