If you know me, you know that I don’t really enjoy it when we try to “church it up” and play nice when life gets messy. The God we serve specializes in messy! Jesus makes “church people” uncomfortable in the Gospels with His radical message of grace. We feel like people have to clean themselves up before they are worthy of God’s love or forgiveness. Or, if we want to church it up, we say that they have to allow God to clean them up because that sounds like we’re not doing anything and God’s doing everything, passing that off for grace. We supposedly know if we have grace because we’re doing enough work. Wait, what?
Well, that’s not how God works. His radical grace is not offered in response to our promise to clean ourselves up or our efforts to do so, but instead is offered because of His great love for us because of the perfect faithfulness of Christ. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the episode of the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11, a passage I got to proclaim from the pulpit a couple of weeks ago. Please, if you have some time, listen to the way Jesus treats people in sin:
No commendation, but no condemnation. Jesus offers radical grace, grace so overwhelming that our minds have a hard time with it. We live in a culture and in a time when the motto “you get what you pay for” is practically our mantra. We look skeptically at anyone who offers us something for free, assuming it has a “hook” in it or some ulterior motive. But the message of Jesus is a grace so big and so consuming that it encompasses the worst we have to offer. It offends those who believe that we must act a certain way to prove to others that we have God’s grace, but Jesus makes a specialty of offending people who focus on style over substance.
We like to make the old “bait and switch” in theological circles; we begin by proclaiming to people that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 6:23). That’s all well and good until someone doesn’t conform to our expectations of what their Christian walk should be; then we start questioning whether they were really saved to begin with. In so doing, we rob people of the joy of unconditional love from God that He has promised them:
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38–39, ESV)
God doesn’t love us or accept us because we clean ourselves up. He loves us because Christ, the one who is perfect, obeyed in our place so that we who are wretched and poor and destitute can be made clean by His sacrifice on our behalf. His sacrifice is so big that even those who we don’t see God working on them from the outside, if they have trusted Christ then we know that He is working on them on the inside, in His timing and in His way. And yeah, that crazy and radical love should change us from the inside out. But making it a requirement of that love is turning God’s plan on its head and making it performance based instead of grace based.
For me, I can’t handle performance-based love. Telling me that if God loved me enough to die for me, and if I were converted to Christ, and if eternal life dwelt within me, then I must act a certain way in a certain timeframe or I never experienced God’s love, makes the whole thing a contract. If you do this, I will do that. God’s love looks like this:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”” (Matthew 11:28–30, ESV)
It is, to “church it up” a little, an unconditional covenant. God said that by faith and not by works we are saved. (Eph 2:8-9) That is an unconditional promise. And even if we louse it up badly, He loves us and seeks our restoration. (the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 comes to mind) That’s unconditional love, and in that environment our faith can be nurtured and grown to the place where we can see God not only in our hearts but in our lives.
So which is it in your life? Have you experienced performance-based spirituality, or grace-based spirituality? How have they affected your vision of who God is, who you are, and how they interrelate?