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…