SEPTEMBER 15, 2022
Christians of different stripes get grace wrong in many different ways.
For some, grace is like an injection of God’s power to be administered by trained professionals only. For others, it’s an entirely subjective transaction – a feeling I get as a customer at God’s eternal storehouse. Some imagine grace as a kind of eternal fire insurance. For others still, it’s a vague energy like the Force in Star Wars or a system of justice like the Hindus’ karma.
But grace really isn’t a thing at all. Grace is the activity of God in our lives and in the life of the world. Grace is the way we talk about a God who intervenes. Grace is the way we know that God will never leave us alone. Grace is the guarantee of transformation from Him who knows us better than we know ourselves, and who loves us more than we can ask or imagine.
God gives us many things: Our lives, forgiveness of our sins, and our salvation just to name the big ones. He is also our companion, in the pit of despair as much as on the mountaintop of joy. For everything that God pours out on his creatures, we can sum up in one extraordinary way: God gives only one thing, and that is himself. He gave himself in Jesus, as the traditional Book of Common Prayer puts it, “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”
But there’s even more to grace. The power and presence of God is guaranteed from the beginning of creation. This same guaranteed grace is on offer everywhere today. The producer-consumer model we’re used to gets turned on its head: Because God made us, sent his son to save us, and sent his Holy Spirit to sustain us. Grace means that we have to work not to have God in our lives. As George MacDonald says in C.S. Lewis’s Great Divorce: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
At no point is God sitting a cold distance away from us. In Isaiah 55 we learn of God’s role in the agricultural cycle, a common biblical metaphor for the transforming will of God in the human heart and in human society. God is the one who gives both the “seed to the sower” and also “bread to the eater” (55:10). From the beginning to the end, God is in control. He does all the work himself, all the time. We give thanks, however, that God has chosen certain people, things, and words through which his glory is most radiantly made manifest. Christians are not utopians – we live our lives somewhere, not nowhere. We have bodies, relationships, homes, and work to do. God meets us in particular places at particular times, setting aside certain times, places, and stuff for our benefit. “Do this,” Jesus says to his disciples in the upper room (Luke 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24). And yet, God’s activity is both more expansive and more mysterious than we can know. The same Lord who set the stars in the heavens is the Lord whose Word is near you, “on your lips and in your hearts,” (Deut. 30:14, Rom. 10:8).
God is determined that His omnipresent grace is going to have its way with us. In good times and bad, grace is the answer. In good times and bad, therefore, our response to grace is thanksgiving. If everything is pure gift from a sovereign God, then we should get on with giving thanks, even when we do not understand. When we decide to put our lives in God’s hand, we discover that there is actually no other place to be. When we long for and ask for grace, we find the whole world lit up with it. “I once was lost,” John Newton’s hymn reminds us, “but now am found, was blind but now I see.”