Grace

We can tolerate grace in small doses. The guy who stops to help us change a tyre. The lady behind us at the supermarket checkout who gives us the 20 cents we are short. Free water, free first aid by volunteers. These things are spontaneous acts of kindness with no thought of recompence. They are worthy of Facebook posts. What we find harder to accept, as recipients, are the greater acts of grace. “I don’t want charity, I just want to be given a fair go.” Even more, we reject the greatest act of charity/love [1], the greatest act of grace, God’s giving his own Son to die for hopeless sinners. Why this paradox? Why are we happy to accept — and extol — small acts of kindness but reject the greater?

It’s because grace glorifies the giver, not the recipient. If we struggle to change our own tyre or realise we don’t have quite enough cash on us for our groceries, we feel a small degree of shame; we are helpless and vulnerable, in a small way. But because these are small deficiencies, we are usually content to shrug them off, as a one-off time when we were caught short. Extenuating circumstances. Bad luck. We are happy for the glory to go to the giver, we are happy to praise them, divert attention to them, to Post about the event. We say we will “pay it forward” to absolve the debt.

But the greater the helplessness, the deficiency, the need on our part, the harder it is to accept the greater grace. That’s when we really feel deficient and humbled. I can’t pay the rent this month. My car’s broken down and I can’t afford to get it fixed. I need surgery but I can’t afford it. My children need school things… or Christmas presents… or food. There’s a much greater amount of human pride to swallow then, to accept grace, to be the recipient of charity. Because such greater grace only glorifies the giver. It shows the depth of the recipient’s deficiency, our need, for what it is. Jesus warned givers not to seek the glory that comes from dispensing grace.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:1–4).

This is because all good things ultimately come from God, and the glory is ultimately due to him. If we are rich enough, skilled enough, have time enough, to do good to others, it is because God has given us those gifts and opportunities, to be used to do good and ultimately to his glory, not ours (Matt 5:42; 10:8; 1 Cor 4:7; James 1:17; 1 Pet 4:10). Christians have been saved in order to serve; not saved by good works, but saved and enabled to do good works as an expression of gratitude (Eph 2:8–10). Grace glorifies the giver. Grace is a gift, it means undeserved favour. Grace does not expect a return. Grace is not looking after you so you will look after me. Jesus said we are to deliberately give to those who cannot or will not repay us (Matt 5:46–47; Luke 6:35; 14:12–14). To give graciously is to give as God gives. God is the God of grace, supremely displayed in the life and work of his Son (John 1:14–18; 2 Cor 8:9; Rom 5:15; 1 Cor 1:3–4; 1 Peter 5:10).

Grace glorifies the giver, but it also reveals the need of the recipient. This is why we feel uncomfortable about receiving grace in any significant amount; it reveals our need, our helplessness. Our ultimate helplessness is our sinfulness and our ultimate need is for forgiveness and cleansing, for justification; things we are totally incapable of achieving by our own efforts. And that is very difficult for human pride to accept. So much easier (we ignorantly suppose) to deny that we need it. In order to even begin to comprehend the magnitude of what God in Christ has done for us — the magnitude of his grace — we must first understand and own the depth of our need and helplessness and “pour contempt on all our pride.” Listen to Paul, in Ephesians 2:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:1–10).

We were dead. Not just short of change, or ill-equipped, or down on our luck, or weak or sick. DEAD. Totally incapable of helping ourselves in any way. Dead in sin. Totally undeserving, totally helpless, rotting carcasses in the dump of Gehenna. But GOD, rich in mercy, saved us by his grace in Christ Jesus. This is not, was not and never can be our own doing. It is not in any way the result of works; no room at all for boasting. We can only begin to appreciate the magnitude of God’s grace when we perceive the magnitude of our unworthiness to receive it, the depths of our helplessness and need. Grace glorifies the Giver, not the recipients, otherwise it is about deserving, and we do not deserve anything but the wages of our sin (Rom 6:23).

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:23–28).

We are justified by his grace as a gift, received with the empty hands of faith. This shows God’s righteousness, not ours and it totally excludes our boasting. Grace glorifies the Giver (Rom 5:2, 15, 17; 11:5–6; 1 Cor 15:9–10; 2 Cor 4:15; Gal 2:21; 2 Thess 1:12; 2 Tim 1:9). But because grace is so one-sided, and accepting it requires humility, it is hard to tolerate. Our human pride rebels against it. We find it difficult to accept that we make no contribution. We don’t want charity, we just want a fair go. The more legalistic our view of salvation and righteousness, the more concerned we are with outward appearances of Christianity, the harder this is. That’s why tax collectors and prostitutes enter the Kingdom of God before Pharisees, for the Physician can only heal those who acknowledge their fatal illness (Matt 9:11–13; 21:28–32; Luke 18:9–14).

There is no entry for “grace” in the index of Robert Robert’s seminal work of Christadelphian polemic, Christendom Astray. [2] In fact, Roberts specifically counters the assertion of “Christendom” that “The obedience of the commandments of Christ is beyond human power. Salvation is not of works, lest any man should boast… although the love of Christ will constrain him to do good works, still his salvation in no way depends on these.” Roberts denies this, instead declaring, “The obedience of the commandments of Christ is essential to the salvation of those who believe the Gospel. While faith (made effectual in baptism) turns a sinner into a saint, obedience only will secure a saint’s acceptance at the judgement seat of the Christ. A disobedient saint will be rejected more decisively than even an unjustified sinner.”[3] This is appalling. Clearly, Roberts doesn’t understand justification, or grace, nor the words of Paul which he specifically quotes and contradicts (Eph 2:9; Rom 7:8–25; 2 Cor 5:14, KJV).

The word “grace” does not appear in the Christadelphian Statement of Faith, either. Instead we see a very transactional, legalistic version of the “Gospel,” in which the way to obtain salvation is “to believe the gospel [the apostles] preached, and to take on the name and service of Christ, by being thereupon immersed in water, and continuing patiently in the observance of all things he has commanded, none being recognised as his friends except those who do what he has commanded” (article XVI). Christadelphians specifically reject that “the Gospel alone will save, without the obedience of Christ’s commandments.”

Even though many contemporary Christadelphians are much more open to the Scriptural teaching about salvation by grace precluding a contribution from our works, there’s not much sign of it in formal publications. Nigel Bernard [4] acknowledges that grace is a gift, but paradoxically states, “Although grace is not earned like a wage, God only shows grace to those whom he counts worthy.” Such “grace” is not grace, then, is it? As Paul states, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6 ). To be fair, Bernard explains that “To obtain grace from God, faith is a key requirement (Rom 5:2; Eph 2:8)… humility is another reason why God shows grace to a person”(Jas 4:6). But Bernard has made faith and humility into laudable acts that we do in order to earn grace, which is to turn the concepts on their head. Faith is not a good work, it is the gap between what we see and what we acknowledge to be real (Heb 11:1), and it is the empty cup which we hold out for God to fill (Matt 15:26–28; Mark 5:25–34; Rom 3:27–28). It is what we have when we have nothing at all to our merit, an acknowledgement that despite our unworthiness, God exists and will reward those who seek him (Heb 11:6). And humility is hardly a work that we can offer to God for brownie points, or it would not be humility! (“See how humble I am, God!”) Humility is the very acknowledgement of our needfulness and inability to save ourselves; the very thing that acknowledges we need God’s grace and cries to him for mercy. Grace glorifies the Giver, not the recipient. For a person to accept grace or charity they must acknowledge their need and that takes faith, and it takes humility but it does not constitute merit that earns grace.

For people whose concept of Christianity relies on externals, on obedience, on conformity of thought and actions, for whom faith is adherence to a detailed and non-negotiable set of doctrines, the biblical concept of grace is hard. None of us like to think that we make not even the tiniest contribution to our salvation. We may give lip service to “all that God has done for us” and “the all sufficient work of Christ,” yet it is so hard to not ascribe even the tiniest amount of credit to ourselves. After all, we believed, didn’t we? We have The Truth, don’t we, when so many others have failed to grasp it? We aren’t such bad people, because we follow the Bible, don’t we? Jesus requires us to obey him, so that must be worth something, mustn’t it? But when faith is made into something meritorious, like a foundation upon which grace can be built, it loses its biblical meaning. Instead, faith is an empty vessel which acknowledges its emptiness and begs to be filled. Humility is not public self-abasement but the acknowledgement of total helpless and unworthiness. It’s not a matter of having to clean up our lives before God will accept us, but admitting our lives need cleaning up and asking God to do it, because we can’t. When all sense of self-worthiness and ability is swept away, then God can get to work, his Spirit enabling us to live lives that please God. We cannot please God while still in the flesh, and we cannot even will ourselves to do so (Rom 8:8–9; Heb 13:21). We access grace through faith, not because it makes ourselves deserving by some mental or spiritual effort, but because true faith is the acknowledgement of our need for grace, and so we glorify the Giver of grace (Rom 5: 2).

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:5–8).

Out of gratitude then, for his undeserved favour, let us “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18 ).

 

 

  1. The Greek word agape, love, was translated “charity” in the KJV, most famously in 1 Corinthians 13. The word for “grace” is charis, the related word for a gift or favour is charisma, from which comes our English word “charity.” Far from being cold, true charity expresses the warmth and richness of the biblical concept of grace and the gift of undeserved favour.
  2.  Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray from the Bible (repr. West Beach, SA: Logos, 1984)
  3. ibid., page 451.
  4. Nigel Bernard, “Grace,” in The Testimony Handbook of Bible Principles (King’s Lynn, UK: The Testimony, 2010), 61–64.
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