I enjoy reading a book or watching a movie in which a good story unfolds. I especially enjoy it when I know how the story ends, yet still I am compelled to read or watch to the end to see how it unfolds. The old American television series Columbo, starring the late Peter Falk, is a great example.
Each episode of Columbo revolved around the perpetrator of the crime, whose identity is already known to the audience. He would eventually be caught and exposed. The intrigue was generated by seeing how Lieutenant Columbo would go about solving the crime. The series was not so much a traditional “whodunit?” as a “how to catch them.” The gospel of God’s grace is rather like that. Jesus has completed the work of saving us, although not all understand that. There is great joy when the proverbial “light bulb” turns on and someone does get it!
Christians often say that the gospel is good news, but then add a great big “IF.” I’m sure they are sincere, but this addition turns the gospel into a proposition or a possibility of what could be true if certain works are first performed. For them, the gospel is good news, but only for those who qualify. For everyone else, it is not good news at all.
The wonderful truth is that the actual gospel is not a contract, which tells us what God will do “IF” we first do our part. Rather, it is the announcement concerning what God has already done—what he has already established in and through his Son, Jesus Christ. It is vital to understand the difference. It is an announcement of fact.
Just the facts
The actual gospel speaks of the fact of our forgiveness in Jesus and gives us something real to believe in. The gospel with an “IF” appended speaks of the possibility of our forgiveness, but then proclaims that we must also believe in something else, such as our faith, or our repentance or our performance, before that possibility becomes reality. One is the truth of God’s grace; the other is legalism.
This legalism projects a false reality that Jesus’ forgiveness does not exist unless you first measure up. However, no one can measure up to the perfection of God. Even when we become believers, we still have our times of failing to do what is right. And the blessing of the grace of
God is that we are forgiven in Jesus Christ. He stands in for us as our great high priest and takes our weak and imperfect repentance and faith and then by the Holy Spirit shares with us his perfect faith and repentance on our behalf. And God gets all the glory.
Sadly, some reject this, objecting that it means that you can just sit back and do nothing. But that is not where a correct understanding of grace leads you. Presuming upon God’s grace is not receiving God’s grace. It is not responding to grace as grace. Grace is not an impersonal abstract fact or principle, like gravity. Grace is not an exception to the rule of law. It is God’s gift of a restored, reconciled relationship of fellowship and communion with him in faith, hope and love.
A call for response
Grace calls for a particular response. The apostle Paul tells us that God has reconciled the cosmos to himself. He then goes on to implore us to be reconciled, to live in line with the reality of that reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5:18, 20)—to wake up and smell the coffee! Such an ordered or disciplined response is not the enemy of grace but how we receive and benefit from it, or rather, benefit from our restored relationship to God through Jesus Christ!
In Colossians 1:29, Paul explained how he proclaimed Christ: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (NIV, 1984). The gospel of grace in Jesus Christ energizes and moves us just as it did Paul. It brings about “the obedience of faith,” which was the aim and goal of his entire ministry (see Romans 1:5; 16:26 RSV).
Accepting God’s grace is not a license for laziness. We should remind ourselves every day what Christ has done and is doing for us. Our motivation is the fact that he has accepted us, not the fear that he might reject us. Paul tells us: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12, NIV, 1984).
Before I began to really understand grace, I regarded the Bible largely as a rule-book that God gave to tell us what to do and not do. In doing so, I missed the point of many of the narratives in the Bible. I saw God as detaching and not attaching, disconnecting and not connecting with us. Do the right thing and you belonged to his “in” crowd. Disobey and you were “out.” The more I focused on obeying the law, the more I also seemed to miss God’s purpose to develop a loving relationship with each of his children. My view became one of seeing God as ruling people out, breaking them with “rods of iron.” Thankfully, I did not totally lose sight of God’s mercy, but I really did see him as a cosmic sheriff and myself as his deputy!
Our experience was not as unusual as we may have thought. As I have gotten to know Christians in other denominations, I find that this is common, even among many who have been Christians for many years. That is why we need to understand and be reminded daily that it is his grace—not law—that disciplines us. God has caught us, like Columbo caught those criminals. He is the author and the finisher of our faith. It is the best “whodunit” and “how did he catch ‘em” story of all.
Author: Joseph Tkach