Gracious Beyond Measure
What does God’s grace do for us? Recently I heard another pastor describe God’s grace as if it makes up for our lack of good works. The idea is that we do what we can, and God does the rest. He told the admittedly fictional story of a man who died and stood before St. Peter at the pearly gates. (By the way, this is one way to tell if a story is fictional, because Peter isn’t the judge, and this isn’t how the Bible describes the Judgment Day.) Fictional Peter told the man he needed a thousand points to get into heaven. So the man started listing his good works—stuff like teaching Sunday school, serving on the church council, and being a good husband, father, and worker. The man was up to about a hundred points when he couldn’t think of any other meritorious works. So he finally despaired and exclaimed, “If not for the grace of God, I’ll never get in!” Peter said, “Grace of God: nine hundred points.” And the man got into heaven.
The story is admittedly fictional, and it almost sounds right. The man gets in by the grace of God. But is this how God’s grace works? This, actually, is not the teaching of the Scriptures, and so it is not the doctrine of the Christian Church. Of all the world’s religions, this bears some resemblance to the Roman Catholic view, but it is actually closest to the Mormon understanding of grace.
After the service I wanted to say something to the pastor, but I didn’t have an ideal opportunity, and I held my tongue. Now I wish I hadn’t. I should have made an opportunity, because, while it sounds kind of right, it is actually quite wrong, and, like all false teaching, it can lead to great despair.
The underlying assumption is that we start out a blank slate and need a certain amount of merit in order to win favor with God. So we do what we can, and, lo and behold, God is kind enough to do the rest. But the biblical teaching is that we do not start out a blank state. In the course of human history, we started out perfect. Our first parents were created holy, righteous, and good. But when they rebelled against God, they switched sides and our natures became corrupt. So now, in our own personal histories, we do not start out a blank slate, nor do we begin perfect as Adam and Eve did. Rather, we begin as “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). So there is no blank slate, and there never was. We were perfect once. Now we are corrupt. And there is no middle ground.
We should think of our own personal histories as beginning with debt. We do not start with a balance of zero and then try to earn enough. We start with extreme debt. So we spend our lives trying to pay off this debt, but the effort is futile, because in our corruption we are incapable of making any gains. In fact, we are incapable of reducing our debt by even one cent. We find that even our best efforts at good works are not, in fact, good. “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is. 64:6). We are debtors incurring more debt, and it is in the face of this exponential debt that God shows himself gracious.
But if I believe that I must make a start at righteousness, and God will do the rest, what will happen when I come to the honest conclusion that I have not made a start, but have only incurred more debt? I will have nothing but despair, because I will see no chance of salvation.
God’s grace does not come to those who try to do what is in them. God’s grace comes to those who are actively hostile to him, and in this way his grace is seen to be gracious beyond measure.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:6-8)
So God is seen to be gracious beyond measure, because his grace is not manifested by him simply overlooking sin. He does not overlook sin, and he does not cancel the debt against us with a stroke of the pen. He cancelled it by nailing it to the cross (Col. 2:14).
Dwell on this and rejoice in this: God’s grace does not make up for your shortage of good works. God does much more. He cancels the debt your sin incurs. And he did this not by ignoring it, but by bearing it. And if Christ has borne this debt, then it is certainly paid for. Even when your sins cry out against you and the devil accuses you, the blood of Christ is your defense. Your debt was paid by Jesus, and you are forgiven.