Grace: Too Good To Be True?

As I’ve continued to consider the biblical concept of grace, I’ve been amazed at its simplicity. Is this idea of grace really as simple as we’ve been told?

We are inculcated with attitudes that influence our concept of God. So often we’ve been told “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” and “God helps those who help themselves.” Admittedly, there’s a kernel of truth in those cliches, but when it comes to the free gift of grace, forgiveness of our sins and acceptance by God, we can’t earn it, can’t buy it, can’t bargain for it. It’s there. And we either accept it or we don’t.

Our society is based on achievement and recognition for an individual’s worth. We all know those who are impressed by achievement; after all, this is a success-oriented society. It goes like this: who you are depends on what you do, or what you have managed to acquire through what you do or what you have because of who you are. Rarely do we value individuals simply on who they are.

So no wonder Christians knock themselves out trying to be good enough to deserve God’s favor. Gays and lesbians often add to the burden by believing that they have to shed this “sin” of homosexuality in order for God to love them and forgive them. I contend that God’s love and forgiveness wrapped up in grace doesn’t require any such overhaul. God has already loved us even before we realized it was possible. We have salvation (and, with that, a right standing with God) through the gift of God’s grace. Period. I consider this an amazing truth: God loves me just the way God made me, and I just happened to be made gay.

I like to consider a biblical character, Abraham. Let me paraphrase Romans 4:1-5 “What can we say about Abraham? If works can justify someone, Abraham had something to brag about. But not before God. Look what the scripture says: ‘Abraham believed God. God justified Abraham’.” That’s it. Nothing about what Abraham had done or acquired. Wages are given to someone who works. Wages are not gifts, but something due a worker. We aren’t in a wage relationship with God. God’s grace is a gift to those who trust. It’s faith, simple faith in God that gets the gift of grace.

We can have peace with God because Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. God gives us salvation as a free gift to all who believe. John 3:16 is the anthem: “For God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Grace is two-dimensional:

  • The vertical significance of grace is from God to us.
  • The horizontal significance of grace we give to each other.

The first dimension of grace is what we’ve been considering here. The second is the result of the first. Once fuller understanding comes about God’s grace, we then grow into a better understanding of the grace that we can (and must) give each other.

Romans 5:18-19 gives the equation of God’s act of grace: “Just as Adam’s act of disobedience condemned us all, so Christ’s act of grace redeems us all.”

And yet those who want to try to do it themselves argue that:

  • if they try real hard
  • if they give up such and such
  • if they start doing so and so
  • if they can just proved the sincerity of their faith by . . .
  • THEN they can be accepted by God.

There’s quite a psychology at work here. Consider what emotional reactions many of us have to “don’t” signs: Don’t touch, wet paint; Don’t walk on grass. Many people touch to see if it really is wet, or cut across the grass because it is quicker. A sign doesn’t have the power to keep us from doing something. Neither does a list of do’s and don’ts have the power to keep us from sinning.

Grace, authentic grace, takes the pressure off the human effort to do it all ourselves. All who come are accepted by God. It’s like Abraham. I believed in God; God justified me.

Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly says it for me: “For it is by grace you have been saved though faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Grace cuts to the chase, no more “do it yourself.” Grace is the free gift of forgiveness, and then we are given the power to give up, put on, quit, or start doing whatever. But salvation is FREE. Grace frees us to serve. And once this relationship with God is established, then we can see more clearly the value of each of us just as God sees us — as a loved member of the family of God.

The Response of Grace

One of the many things I like about grace is the way it is the great leveler. No one can get big headed about being a Christian because we are all who we are only through grace. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:9-11 that he was the least of the apostles, but that (v.10) “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” Paul wasn’t just being Mr. Humble Pie here. He was demonstrating the attitude we all need to have in regard to our service to God.

There are three truths here:

  1. God does what God does by God’s grace
  2. I am what I am by the grace of God
  3. I let you be what you are by the grace of God

Grace is not to be hoarded or simply claimed. It is to be demonstrated, shared, used as a basis for fellowship, friendship, and drawn upon for sustained relationships. Those authentically in grace relate to others better. Instead of finding any and every flaw, failure or weakness in others, graced people affirm the positive and praise instead of pounce, contribute instead of unjustly criticize, look for things to bless instead of blame.

This is where I believe the religious righters go horribly wrong. In fact, I’m not sure they are graced people as evidenced in their actions. Their legalisms (rigid rules of conduct imposed on anyone who wants to be a part of their particular religious club) short-circuit their ability to portray the love of Christ. Instead these rules demand and perpetuate conditional love. The danger of conditional love in churches is the message being conveyed: “This is what non-believers must do to join our circle of conditional love and be sanctioned as a believer in our midst.” This is a message contrary to grace.

For centuries would-be believers have gotten tripped up with the idea of legalism. This is a list of actual rules given for Christians of the first century:

Colored clothes, for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don’t eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against Him who created us, to attempt to improve on His work. (Cited in Charles Swindoll’s The Grace Awakening)

Awful attitudes, right? Yet the religious righters of the first century wanted to impose their rules of conduct on those desiring to be included in the fold.

Legalisms stunt Christians. Without grace, there are pseudo-Christians who don’t think, who can’t make decisions, who operate in fear instead of joy because they don’t know anything except someone else’s demands and expectations.

Legalism is a trap of actions: “If I do this, don’t do that, I’m pleasing to God.” It is a religion based on works. Legalisms are not derived from scripture. They are human-made dictums laboriously passed down as rigid, grim, exacting, law-like codes. Several negatives work hand in hand with legalisms: pride, guilt, fear, shame.

Instead of a positive faith, legalism becomes an obsessive emphasis on what not to do, what not to be. And the Christian experience becomes a life of negativism. Instead of living in joy, exploring all of life’s experiences, including, incidentally, pain as well as joy, fulfillment as well as frustration, the Christian experience becomes hobbled to an artificial list of do’s and mostly don’ts. How vividly I remember in my fundamentalist past when I was asked what my church believed in, I listed a whole catalog of “we don’ts”; my questioner asked, but what DO you believe? My faith was boxed in by the legalisms regulating my actions, but my relationship with God was totally out of whack.

Yet one place we would expect to be most free is at church, free from condemnation for being who God created us to be, free to accept God’s grace without condition, free to launch our own individual walk toward spiritual maturity. Grace allows me to allow you to follow God however you can, without my imposing any rigid rules.

Grace also allows me, a gay person, who is just doing the best I can, to make mistakes, to learn how to best serve God, to grow into spiritual maturity. Those claiming to be Christian who say God condemns me haven’t seen into my cleansed heart, free of condemnation, free of guilt, filled with grace. The Bible-thumpers who say that being gay excludes me from God’s grace are vastly mistaken. They obviously haven’t experienced the grace of God’s love. Instead they have adopted their legalisms to box in their faith and exclude anyone they deem unworthy. How contrary to grace.

As gay and lesbian Christians, we must fight for the freedom of grace. This is a fight to set others free, so that others can experience the joy and privileges of grace. Serving God and loving God is then a joyful experience, not one weighed down with artificial adherence to human-made ideas of who is eligible to be Christian.