Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Grace In Three Flavors

Throughout the Old Testament, we are reminded that the Israelites are God’s chosen people. Even when they turn away for a time, God was always there to receive them again after they had repented. Though they were the chosen nation, they didn’t win every battle or overcome every obstacle, but only the ones which God deemed that they should win. God’s wisdom and providence was dispensed, and sometimes withdrawn when they had a need to draw closer to Him.

Like the Israelites, we Christians are God’s chosen people, bafflingly chosen by Him before we were born, but with full free will to accept or reject Him. But what does it mean to be “chosen by God”? We can’t earn a place in heaven through good works, so we desire that He chooses us. It is God’s grace that we seek – and even that can’t be earned. This is often a difficult and confusing concept for my tiny mind to grasp.

My life has consisted of three different approaches to God’s grace. I believe these different phases mirror three types of Christian approaches to the topic. First was the period where I did not comprehend the concept of grace, but assumed that the Christian life demanded perfection and sinlessness. Where I fell short, I had to pray for forgiveness and hope that God took me seriously. We still have a book in our house from my teenage years called Some Do’s and Don’ts for the Christian. I lived as if there was a list of rights and wrongs that was clear – all I had to do was live by the “right” list, and avoid the “wrong” list. In short, grace was available from God, but I did not understand that it was free for the taking. Some payment had to be demanded – that’s the way the world works. Fortunately, God’s system didn’t originate in this world.

The second phase was a revelation to me – God’s grace was available and didn’t require me to make an atonement for each individual sin I committed. In a way, this was a new type of freedom, because I had lived previously under a system where I had better know right from wrong, and I had to be aware of which side I was living on during every minute of the day. I found that God’s grace was truly bigger than my sin and this was a joyous realization. All that remained was to determine how I could earn God’s grace and be covered by its blessing. And so I sought out new ways to earn that grace, by once again applying myself to good works in the hope that God would choose to award the gift to me when my time came to leave this world.

But there is very little difference between these two approaches to grace, other than one focuses on individual atonements for every sin, and one is more inclusive in its application. Both approaches require me to do something in exchange to earn God’s grace. Like a weekly allowance that’s dependent on completing a list of chores, I was living by a catalog of “do’s” and “don’ts” that either added up to damnation or salvation.

But there is a third approach to grace, where I give up my salvation to God alone. Nothing I do can make that salvation more or less sure, provided I still call Him my God and humbly accept His offering. Grace is God’s gift to me – end of story. Why is that so hard for me to grasp sometimes? I confess that my actions and my thinking still lapse back into the first and second approaches at times. This grand plan of God’s is so foreign to my worldly way of thinking that it often requires me to disengage from the daily grind and simply ponder Jesus’ sacrifice as the incredible gift that it is. If I were designing a path to forgiveness and salvation, I would not have thought of a plan like this. My design would have included lists, training, and an elaborate scoring system (almost certainly involving an Excel spreadsheet). Thankfully, God reigns over all – not me.

Romans 5 details the sin of Adam as bringing condemnation on all men, but the sacrifice of Jesus brings salvation to all men as well. Verse 17 says “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” There is a beautiful parallel contained in this chapter, of one man and the effect he can have on many men. Here is the mystery that sometimes escapes me.

God, grant me the ability to see Your grace for what it is – a free gift. And with that gift, help me to serve You in all things for eternity.

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