We’ve all been in situations like this: late for an appointment, packing up our things while talking on the phone so we can bolt the moment the conversation is over. “When will this guy finish?” I thought. “I should have left five minutes ago . . .” and then it hit me--I was in my office, but I was talking to him on my cell phone. I could have left the office and headed for my appointment while he rambled on!
My real problem was not the long-winded guy on the phone, it was that everything I learned about the telephone came from a time when using the phone meant staying in one place. What a lesson: there are times when we must examine the things we think know, when we must clear the slate and begin again.
In my opinion followers of Jesus must see the grace of God through new eyes.
To those of us who have been in church for some time, grace means that Christians have gotten a great deal. In church circles, grace has variously been defined as “not getting what we deserve,” or “God’s unmerited favor,” or “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” I am coming to see that all of these ideas about grace are true, but only tell half the truth.
The more I read the New Testament, the more challenging grace becomes. Instead of presenting grace as sin-cleansing bargain, the Bible seems to present a grace that comes with some challenges. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to a young pastor:
The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2: 11 – 14 NIV).
What kind of grace is this? If grace means getting off scott-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me a new way to live? Most believers are very comfortable with “the grace that brings salvation,” but why would grace instruct us to “deny ungodliness?” Isn’t that a little judgmental? I thought God loved me just the way I am.
Apparently God’s grace is not finished with us at the moment we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. The grace of God wants to teach us a new way to live. “God loves me just the way I am.” Everyone is comfortable with that statement, but how about this one: “God loves me so much he won’t let me stay just the way I am.” First his grace saves, then it teaches. I think everyone is OK with “being saved,” but perhaps we skip school when it comes time to learn how to deny ungodliness, deny worldly passions, live sensibly and live upright lives.
Richard Foster, a man who has spent his adult life encouraging Christians to grow in the grace of God, points out that the message of grace is the more than the first step, it is necessary for every step. Sadly many Christians have been taught that any effort on their part runs counter to God’s forgiving grace. “Having been saved by grace,” he writes, “these people have been paralyzed by it.”
The Apostle Peter concurs on the subject of God’s grace: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5, NIV). In fact James, the brother of Jesus, says the very same thing (James 4:6). It turns out they were both quoting Proverbs 3:34, those inspired words written nearly a thousand years before the church came into being.
If Peter and James both latched on to this teaching from Proverbs, it must be important. First, it tells us that God gives grace. Fair enough: isn’t that what God is supposed to do? But this verse also tells us that God gives grace to certain kinds of people—humble people. Finally it also tells us that God can withhold grace from another kind of people—the proud. Keep in mind that Peter and James were writing to believers.
So it’s true that God is in the giving business, but apparently there is something we are supposed to do as well. We should be the kind of people who humble ourselves. On the other hand, if we do not humble ourselves, we may just find out that God is opposing us. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not a good thing. Many believers are surprised to learn that there is something we can all do to bring the grace of God into our lives: we can humble ourselves.
Some will object that this sounds a lot like “works.” We can’t work our way into heaven, can we? But Paul’s advice to Titus says that grace does at least two things. It saves and teaches. Perhaps that’s why theologian Dallas Willard says that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but it is opposed to earning. Two pretty different things, aren’t they?
The Bible is full of surprises, and for me some of the biggest surprises come from words and concepts that I think I already know. Grace is about more than knowing, it’s also about being. If God wants to give me the grace to be more like Jesus, and if it takes a little effort on my part, then count me in.