Last Sunday in church my friend Greg wanted to make a point about how God loves us no matter what. As he spoke to everyone there he started with these words: “Do you all know that scene in Kill Bill where there are all these people fighting in the background, but in the foreground there’s this Japanese fountain . . .”
As soon as he had gotten this far I knew that for the rest of the day I would hear a variety of reactions to Greg’s words, no matter what his point was. Some people who have been going to church for a long time will take offense when the new guy uses images that don’t exactly fit into the “church mold.”
There are some advantages to becoming a follower of Jesus later in life. For one thing, you don’t have to unlearn all the clutter that comes with formal religion. Many of us are trying to wipe the slate clean of all the stuff that came from well meaning, but misguided Sunday-school teachers.
One of those slate-cleaning items for me is the notion of Grace. Other than a U2 song, we don’t hear much about grace. But to those of us who are church-broken, 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” (cool acronym, eh?). I am coming to see that all of these ideas about grace are true, but only tell half the truth.
The more I hang out in 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. For example, Paul drops this challenging little statement in our laps:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2: 11 – 12 TNIV).
What’s this? If grace means getting off scott-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me to do a bunch of holy stuff? If Grace wants to “bring salvation,” that’s fine, but instructing me to “deny ungodliness?” Isn’t that a little judgmental? I thought God loved me just the way I am.
Peter isn’t much more help on the subject of God’s grace: “God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble and oppressed” (I Peter 5:5, TNIV). In fact, James says the very same thing (James 4:6). 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 he’s supposed to do? But it also tells us that God gives grace to certain kinds of people—humble people. Finally it also tells us that God can withhold grace to another kind of people—the proud; people to proud to accept Christ as a savior. 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.
Derek Prince, a Bible teacher from the last century, used to say that it is our job to humble ourselves, not God’s. He said that God doesn’t force people into humility, although he may set up circumstances that can be pretty humiliating! Another way of considering Prince’s point is to realize that there is something we can do to bring the grace of God into our lives: we can humble ourselves.
We can also learn from grace. 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 worldliness, live sensibly and live upright lives.
But wait a minute, doesn’t that sound 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.