Sunday, August 30, 2009

Conditional Grace?

Sunset over ridge by Betsy Markman

Everybody tastes God's grace, every day.

Most don't recognize it for what it is.

God could have made the world monochrome. He could have made the atmosphere of our planet only 200 feet above the ground, eliminating mountains (not to mention all sense of grandeur). He could have made us eat nothing but flavorless paste all the time.

What explanation can there be for the riotous explosion of colors all around us, for the majesty of the heavens both day and night, for the blessings of food and flowers and music, for the wonder of snowflakes, or for any of the countless glories that He gives to the world each day?

It's all grace. Theologians call it "Common grace," because it is given to all, unconditionally (Matt 5:45). What man ever earned a sunset?

Like the wonderful examples of grace that we discussed last time, common grace is designed to tell people about God (Acts 14:17). The beauty of creation glorifies the Creator (Ps. 19:1, Ps 139:14) This fact is plainly visible to anyone who is willing to see it (Rom. 1:19-20)

But is all grace "common?" Or is there a more extraordinary grace -- call it "special grace" -- available?

And what about those verses in the Bible that make grace sound conditional? Is there some grace that's given freely, and other grace that's earned?

God's Word makes it clear that grace and "earning" are polar opposites. You can't have both at the same time (Rom 11:6). So then what do you with verses like Dan 9:4 and Neh 1:5 which make it seem like grace is conditional?

Is it possible for something to actually be conditional, without being earned?

Let me answer this question by setting up a rather absurd image. Suppose one of my children came up to me and said, "I need to borrow a washcloth so I can unlock the car door." I would look at him in confusion and say, "washcloths don't unlock car doors," and I wouldn't give it to him. Or, if I did give it to him, his futile attempts to use it would present a sad spectacle.

Suppose that same child kept coming up to me for weeks on end, requesting washcloths to do all sorts of bizarre things like making phone calls or cooking dinner. Aside from worrying about his sanity, what would I do?

I probably wouldn't keep giving him washcloths, but if I did, he wouldn't benefit from my actions. The washcloths would do him no good.

But suppose one day he came to me and said, "Mom, I need a washcloth because I'm dirty and I want to get clean!" Would I give it to him? Of course, and gladly!

How many people daily request grace from God for incongruous reasons, so that they can use it in ways incompatible with grace? Does God give it to them? Sometimes no. Sometimes the Scripture says, "I will not grant you grace" (Jer 16:13).

When He does grant grace to the wicked, it does the wicked no good at all (Isa 26:10), because he doesn't know what to do with it. He takes something that is supposed to make him clean, and he uses it to try to unlock the doors of worldly success, or to thicken the padding in his comfort zone, or whatever.

But back to my silly washcloth scenario. If my son were to ask me for a washcloth to make him clean, would I give it to him because he "earned" it? Could anyone say that it was awarded to him based on merit, or even that I was making him jump through hoops to get what he wanted? Of course not! The washcloth was given without any merit or earning in mind, simply because he wanted it for what it was designed to do.

And so "conditional" grace is given as well. God's purposes for grace are always to bless us, which inevitably means bringing us closer to Him. He may not give us this "conditional" grace if we're going to use it in ways that take us further away from Him (Jas 4:3). He loves us too much to do that to us.

So, in our day-to-day lives, we constantly receive common grace. And in all those areas where we are set on doing His Will, we will find His special, "conditional" grace freely available to us, unearned by us. Our past failures do not inhibit this grace, and our past successes don't grant us more. What God offers is what we need for accomplishing His Will in the moment at hand.

And at those times when we are not pursuing His Will, He may withhold certain kinds of grace from us. But even His withholding will be a gracious deed, though we may not feel it as such.

But please don't misunderstand me here. In no way do I mean to imply that there's an "Easy Street" waiting for you if you just determine to do His Will. Remember, please, what His grace is sent to accomplish for you.

  • Grace enables your obedience when the flesh could not possibly obey
  • Grace empowers you where your flesh is weak
  • Grace opens the Word of God to your heart and mind, where the flesh only sees gibberish
  • Grace gives bold access to God's throne room
  • Grace keeps you from being destroyed when your flesh has abundantly earned destruction
  • Grace shines the light of truth in your heart
  • Grace enables you to worship God instead of turning to idols
  • Grace enables you to love your enemies, when the flesh wants to despise them
  • Grace enables you to love God when the flesh can only feel cold toward Him
  • Grace enables you to bear witness for Him when your flesh is afraid
  • Grace enables you to mourn over sin and repent of it.

Do you see where I'm going with this? Don't search your life for evidences of grace by asking yourself how comfortable you are, how pleased your flesh may feel, how well your plans are working out, or how admired you are. Search your life for evidences of grace by looking for the Godwardness that grace supplies.

So what about those inevitable "dry spells" that all Christians go through? What about those times when God feels a million miles away no matter how hard we pray? What about when Scripture seems as parched as the Sahara, and we just feel dead inside? Does that mean we've "fallen from grace?"

Hopefully I'll address that in the near future. In the meantime, you might enjoy this entry, especially the second half, which was written from my own "dry dock."

And now it's your turn. How have you experienced "special," unearned grace in your life? Please leave your comments below.


Vonnie said...

Wow... great thoughts!

and when we need it most, "He giveth and giveth and giveth again."

Thanks for sharing this.


Connie Arnold said...

What a wonderful post, Betsy! It's a great illustration to help explain conditional grace. I feel like I receive grace each day of life, that life itself is a special gift of grace. Thank you for sharing your special insights.

Sherri Ward said...

Betsy, thank you for really digging into the word, and for sharing - there is really good stuff in here! I agree - we came to Him on the basis of His unearned grace, and we also continue on in Him, enabled by His grace. Yet, we do have a choice - abide in His grace by abiding in Him - or pursue our own path, which can ultimately separate us from His grace, if we do not turn back and yield to Him.

Karin said...

Amazing Grace!! Without His grace I can do nothing - couldn't come to Him; couldn't remain in Him; couldn't grow in Him!

About the washcloth - my daughter's parenting wisdom would be to give the child the washcloth and let him find out for himself that it doesn't work. It won't hurt him to try it out! Then she will have opportunity to explain this concept to him. I believe that sometimes God allows us to have what we request in order to teach us life and faith lessons. Finally, hopefully, we learn to leave the choice with Him and not keep asking for things that don't achieve His purpose in our lives!

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