Living by grace is a hard balance to keep, because it costs us nothing yet asks everything of us; it flips our transaction-based thinking on its head. We’re used to obeying orders and earning our way. They train us to do that in school—someone tells you to do something, you do it, and then you get graded. You get a job, they tell you to do something, you do it, and then someone else gives you money and tells you you’ve earned it. It’s a transaction—we do, and we get back.
Most religions operate the same way—you do, and you get back. But then God comes along and says, “No, no, no—I do, and you give back—not because you have to in order to get, because I’ve already given you everything, but out of love and gratitude, because it pleases me and you want to please me.” Living by grace means living to please God, not in order to earn his favor, but in grateful response to his unearned favor.
That’s hard because we’re used to working to a line that says “Good enough.” You work x number of hours, you do y number of things, you sell z amount of product, and you’ve done a good enough job, and you stay employed. Add ten or fifteen or twenty percent to that, and you get a raise, and maybe you get a promotion. Perform to a certain measurable level, get the results you want, and then you can stop and say, “That’s good enough,” and go do something else with the rest of your life.
Living by grace means we can’t do that with God. It isn’t about going far enough to meet a certain standard. A life lived by grace is motivated not by performance reviews but by gratitude for an infinite gift; and if the gift is infinite, then where does gratitude stop? Where do we get to the point that we can say, “That’s enough—that’s adequate thanks for what Jesus did for me”?
The fact of the matter is, we don’t. However much we do, the movement of gratitude for the gift of Jesus Christ continues to draw us on to do things and work at things and make efforts for which we will earn nothing in return, and which will serve not to show everyone how wonderful we are, but rather how wonderful God is. That’s not how we’re accustomed to living. It doesn’t fit with our ideas about what we deserve. It also isn’t something we can do just by working harder, because that will turn our gratitude into resentment. As the science-fantasy writer Anne McCaffrey (of all people), observed,
Gratitude is an ill-fitting tunic that can chafe and smell if worn too long.
The only antidote is to keep changing that cloak on a regular basis. To live by grace, we have to keep renewing our gratitude. We have to keep reawakening our sense of the heights of God’s glory and goodness and holiness, and the depths of our own sin, and the incredible, world-shattering thing Jesus did to lift us out of those depths and up to his heights, and the horrifying price he paid to do so. That’s why the life of grace begins with worship and why we need to worship together to stay spiritually healthy, because this is part of what our worship is supposed to be about. Worship reminds us how much we need God’s grace, and how much reason we have to be grateful. If we don’t get that regular reminder, we lose the balance of grace and fall into legalism (one way or another). It may be the front-door legalism of heavy law, or the back-door legalism of a light view of sin, but either way, we’ll be committed to saving ourselves.
The world, of course, pulls us toward a light view of sin. It may be happy enough to deal with “spirituality,” but only with all sense of obligation removed; it wants nothing to do with “religion.” (Which reminds me, I need to get back to my chapter-by-chapter review of Jesus Brand Spirituality, since I’ve only posted the first chapter.) A lot of churches go that way, too, drawn by the culture and convinced that taking sin lightly is the same as showing grace. They would be shocked to be called legalists, but they are. As Jared Wilson puts it,
the smiling face that self-help ‘Christianity’ puts on evangelicalism claims to be setting followers free from rules and judgmental religion. But really, by making discipleship about helpful hints and positive power for successful living, it’s really just making a works religion in our new image. In an odd twist, the Oprah-ization of the faith is really just optimistic legalism. Because what is Pharisaical legalism, really, but self-help with bad p.r.?
A lot of people love this because
they want to be told religion is not about rules and regulations while at the same time being told each week which four steps (with helpful alliteration) they need to do in order to achieve maximum what-have-you. They want to be reassured that works don’t merit salvation while at the same time convinced salvation is about trying really hard to do things that unlock the power or secret of God’s such-and-such.
This sort of thing is surprisingly appealing. One, it makes things simpler. If you have a list of things to do, then all you have to do is those things, and you’re home free. You can measure yourself against the list and know if you’re good enough. You can look at where you stand and where the line is, where the fence is, and know which side of it you’re on. This means you know just how far you can push it without going over. Living by grace, you can’t do that, because infinite gratitude calls for more than just a limited response.
Two, if pleasing God is just a matter of doing this list of things, and you do do them all, then you can take the credit for that. You can point to them and to yourself and say, “Look at me, I did that. Am I not wonderful?” There’s plenty of room in legalism for ego-stroking. That’s partly why it’s such an appealing thing to preach, too, because you get to hold yourself up as the model for everyone else to follow. If you’re the sort of person who has it all together—or is good at looking like you have it all together—it’s a great way to attract followers, and attention, and praise, and build a big successful ministry. Like Groucho Marx said of sincerity, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
And so, throughout its history, the church has been tempted into one form or another of legalism. This spiritual weed just keeps popping up. The Colossians believed they had to follow a particular set of rules in order to appease spiritual powers that could block their ascent to God. Modern legalism likes to call them “principles,” not rules, and the goal is far less lofty; it’s not about experiencing God, just experiencing the fully-fulfilled best-potential life God wants for you in this world (leaving modern-day Pauls to stand and say, “No, in Christ you have been given all fullness!”) As different as these two messages seem on the outside, they’re the same at the core: salvation by doing stuff, not by Christ alone. That’s the enemy’s game. He’s always trying to convince us that salvation is not in Christ alone, that Jesus is not enough, that what Jesus did is not enough. The enemy wants us to believe we need to add something of our own in order to be saved, because he knows that to add anything to Christ is to lose Christ.
That, Paul says, is trading in truth for falsehood, reality for shadow, and freedom for slavery. Such rules are all about things that only matter in this world. They have no eternal value. It’s only in following Christ that we can find things of true and lasting value, because it’s only in him that we find the reality and substance, of which this world is an imperfect copy. It’s only in Jesus that we find true fullness of life. It’s only in him that we find forgiveness for sin, or freedom from the burden of our guilt and regrets. Jesus sets us free from the powers and authorities of this world; to turn back and follow them is to put ourselves under the thumb of their human representatives.
If we don’t believe Jesus is enough, we may put ourselves under the thumb of preachers who say, “If you just follow the rules I lay out, you’ll have that perfect marriage and those perfect kids—and if you don’t, then it’s your fault for doing it wrong.” We may submit ourselves to the power of sexual desire in our lives. Often, in the end, that means bowing the knee to someone who’ll use that power to control us. We may put ourselves in thrall to the markets, the economic news, and the gurus. We’ll probably end up buying the line of one of our political parties, who will be only too happy to tell us that salvation comes from winning this election or voting for this candidate. In short, we’ll sell ourselves into slavery to what the world tells us we must do, when we were made to live in freedom in Christ and what he has already done.
Despite what the world will tell you, there’s no need for that slavery. Christ has stripped those powers and displayed their impotence before the whole world—we do not need to submit to them. We do not need to acknowledge them. We do not need to give them power in our lives. In him, we have the power to live free, trusting that he will take care of us and meet our needs. We give these authorities power over us when we believe we have to submit to them to have our needs met and to find the kind of life we want to live, but we don’t have to submit to them. We don’t have to give them that power, because Jesus is faithful and he will supply all our needs. In him, we already have the fullness of life we desire.
We’re free just to live in Christ—to live our daily lives in the awareness of his presence, open to his voice, seeking his will, trusting him for his guidance and his provision. We’ve been invited simply to enjoy Christ, to rest deep in his presence and his character, so that that will be the foundation of our lives and of everything else we do. The more we walk in him—spending time talking with him each day, practicing the habit of giving him each moment we live and each step we take, learning to keep our eyes and ears always open to see his face and hear his voice in the world around us—the more he works in us to build us up into a strong tower that will stand the storms of life, from which his light will shine into the world.
NB: Post updated 20 April 2016.
Photo: “Walk the Line,” © 2008 Thomas Claveirole. License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.