What is Grace?
Last night I met a woman, Lauren, who is a follower of this blog. A mutual friend had arranged to have us over for dinner, so we could meet, and talk about some of the things I have written in this blog. “You should write about grace,” said Lauren. “I don’t get it.” I decided to take Lauren up on her suggestion. Lauren is new to the Lutheran tradition of Christianity, which is all about “grace.” “Is Martin Luther saying that we don’t need to do any good works? That we just need to have faith? Why wouldn’t he want us to do good works?”
The whole concept of “grace” is radically counter-cultural, which is one of the things I like the most about it! Our entire culture here in the US is based on the Protestant work ethic: that if we want to succeed, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, work hard, and become self-made men and women. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” or free anything, for that matter. There is a huge section in every bookstore, called “self-help” books. The implication is that if we just work harder on ourselves, we can become better people. Into this “self-made,” work harder if you want to succeed, no pain, no gain culture, comes the gospel message (gospel literally means “good message,” or “good news”): “For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God – not on the basis of works,lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for “grace” is “charis,” the same exact word for “gift.” Our relationship with God…drum roll…is not baed on anything we do. It is sheer gift! All we have to “do” is receive the gift, open the gift, live in that gift. The hard part is that it is so counter-cultural. Even in our relationship with God we feel, “What’s the catch? There must be some strings attached!” This is because in our world, admittedly, nothing is “free.” There is always a catch; strings are always attached. But in the bible we read, “My ways are not your ways,” says God (Isaiah 55:8)
The thing I love about Martin Luther is his imperfection, his “rough around the edges” personality. He lived in the late medieval period (1483-1546) in Saxony (Germany). He was a Roman Catholic Monk, of the Order of Saint Augustine. The Church during his time taught that if you wanted “salvation,” (a big, fancy “churchy” word that really means “God’s saving, healing love”), which in Luther’s day many thought of as “if you want to go to heaven when you die,” then you had to do a lot of good works, to earn God’s “approval.” Luther himself agonized over this, because he never felt “good” enough. Even if he did all kinds of good works, he had “bad” thoughts! He tried as hard as he could, but his own scruples made him feel that he would never succeed, would never be able to earn God’s love, would never be perfect enough for heaven. Ever feel that way? That no matter how hard you try to do the right thing, to take the high road, to be the person you desire to be, you still aren’t there yet?
Thanks be to God Martin Luther was a Professor of the New Testament at the University of Wittenberg. One night, studying the New Testament in preparation for a lecture, he read: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith;, and this is not your own doing; it is a gift of God – not on the basis of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) God’s Word broke through Luther’s own scrupulousness, and ignited a fire in his soul! He realized that he could never earn God’s saving love, but that he didn’t have to: God loved him no matter what! God’s love is a gift, free and clear. This realization so transformed Martin Luther, that he wanted to help to set other anxious and agonized people free also. “By grace (God’s sheer gift) we have already been saved (received God’s saving love) through faith (all you have to do is believe it, receive it).”
So…to answer Lauren’s question, what about good works? If we don’t “have to” do them, wouldn’t people get lazy and just sit on their butts and do nothing? Wouldn’t the world go to hell, with no one caring about anyone else, or helping the poor, or doing the right thing? Luther said that when you really truly “get it,” when you realize that God loves you as you are, with all of your faults and failures and shortcomings, then you are so transformed by this realization, that you cannot keep it to yourself! You have to share this whole new way of looking at life with others. In other words, good works will automatically flow through you toward others. It is the natural, organic outcome of the realization of God’s love for you, as you are, right now.
The bible says that we can understand this a little bit through some of our deepest, closest human relationships, which reveal God’s love to us. It speaks about marriage, friendship, and parenting. In all of these human relationships, we often do not “deserve” the love we receive, but our spouse, our closest friends, our parents love us anyway! For me the parenting example is the purest example, because adult relationships are often contingent on behavior. But with our children, well, I feel it is a different matter. I love my children whether they love me back or not. I love my children when they make the right choices, and are “good” people, but I still love them when they make bad choices, and disappoint me. If my child committed the most heinous crime, it would sicken and dishearten me. I would hate what s/he did. But I would still love my child. That is how I think God is with us. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion (literally “womb love”) on the child of her womb? Even should these forget, I will never forget you,” says our God. See? I have inscribed you on the palm of my hand.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)
So…like it or not…we are loved by God, no matter what. When we can let ourselves open and receive that love, it changes us. How can it not? Luther says that this change is too good to keep to ourselves. We are so transformed by it that we cannot contain it. Luther expert Timothy Wengert says that we no longer need to worry about earning God’s love, or going to heaven. We have already received all of that as a gift. So now that we don’t have to work our butts off achieving it, (my words, not Wengert’s),we are set free from this way of thinking, and have a lot of free time on our hands! What are you going to do with all of your free time? Help set others free, feed the hungry, serve the poor, help the earth, work for peace, etc. Not because we have to to earn God’s love, but because that love has so transformed us, that we can do nothing else but transform the world with it!