“And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works;
if it were, grace would no longer be grace.”
When I was about 19, an intrepid explorer of the world, I found myself in a Buddhist library near the Tibetan border in the Lower Himalayas. I was travelling with someone who was interested in Buddhism and, while I was there, I thought I would look into it myself. I opened a book for beginners and, as an initial act of self-discipline, was instructed to imagine a tree covered in leaves and then, in my mind, remove the leaves one by one until the tree was bare. Buddhism and I had that one afternoon together and our paths never crossed again. Too hard!
Then, on a canoe on Lake Srinagar, in India, I got into conversation with the Hindu man who was steering the boat. Not yet a Christian, I was interested to hear about his belief in reincarnation. ‘Do you really believe you’re going to come back as something else in another life?’ I asked him. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. He was utterly persuaded that how well he did in this life would determine the quality of his next life experience, a process which would keep on repeating.
In his insightful book ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’, Philip Yancey comments, “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist 8-fold plan, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Muslim code of law – each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”
The pitfalls of performance-based religion are many. They include living in fear of making a mistake; making that mistake, then living ridden by guilt and having to re-do all your good work; growing smug when you’re actually doing well; or just living as a hypocrite, content to look like you’re living a certain way when really you’re not. Sadly, there are people out there who think this describes a lot of Christians.
Yet nothing should be further from the truth if we truly understand the grace of God, especially when the book of Romans so plainly tells us that ‘there is no-one righteous, not even one.’ That leaves us no room to claim that we have attained some level of goodness, or ticked off our lists a qualifying number of good deeds.
The song, ‘Grace is not earned’, was written to try and answer the question, ‘What is grace?’
Grace is the heart of the Father – it’s the Father’s will, the Father’s plan to redeem His people and bring them back into relationship with Him. It’s the gift of the Son – the Son who agreed to the Father’s plan before time began, to come as a representative of the human race, live the life we were not capable of, and take the punishment for our failings that separated us from a holy God, in order to restore us to relationship with Him. And grace is the work of the Spirit. It is not us who realise our need of God – if we are ‘dead in our sins’ as the Bible says, then how can we? It is the Holy Spirit who reveals our need of God to us, giving us the very faith we need to believe. It is, from start to finish, a work of God, a gift from God, and an act of grace.
We think of ourselves as ‘good people’. We try to be upstanding citizens, pay our taxes, be friendly neighbours. (I’m guessing that if those things have no appeal, you’re unlikely to be reading this.) But even we, reliable citizens that we are, have those unfortunate memories tucked away in the furthermost cupboards in the attics of our minds. The things we try not to think about. That we so regret. That we might not even have done but have been done to us. That, no matter how many new leaves are turned over, are still there.
There’s a scene in ‘The Avengers’, where The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is talking to Loki (Tom Hiddleston) while he is being held prisoner in something like a giant hamster ball. She’s recounting mistakes from the past and explains, ‘There’s red in my ledger.’ Red in my ledger. What a simple, succinct, vivid picture, that we can all understand: I have debts, I don’t have a clear account. Stuff happened. And I carry it with me.
Fresh out of college I was working in London, at BBC Television, and I got it into my head that I wanted to join a gospel choir. It’s a story in itself how I came to be there but there I was, in a rehearsal in Notting Hill, conspicuously ‘the white person’ who had managed to get into the choir by singing the first verse of ‘Amazing grace’ – the only Christian song I knew.
As these rich voices harmonised around me, something happened. Rehearsal turned into worship. Heads and hands were raised, eyes closed. The dynamic had changed. With some awkwardness, I peered along my row and came to the embarrassing realisation that these people actually believed what they were singing! I thought it was just music, when all along, it was faith.
And then, suddenly, I felt as though I were covered from head to toe in dirt. I was confronted with thoughts about my lifestyle, my choices, my mistakes, my personal disasters (of which there had been many) and I sat down and wept. I couldn’t put a name to it at the time, but I was in the presence of a holy God. And, having seen myself in a new light and come face to face with my own shortcomings, I carried them around like a burden without relief, a cartoon-like black cloud hovering above my head wherever I went. I had ‘red in my ledger’ and there was just nothing I could do about it. No peace to be found. Just the weight of regret, a desperation to turn back the clock and start over, made worse by the helplessness of never being able to.
BUT CHRIST … that is the axis on which a life is turned around. Beaten and spat on, insulted and laughed at, injured and bleeding, Jesus took up the cross and staggered towards the hill of execution. ‘Steadfast’ by definition: loyal, faithful, committed, devoted, dedicated, reliable, steady, true, constant, determined, resolute, single-minded, unwavering, unhesitating, unfaltering, unswerving, unyielding, unflinching, uncompromising. That’s how Jesus went to the cross. The sinless One took upon Himself the mistakes and regrets of millions of people. Their anxiety of guilt. The tension of their anger, the bitterness of their jealousy and resentment. Their pain of abandonment and betrayal, the shame of their every abuse and lust. Jesus drank the cup. God laid down His life. Stopped breathing.
Wayne Grudem says, “There is an eternal, unchangeable requirement in the holiness and justice of God that sin be paid for.” We did it, and Jesus paid for it, for all of us, so that we never have to.
Why do we need to be right with God? Because without anyone telling me about it, without reading a book or hearing anything from a pulpit, I knew I had encountered some kind of holiness and that I was found wanting and dirty. No-one called me ‘dirty’ - I was living the same life as all my friends which we called ‘a good time’ - and yet with one encounter with God I had no peace because of the weight and pain of things regretted.
And yet this holy God offers grace. A revelation of His grace means understanding there is nothing to be strived for or earned. If you ‘get’ that it’s a gift, you will never consider that your ability to come to God is based on your performance in life, or your behaviour. You will never feel that a mistake disqualifies you from coming, because actually you were disqualified from the start. It was Jesus who qualified us, who took all our mistakes to the grave and left them there.
There are no Brownie points to be collected, or rungs of the ladder to climb. These might be the way of other religions, but the only option of the Christian faith is to accept that we have been outrageously loved for a very long time, to the extent that someone pure and beautiful and untainted - God Himself in fact, the only one able to - would take our every mistake as His own. To understand grace is to accept that there is life and love and freedom to be received, all which have been freely given and which never need to be earned. And that, above everything else, we are loved. Therefore, confident, secure and at peace, we are able to live - in this life and on into eternity - in the good of everything God has done for us with a grateful, humble, joyful heart.
© Kate Simmonds 2020