It’s time to interrogate our idea of grace.
We’ve been discussing eternal life and the “formula” that many evangelicals believe is the only ticket to heaven. We’ve seen that when Jesus spoke of heaven, at times his teachings didn’t include the “formula”:
Here, Jesus encouraged his followers to emulate a man (the Good Samaritan) of a different religion, and this would bring them eternal life.
Here, Jesus tells us that we will be eternally rewarded if we cared for the least of these.
And here, we considered the “formula” of asking Jesus into one’s heart as the only way (and only prerequisite) for eternal life. We considered how demanding the same action from every person in the world, regardless of their life story, might be too simplistic.
I’m not talking here about earning heaven, buying salvation, or anything like that. I’m talking about Jesus’ words.
Putting words in Jesus’ mouth
I grew up with the understanding that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) was all I needed to know, all anybody needed to know. If Jesus spoke of other ways to gain eternal life, certainly no one told me about it. My teachers, Bible study leaders, professors, and pastors (all evangelicals) taught around the edges of passages that deviated from this teaching.
If I’d been confronted ten years ago with the actual message of the sheep and the goats (“eternal life is for those who take care of the least of these”) or the Good Samaritan (“eternal life is for those who love sacrificially”), I would have had to dismiss it or explain it away. My paradigm had only round holes, and these messages were square pegs.
So, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we take Jesus’ straightforward statement – “do this and you shall live [eternally]” – and change its meaning. Now it’s, “love all people and pray the Sinner’s Prayer, and heaven will welcome you; and PS the part about loving all people is optional, because that would be Works Righteousness.”
Good works are “bad”?
The whole anti-good works paradigm is problematic if you think about it.
Faith traditions that value or command good works motivate people to help the needy. We criticize that effort and label it “works-righteousness” – a practice we view with scorn.
But we, the anti-good works folks (“by grace you have been saved…not by works,” Eph. 2:8-9), feel no obligation to help the needy – and our free pass is from God. We are welcome to do good, but it doesn’t really matter to God, because all he really wants from us is belief.
We often even criticize those who need help, wishing they would just pull themselves up from their bootstraps, or stop being lazy or freeloading. We avoid helping them by assuming they could help themselves if they’d only try, or they’re in “our” land illegally, or trying to take “our” jobs.
Assumptions about grace
We believe that God’s grace consists of forgiving us, the Believers, for our ongoing sin. We embrace unscrupulous leaders, express disdain for those who most need our compassion (“the least of these”) – and then when our neighbors aren’t interested in our Jesus, we proclaim their damnation.
We assume that God’s grace extends to us, who know Jesus but ignore his commands, because once upon a time we accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. And we assume that God’s grace does not extend to others, regardless of the circumstances, because they have not prayed the Sinner’s Prayer.
Really? Does God’s grace exist to let believers off the hook? Or does God hold believers to a higher standard? Who was it that said “except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:20)?
Does not God’s grace exist to meet all people where they are, as Jesus meet prostitutes and tax collectors where they were?
Is God’s not grace big enough for that man who lived his whole life in a faith tradition that did not recognize Jesus as Savior?
Is not God’s grace big enough for that woman whose childhood experience had caused her to walk away from the church?
Is not God’s grace big enough for those who have heard the Gospel, but not in a compelling way?
Cliche answers don’t work
I’ve had this conversation again and again. I’ve heard the arguments against an inclusive eternity, and they are weak. I say this having spent half a century believing those arguments. Here are a few actual examples:
- “If all people can be saved, then isn’t Christ’s atonement unnecessary?” (We have been taught to think in this binary way: either you are saved through Jesus, or you are not saved. I’m not suggesting that the cross was unnecessary – I’m suggesting that we look at the issue of salvation with nuance, and stop ignoring Jesus’ clear message in passages like the Good Samaritan and the Sheep and the Goats.)
- “If someone wants a relationship with God, they will be miraculously drawn to Jesus; if they’re not, then they weren’t really interested in a relationship with God.” (Again, this is binary thinking – and it negates the very real experience of millions or billions of non-Christians who have genuinely pursued God without encountering Jesus.)
- “It’s impossible for anyone to really love others, except in the context of knowing Jesus as Savior.” (Binary thinking that automatically assumes the worst about all people who don’t know Jesus, and the best about all people who do.)
- “God’s ways are beyond understanding, and he said the only way to heaven is through Jesus. Maybe it seems unfair to our finite minds, but we can’t question God.” (Actually, it was human theologians who said that – who interpreted some verses as though that was all God had to say on the matter, while ignoring other passages, like Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan and the Sheep and Goats.)
- “The fact that millions will die in their sins is a reminder to us that we need to make a better effort at mission work.” (The weird thing about this scenario: those who are innocently waiting to hear about Jesus will be punished for our inaction, while we expect to be rewarded in spite of it.)
- “Don’t we all deserve hell? God in his grace has chosen to rescue those of us who believe – the rest are just getting what they deserve.” (This boils down “grace” to mean God’s gift to those who deserve it because they meet God’s criterion of belief in Jesus. But grace is by definition undeserved.)
Change is hard
I know my readers fall into one of about three camps: those who already see God’s grace as all-encompassing; those who are intrigued by – and perhaps a little nervous about – this perspective; and those who are sure I’m a heretic.
To those in the first camp: I’m so glad to be here with you. I only wish I’d arrived much, much sooner.
To those in the third camp: Remember, this perspective questions some theologians, not God (and we all know that theologians can be wrong). And it upholds the words of Jesus. I invite you to stay with Grace Colored Glasses for a few weeks. See what happens. Keep an open mind.
To those in the second camp: I understand your hesitation – I know it’s scary to step outside your theology! It’s hard to even think about making a change like this. Like me, you’ve been conditioned to see salvation as a transaction – you say this, God rewards you with that. But God is all about LOVE, not negotiation. Allow yourself to linger over passages and paragraphs. Allow your mind to turn them over and over. Don’t be afraid to ask your Bible questions, to interrogate your doctrine.
Stay tuned (easiest way: sign up for my newsletter). Grace Colored Glasses is all about finding nuance where we never thought we would.
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