Grace and Work

Peter Block, in The Answer to How is Yes, makes a simple pair of statements.  “…it is never efficient or inexpensive to act on our values.  There is no such thing as cheap grace.”

Chris Goldman attributes the theology of grace to Paul, pushing back against Paul’s naysayers, asserting that without him, our understanding of grace would be far smaller.  This makes sense when you think about much of what Jesus had to say.   Take Matthew 25: it is full of works-based theology.  If you trim your lamps and keep plenty of oil, you get into the wedding.  If you don’t trim the lamps and don’t keep enough oil, you miss the wedding.   If you do good things with what you’re given (the story of the talents), you get rewarded.  If you bury what you’ve been given, you get thrown outside into the dark place where people weep and gnash their teeth.   And lastly, Jesus seems to say pretty plainly, whether or not you get to take part in the life of God eternally depends on whether you fed the poor, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited those in prison.

Yes, I know there’s more to it than that, but if you’d been listening to Jesus when he delivered Matthew 25, grace as we understand it might not have entered your mind.

I’m intrigued by this relationship, the one between grace and work.  Grace is a gift; work makes worlds.  Grace is unmerited favor; work guarantees nothing.   We are saved by grace through faith; we are God’s workmanship, created for good works.  God has been working since the beginning, Jesus said, adding that he was working right alongside.

A friend and I sometimes spar over what active agency we have.   My friend is fond of saying “We can do nothing.  It’s all God.”   I argue, saying, “No, we are free, and we have choices and must take action.”   When he says “It’s all God” I know what he means, and as far as the metaphor goes, I agree.   But the metaphor taken too far makes us out to be inanimate, puppets, our will an illusion.  (Which many people believe it to be.)  Even to pray “Help me” assumes it is “I” who has to get up and do the work, even as God lends a hand.

There is work in accepting grace.  And we could say, grace works.

My suggestion is this: life lived “abundantly” (someone unpack that word for me) requires grace and work in equal part.   Grace and work are married, and to divorce them in order to understand “the how” of God’s heavenly ticketing service is to invite chaos and needless theological wars.   Willard’s point that grace is opposed to earning, but not to effort, is part of what I’m after here, but I’m also pushing back against the transactional “how to” question of getting to heaven.  Not that I don’t want to go, and want everyone else to go, too, but the with-God life is the point, and that life is both now and forever, built both in essence and quality by the siblings grace and work.

By God’s grace, off to work…

2 Comments

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  1. When James said, “Without faith works is dead,” and “I will show you my faith by my works,” I think he was contrasting self-righteous works (without faith) to the work that follows grace which we receive when we believe and are obedient to the Holy Spirit. They can be the same works done in a different spirit. Once I went to church in order to justify myself and because I was told I had to. Now I go to worship God with other believers, to learn more of His truth, to be corrected, to be strengthened to walk in His way in the power of His Spirit, and to serve Him according to His will. His grace is the rock on which I stand, for without Him I am nothing.

  2. I appreciate the difficulty in trying to fully describe ‘grace’ in verbal terms, even to a well-seasoned child of God. It’s a bit like trying to fully experience the enormous, color-infused bubble my 6-year old daughter has created in backyard playtime with a mighty wave of a plastic wand: the moment she tries to feel and grasp the floating, pulsating orb to in order to complete her sensory experience, it is forever gone, only to be enjoyed as a transient memory. Using a more banal and personal metaphor, I believe the workings of grace can be compared to a golf swing, one of the more insidiously complicated movements a soft-bellied weekender is asked to accomplish repeatedly and with aplomb. Countless ‘swing thoughts’, tips, and pontifications offered by experts create a dizzying array of concerns in the mind of the average golfer on a Saturday afternoon, and all of these Post-it bits of information must be synthesized in an action that lasts all of two seconds to perform. That has lead very wise people such as Harvey Penick to urge that one concentrate only on the ball, as its travel is the ultimate manifestation of the golfer’s skill. When I have all too infrequently taken Mr. Penick’s advice, I have noticed that the results are, well, not as embarrassing. The final score is lower, the afternoon walk not as wasted as Mark Twain would have wanted me to believe. The dissected ‘swing’ passes without concern or obsession, and the clean, shiny, white ball travels (more or less) as envisioned. When we keep our hearts focused on the Grace-giver, the tussle between works and the inexplicable gift becomes harmonious, our walk is not wasted, and both the Giver and the receiver are pleased.

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