If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So goes the old adage. But when the topic is God’s grace, it does not apply. Nevertheless, some people insist that grace truly is too good to be true, and seek to counterbalance it with law to avoid what they see as license to sin. Their sincere, though wrong-headed efforts are a form of legalism that robs people of the transforming power of grace, which flows from the love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).
The good news of the grace of God in Christ
Jesus (who is the grace of God) came declaring the gospel (Luke 20:1 ESV), the message of God’s grace toward sinners (which, last time I checked, includes everyone). But the religious leaders of his day didn’t like that message because it seemed to place all people (including those they saw as less righteous than themselves) on the same, level playing field. For them, Jesus’ message of grace (the good news), was decidedly bad news. On one occasion, Jesus gave this reply to their protests:
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:12-13 ESV)
Though we embrace the gospel—the message of God’s grace in Christ—it was repugnant to the self-righteous, religious types of Jesus’ day. That same message still rankles those who believe they must try harder and behave better in order to earn God’s favor. “How,” they wonder, “can we possibly motivate people to work hard, live right, and look to a spiritual leader for direction, if we tell them they are already under grace?” They can’t imagine any other way to motivate people than by emphasizing a legal (contractually-based) relationship with God.
Please understand, it’s good to work hard in God’s service. Jesus certainly did—his work is the ultimate achievement. But remember that Jesus, who was perfect, came to reveal the Father to us. And in that revelation there is pure good news that tells us that God’s economy is better than ours—he is the inexhaustible source of grace—love, goodness and forgiveness. We don’t pay taxes (things to earn God’s grace) for God’s government to work—he’s in the business of graciously helping humanity out of the pit it has fallen into.
Perhaps you remember the story about the traveler who fell into a pit and was struggling to get out. Several people came along and saw his struggle. The sensitive person said, “I feel for you down there.” The reflective person said, “It’s logical that someone would fall into the pit.” The interior designer said, “I can give you some ideas on how to decorate your pit.” The judgmental person said, “Only bad people fall into pits.” The curious person said, “Tell me how you fell into the pit.” The legalist said, “I believe you deserve your pit.” The tax agent said, “Are you paying taxes on that pit?” The self-pitying person said, “You should have seen my pit.” The Zen Buddhist said, “Just relax and don’t think about the pit.” The optimist said, “Cheer up! Things could be worse.” The pessimist said, “Be prepared! Things will get worse.” Jesus, seeing the man (humanity) in the pit, jumped in and lifted him out. Now that’s grace!
Some people don’t like the logic of God’s grace. Believing that their hard work helped get them out of the pit, they see it as unfair that others get out without working equally hard. But the nature of God’s grace is that God is equally generous to everyone. Though some may need forgiveness from bigger debts than others, the same arrangement extends to everyone no matter their circumstances. God doesn’t just talk love and compassion; he demonstrated it by sending Jesus into the pit with us in order to lift us all out.
Those who embrace legalism tend to misread God’s grace as promoting a libertine, spontaneous, and unstructured lifestyle (the antinomianism I wrote about last week). But that is not the case, as Paul noted in his letter to Titus:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age. (Titus 2:11-12 ESV)
Let me be clear about this: in saving people, God does not leave them in the pit. He does not abandon them to a life of immaturity, sin and shame. God’s grace does not tell us that having forgiven us for falling in, it’s OK for us to remain in the pit. Jesus saves us so that we, by the Spirit, will rise from the pit to the new life of sharing in Jesus’ righteousness, peace and joy (Romans 14:17).
The parable of the workers in the vineyard
Jesus taught about God’s unconditional grace in the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Regardless of how long they labored, all the workers were given a full day’s wage. Naturally (humanly) those who worked the longest were upset, believing those who worked less hours received more than they deserved. I suppose those who worked less also believed they didn’t deserve what they received (I relate to that viewpoint!). Indeed, grace by its very nature does not seem fair—but since the judgment of God (represented by the landowner in the parable) is in our favor, I simply praise God for his grace! I have not fooled myself into believing that if I worked hard all day in the vineyard I would somehow earn God’s grace. Grace can only be gratefully, humbly received as the free gift that it is.
I love how Jesus contrasts the groups of workers in his parable. Perhaps some of us would identify with those who, having worked long and hard, think they deserve more than they received. But most of us, I’m sure, would identify with those who were given far more than they earned. It’s only with a perspective of gratitude that we are able to appreciate God’s grace, understanding just how desperately we need it. Jesus’ parable teaches us that God gives salvation to those who have not earned it (indeed, it cannot be earned). It also points out that religious legalists complain that grace is unfair (too good to be true)—how can God, they reason, reward those who have not worked as hard as they have?
Motivated by shame or gratitude?
Jesus’ teaching undermines shame, which is the primary tool legalists use to pressure people into conforming to God’s will (or, more often, to their will!). Shame is the opposite of the motive that flows from grace, which is gratitude for God’s love. While shame focuses on the self with its sin, gratitude (which is the essence of worship) focuses on God and his goodness. Speaking from my own experience, being motivated by shame (and the fear that goes with it) is a poor substitute for being motivated by gratitude for God’s love, goodness and grace.
Unlike the legalistic obedience motivated by shame, obedience motivated by gratitude is fundamentally relational (heart-to-heart)—what Paul refers to as “the obedience that comes from faith” (Romans 16:26). That’s the only kind of obedience Paul endorsed, for it’s the only kind that truly glorifies God. Relational, gospel-shaped obedience is our grateful response to the grace of God. It was gratitude that motivated Paul in his ministry, and that motivates us today to participate in what Jesus is doing in the Spirit, through the church. By God’s grace, that sort of ministry leads to life transformation.
In Christ, by the Spirit, we are and always will be the beloved children of our Father in heaven. All God asks is that we grow in his grace and in doing so get to know him better (2 Peter 3:18). That growth in grace and knowledge will continue now, then throughout eternity in a new heaven and new earth.
To God be the glory!
Rejoicing in the truth of God’s grace,
Joseph Tkach is President of Grace Communion International