We love the “if/then” proposition: “If” you do this, “then” I will do that; we are inveterate slaves (at worst) or grumpy employees (at best). We militate against the freedom of inheritance and the dependency of sonship. We love living as though “what goes around comes around” conditionality were true. That kind of conditionality makes us feel safe. It’s easy to comprehend. It’s appropriately formulaic. And best of all, it keeps us in control. We get to keep our ledgers and scorecards. The equation: “If I do this, then you are obligated to do that” makes perfect sense to our grace-shy hearts.
Unconditionality, on the other hand, is incomprehensible. We are deeply conditioned against unconditionality because we’ve been told in a thousand different ways that accomplishment always precedes acceptance, that achievement always precedes approval. When we hear, “Of course you don’t deserve it, but I’m giving it to you anyway,” we wonder, “What is this really about? What’s the catch?” Internal bells and alarms start to go off, and we begin saying “wait a minute…this sounds too good to be true.”
You see, everything in our world demands two-way love. Everything is conditional. If I achieve, we reason, only then will I receive everything I long for: love, approval, significance, respect, and so on. Be good. Bring home the bacon. Keep your act together….Then (and only then) will you have what you want. That’s how our world works. But grace isn’t from our world. It’s otherworldly. It’s unconditional. Grace is upside-down, to-do-list wrecking, scandalous and way-too free. It’s one-way love.
Like Job’s friends, we naturally conclude that good people deserve good stuff and bad people deserve bad stuff. What goes around comes around sums up the mechanism at work in the world we’re at home in. The idea that bad people get good stuff is so counter-intuitive as to be utterly implausible. It seems terribly unfair. It offends our sense of justice. Of course, when we talk of justice and good people earning God’s blessing, we’re forgetting that the Bible is a not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. No, that’s not a typo. The Bible is the record of the blessed bad. But how can that be? It can be (and is) because a good Someone else earned blessing for the bad. We say that we believe in a God of grace and then live lives completely skeptical of that grace. We’ve forgotten the one-way love of Calvary.
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! Tamp it down! we warn. But grace–one-way love–is by its own definition, unbalanced. Grace is a gift, not a wage. It’s a gift of love, and lavish love gifts never sit quite right with the bookkeeping, wage-earning, responsible citizen that resides in our own hearts.
Need proof? We need look no farther than Mary’s profligate anointing of the Savior in preparation for his death (John 12:3f) for a snapshot of our own hearts. She was both misunderstood and censured by those ever-so-responsible disciples in attendance. The giving of something costly to another simply because one loves, without expecting anything in return, is inequity in action. We recoil at it. What could ever be balanced about something as lopsided as one-way love? One-way love has no qualifiers, no conditions, no buts. It’s unconditional, unpredictable, and undomesticated. You can’t put brakes on it because it’s not yours to measure out or control.
Grace makes us nervous, it scares us to death because it strips us of our beloved “you owe me” religion. It snatches control out of our hands. It tears up the timecard we were counting on to be assured of that nice, big paycheck on Friday. It forces us to rely on the naked goodness of Another and that is simply terrifying. However much we may hate having to get up and go to the salt mines everyday, we distrust the thought of completely resting in the promised, unmanageable generosity of God even more.
By nature we’re all perpetually suspicious of promises that seem too good to be true. We’re wary of grace. We wonder about the ulterior motives of the excessively generous. What’s the catch? What’s in it for him? So we try to domesticate the message of one-way love–after all, who could trust in or believe something so radically unbelievable?
Contrary to what we conclude naturally, the gospel is not too good to be true. It is true! It’s the truest truth in the entire universe. No strings attached! No fine print to read. No buts. No conditions. No qualifications. No footnotes. And especially, no need for balance.
If you’re a Christian, you have been given the most extravagant gift ever: the completely sufficient imputed righteousness of Christ. That means that his perfect timecard has your name on it and every single penny that was owed him for a life of devoted labor in your salt mine has been deposited directly into your account. It also means that you’ve been completely forgiven for every single time you lazed out, came in late, left early, cut corners, dawdled on FaceBook, stole paperclips, despised the boss, backstabbed your co-worker, and generally acted like an apathetic, hateful slave. You’re completely, totally, unashamedly forgiven. You’ve been forgiven because Jesus took your record and applied it to himself, receiving every lash of the wrath you had earned in your place and transferring his record to you.
Won’t you suspend your incredulity and conditionality for just one moment and believe? Won’t you stop yourself from saying, “Yes, but…” for just one hour? Sure, it seems dangerous, but doesn’t that ride look like fun? Haven’t you grown tired of the taste of that gritty salt? How many times do you have to say, “the harder I work, the behind-er I get” before you give up and believe?
Who deserves this kind of lavish one-way love? No one. No one deserves it—that’s why God calls it grace: undeserved favor. But if you believe it, your pardon is already full and final. In Christ, you’re forgiven. You’re clean. Now. It is finished. And as scary as it may seem, wading into this ocean of grace will be the most freeing and blissful dive you’ll ever take.