As often as I write about grace—and that’s pretty often—I can’t seem to exhaust the topic. I’m often struck by some of the same things I’ve written about, as if I’ve never heard them before. For example, I’m stunned every time I realize that Christianity is the only religion based on grace. In fact, it seems the word grace is hardly in the vocabulary of anyone who is not a Christian. It’s simply a Christ-attribute and therefore a word for Christ’s followers.
There are some people, however, ones I’ve called pretend Christians, converts of those who the Bible calls false teachers, who try to co-op grace and make it into something it is not.
For instance universalists freely admit to God’s grace, but their idea is that because God extends us grace, there is no justice. A summary of their position could be, Grace. The end. In fact, according to the universalist, all roads lead to God, including the road of unbelief. Whatever happens after death happens to all of humanity. No favorites, they would say.
On the opposite side of the continuum would be legalists. They don’t believe in grace, or if they do, they don’t believe that it’s enough. God, from their perspective, needs our help.
The sad and sometimes confusing thing is that these legalists aren’t too far off. They just have things backwards. They believe (though they may not articulate it this way, their actions indicate this is what they actually believe) that a person must clean up his act before he can receive God’s grace.
The book of James makes it clear that the things we do are important. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that we are saved by grace through faith. James turns around and makes the case that faith isn’t faith unless it’s got some legs.
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:14-17)
So faith, the kind that’s in action, combines with grace to free us from sin and guilt and the law and Satan’s power and our sin nature and spiritual death.
The Bible is filled with pictures of this process.
* The people of Israel are escaping Egypt, but they don’t have food for the long journey on foot to the home of their ancestor Abraham. They plead and complain to Moses, and he in turn asks God what’s to become of these people. God answers with His grace. He sends manna, a “bread of the angels,” that appeared first thing at dawn and was gone by the time the sun was fully up. A miraculous provision. One they had for forty years! But here’s the thing: they had to go pick it up. And cook it or prepare it.
God also sent them quail because they were starved for meat. When many didn’t take the time to do their part—to clean the birds and cook them–when their appetite took over their actions, God sent them a dire punishment.
God gives grace, no doubt, but the people have to appropriate it and not misappropriate it.
* Years later God gave Joshua instructions for defeating Jericho. First the priests were to walk the ark around the city with all the people following. Then seven days later after repeating this walk each day, they were to circle the city seven times and the walls would fall. They fell! God’s grace in action, remarkably! Who can imagine such a thing. But that still left all these enemy Canaanites trapped amid the rubble. The people of Israel had one less difficulty—a difficulty that made conquering the city seemed impossible—but they still had a battle to wage.
* David, fresh from the fields where he watched over his family’s sheep, faced a giant of a man named Goliath. He was over nine feet tall and he was a fearsome fighter. But David marched boldly to meet this champion of the Philistines:
Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the LORD will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. (1 Samuel 17:45-46a)
As David said, God, by His grace, delivered David and David cut off Goliath’s head.
The point is simple. Grace can’t be misappropriated like the name-it-and-claim it folks want to do or like the universalists try to do. But at the same time it can’t be treated as the ugly step-sister to obeying a legalistic set of laws.
God’s grace is The Big Deal in our relationship with Him. In fact it is the Big Deal that separates Christianity from all other religions. God saves by supplying us with His grace through the faith He freely gives us. His grace is free. His faith is free. His salvation is free.
But we’ve got to own it. Claim it. Say, Yes, that grace has my name on it. It’s my free gift from God which is the means of my salvation.
It’s a narrow road, walking between two extremes. But at the same time, this amazing balance God has created helps us to spot false teachers and pretend Christians. Because people who don’t know the love of God aren’t really clear about grace. Not that any of us actually “knows how it works.” But we do trust God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, so that we in turn might show Him our love by doing what He asks.