Grace, God’s favor toward the most undeserving people, comes across as too ridiculous to be true. It is Santa Claus visiting only the homes of naughty children, leaving them X-Boxes, Disneyland tickets, and ponies. There is something fishy about grace that makes me look for the fine print.
I understand the concept of a deserved gift—giving worthy charities millions of dollars because they’re making a difference in the world, giving God our time, talents, and treasure because He is good—but no category in my mind exists for undeserved gifts. An undeserved gift is just absurd.
An undeserved gift has the ring of a sales gimmick, like a letter informing me that I’ve won a free vacation and all I need to do to redeem my prize is call the 800-number.
Good people should be rewarded; bad people should be punished. Do good things, go to heaven. Do bad things, go to hell. You get what you’ve earned and deserve. That is how the human psyche is wired.
Grace defies the human psyche. God justifies sinners, declaring them righteous even though they are still sinners. Sinners are treated as saints. Bad people are treated as good people. And all this for free.
Gifts don’t demand reciprocation or repayment. They are really and truly free. The problem is, the consumer in me doesn’t believe in gifts, doesn’t believe in free. There is always a cost and a catch.
The cost: A morally perfect life and sin-atoning death. Jesus merited the obedience that God required of Adam and of Israel and of every human being. He performed for me all the good works that God will ever demand from me. Jesus was saved by works so that I can be saved by grace.
The catch: This good news is supposed to produce a “new obedience” in me so that I actually want to obey God with new motives of love and gratitude. But more often, the gospel awakens the lawbreaker in me, revealing that I am even more rebellious and self-serving than I had feared. Instead of running into the arms of God with renewed love, I run from God, eager to experiment with antinomianism and push the limits of grace.
God, who really should strike me dead immediately, is gracious and allows me to explore my prodigality and learn the hard way. God grants my wish to taste and touch everything the world has to offer. He knows His grace is real and can afford to be tried in order to prove true. So, why not? Sin boldly. In 1521, Martin Luther wrote a letter to his friend Philip Melanchthon, saying,
“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger…No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day.”
For 40 days, I can try to disqualify myself for grace. I can eliminate every reason for God to let me into heaven and give Him every reason to send me to hell. Do nothing for God. Don’t pray. Don’t open my Bible. Go to Vegas instead of church. Cut people off. Use cusswords. Get drunk. Idolize money, education, success, fame. Go wild. (Theoretically, I could go so far as committing murder, adultery, and the more heinous crimes, but I already get the point.)
God knows it's only a matter of time before I come to my senses. Christians can’t enjoy sin properly because they don’t really want to sin. They’re too conscious of God and of guilt. Christians will never commit the most creative crimes. They can’t even run away from home effectively because home is where they really want to be.
When I make my way back to my Father’s house, I can only hope that he’ll take me back, as a servant. Grace assures me that I’ll be received, again and again and again, not as a servant, but as a son. Grace means that even if I leave again, when I return I’ll get another party. Absurd.
What makes salvation by grace a true gift and not a gimmick is that it is a one-way transaction, from God to me. Everything God needed in order to offer us salvation with no strings attached, He provided in Christ. Jesus absorbed all the costs involved. Jesus works every good deed through me, so that even the “catch” of a new, voluntary obedience cannot intimidate me. There is no negotiation involved, no deal to close. The only thing that hinders me from taking God up on the offer is the inability to believe the offer is true. So God not only provides Jesus to accomplish my salvation, but He also provides the faith necessary to accept this salvation. From beginning to end, it is God paying for every cost, answering every objection, fulfilling every condition so that He can give, and give freely. The offer:
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk, without money and without cost.”
Only the Christian God could have dreamed up a salvation like this. Only this God would take it upon Himself—in Christ—to fulfill His own demands so that He can save His people by grace without compromising His justice. Only this God insists on saving His people at His own expense. Only this God gives them the righteousness He requires and then judges them by it: