Grace is a gift. An incredibly confounding gift. I think that is why so few people, even the people who claim to live by grace, actually believe in it. Does that sounds strange? Let me unpack it.
Grace As An Investment
At one level, you have people who do not believe in grace because they assume nothing in life is free. Who can blame us, especially those of us who live in capitalist societies. In our world people do not make an investment without an expected payoff. Even donations are often incentivized by tax deductions.
Perhaps more importantly, the social credibility that comes from generosity, just consider the Sackler family who sought to launder their name by donating millions after making billions feeding the opioid epidemic. Others just want credit for their kindness and threaten to withhold future acts of generosity until they receive a proper expression of appreciation for a gift given.
Transfer this mindset to faith and the cross of Christ becomes a divine investment. Jesus died for you, now what are you going to do for God? Here the cross becomes a cudgel to motivate moral behavior, with the fear of backsliding out of God’s forgiveness as a threat to what will happen if there is not an appropriate return on the divine investment?
But that fails to grasp grace, because grace is a gift and true gifts come without strings or expectations.
Grace As A Reward
At another level, there are people who do not believe in grace because they believe you have to earn everything in life. This reverses the order of the previous example. There someone with resources made an investment believing there would be a return. Here, someone with resources rewards work already done.
Framed in terms of faith, this mindset rangers from the “good person” argument that assumes if someone is good enough, then God will welcome them into eternity. More aggressive versions of this will simply up the ante on expected behavior while more tempered versions will lower the bar to something as simple as believing the right set of faith propositions. However it manifests, something we do triggers divine action.
Once again, this fails to grasp grace, because grace is a gift and you can never earn a gift (no matter what the song about Santa says).
In order for grace to be grace, it has to be about the unstoppable love of God and nothing else. We get a taste of this in Psalm 114. The Psalmist opens with the declaration of a simple reality:
When the Israelites escaped from Egypt—Psalm 114:1-2
when the family of Jacob left that foreign land—
the land of Judah became God’s sanctuary,
and Israel became his kingdom.
The Psalm then explores everything that Israel does, not to cooperate with, but to interfere with God’s plan. But God, intent on making Judah the divine sanctuary and Israel the epicenter of God’s reign, keeps pressing forward.
Israel panics at the edge of the Red Sea as the Egyptian army barrels down on them. So God splits the waters and creates safe passage through.
For those tempted to see the parting of the Red Sea as an investment, consider Israel’s response. Thirsty, the nation bemoans their escape from slavery and long to return to Egypt. But grace is unstoppable so God prompts clean drinking water to flow from a rock.
Still unconvinced that God’s intent will manifest, the people fear the armies on the other side of the Jordan, but God, undeterred, parts the waters of the Jordan as a reminder of divine faithfulness.
In other words, Psalm 114:1-2 happens not because of something the people previously did to earn it, nor because the people responded appropriately to God’s kindness towards them, but simply because God willed it to be so.
Notice how starkly this contrasts with the false definitions of grace we often embrace, definitions where grace either comes as an investment or a reward. Contrasting these views, it appears we only experience grace when God is good despite what people do.
In other words, what make Judah God’s sanctuary and Israel the seat of the divine reign, is God’s relentless goodness to Israel. They are the people who get to sing about the all of the good things God does simply because that is who God is.
Easter then becomes the bold declaration that God is good to all. God’s grace is unstoppable and you too dwell in the land where the divine takes Sanctuary and are part of the Kingdom where God reigns … even when you find yourself living fearful on the banks of your Red Sea, thirsty in the wilderness, or hesitant to cross the Jordan River.