There’s nothing more difficult for us to get our minds around than the unconditional grace of God; it offends our deepest sensibilities. Conditionality is much safer than unconditionality because conditionality keeps us in control, it’s formulaic-do certain things and certain things are guaranteed to happen (this is why parents and preachers have such a hard time with grace–trust me, I know. I’m both a parent and a preacher). We understand conditions. Conditionality makes sense. Unconditionality on the other hand is incomprehensible to us. We are so conditioned against unconditionality because we are told in a thousand different ways that accomplishment precedes acceptance; that achievement precedes approval.
Everything in our world demands two way love. Everything’s conditional: if you achieve only then will you receive meaning, security, respect, love and so on. But grace is otherworldly because it’s unconditional–it is one way love: “Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable” (Paul Zahl).
Like Job’s friends, we naturally conclude that good people get good stuff and bad people get bad stuff (we preach and parent this way). The idea that bad people get good stuff is thickly counter-intuitive. It seems terribly unfair. It offends our sense of justice (we so quickly forget that the Bible is not a record of good people earning God’s blessings, but a record of bad people receiving God’s blessings because Jesus earned them for us).
Even those of us who have tasted the radical saving grace of God find it intuitively difficult not to put conditions on grace- “don’t take it too far; keep it balanced.” The truth is, however, that a “yes grace but” posture is the kind of posture that perpetuates slavery in our lives and in the church. Grace is radically unbalanced. It has no “but”: it’s unconditional, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and undomesticated. As Doug Wilson put it recently, “Grace is wild. Grace unsettles everything. Grace overflows the banks. Grace messes up your hair. Grace is not tame. In fact, unless we are making the devout nervous, we are not preaching grace as we ought.” Grace scares us to death because in every way it wrestles control out of our hands. However much we hate law, we are more afraid of grace.
I’ve posted these explosive words from Gerhard Forde before, but they’re worth posting again because he so aptly puts his finger on why we so naturally react the way we do when the gospel of God’s unconditional grace is considered:
The gospel of justification by faith is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness-knows-where, something we can’t really seem to wrap our minds around, the logic of which appears closed to us. How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat out, “You are righteous for Jesus’ sake? Is there not some price to be paid, some-thing (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such thing as a free lunch, can there?”
You see, we really are sealed up in the prison of our conditional thinking. It is terribly difficult for us to get out, and even if someone batters down the door and shatters the bars, chances are we will stay in the prison anyway! We seem always to want to hold out for something somehow, that little bit of something, and we do it with a passion and an anxiety that betrays its true source-the Old Adam that just does not want to lose control (Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life, pg. 24).
Contrary to what we conclude naturally, the gospel is not too good to be true. It is true! No strings attached. No but’s. No conditions. No need for balance. If you’re a Christian, you are right now under the completely sufficient imputed righteousness of Christ. Your pardon is full and final. In Christ, you’re forgiven. You’re clean. It is finished.
As scary as it it may be, giving up on the facade of control is the beginning of freedom for you.
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