Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is Grace Really Free?

Driving down the highway, I look over and see a church sign declare this:

F R E E   T R I P   T O   H E A V E N !
D E T A I L S   I N S I D E .

It is obvious what they are getting at, right? 

If we were to go in and ask for details, I think they might say, “Our sign is about grace.  Jesus paid the price for us to be made right with God.  Jesus offers us a ‘ticket’ into the pearly gates when we die.  Getting to go on this ‘trip’ has nothing to do with our own goodness and righteousness and everything to do with what Jesus died for us on the cross. THIS is grace!”

THAT... is grace? 
I know this sounds bad.  At the risk of Luther turning over in his grace and Paul slinging some skubalon in my general direction... If I am totally honest, I’m not so sure that the “trip to heaven” is free.  To make sure I am heard correctly, know that I am not gonna even come close to saying that we can earn our way in or that we can merit salvation.... EVER!

But, all that out of the way, I must ask, is it really free?

Is Jesus’ death and my belief in it a simple, cost-free transaction that provides me with a “ticket” of sorts to live eternally with God?
Well, I would like to believe that, but there is this pesky part of our Sacred Book that retells to us the story of Jesus, and it seems to present a different image.

Repeatedly in the Gospels we see this kind of interaction take place: When people find themselves intrigued by Jesus, desiring to know Him, eager to follow Him, passionate about learning from Him, etc. He looks deep into their life and demands that they pay a very heavy price to be able to follow Him!  For example:
  • Four men leave their family fishing business.
  • One man leaves his job as a wealthy tax collector.
  • One man is denied the chance to follow because he won't forfeit all this wealth and property into the hands of the poor.
  • One person is not allowed to return to say goodbye to their family.
  • A group is told they have to hate their fathers and mothers and children and their own lives if they want to follow Him.
  • Many are told that unless that give up everything they can’t follow Him.
Sounds to me like Jesus is not interested in handing out free tickets to anyone willing to confess that He is the Son of God.  As my church is seeing in our study of Mark, the demons are lining up, tripping over themselves, and screaming loudly their confession of this belief in Jesus.
Sounds to me like Jesus is only handing out tickets to people who bring Him everything they own.
So this leads us to the BIG question of the day...

Is the invitation to know and follow Jesus a free act of grace or is it a costly demand of obedience?

Put another way:

Is salvation something that costs nothing and is free for all, or is it available only for those willing to give up everything?

Part of the trouble here is in defining terms.  Just like my last post about how “Gospel” is poorly understood as a strictly religious term, this post asks us to rethink what we mean by “salvation,” “grace,” and, most importantly, “discipleship.” 

If we mean by “salvation” getting God’s “grace” and forgiveness which comes with the promise of heaven, then, the church's sign quoted above is appropriate.
But to define “salvation” and “grace” like that essentially means that we place a massive gulf between being “saved” and being a “disciple.” This says, essentially, that salvation is about sin and being forensically right with God and discipleship is a separate enterprise of Christian education.

So, under this understanding we would be able to say:
  • Salvation is a free gift of grace based on Jesus’ death aimed at making us right with God
  • Discipleship is a costly demand of obedience based on Jesus’ teachings aimed at us living as better Christian people
Jesus, I am suggesting, would not sign off on these two statements.  Here is why:

We will never pay the cost of discipleship until we understand that this expensive demand IS grace and that learning to live like Jesus IS salvation.

The cost is grace.  Discipleship is salvation.

We aren’t experiencing salvation just because we are forgiven.  We experience salvation when we are learning to live like Jesus.  We don’t touch grace in a free offer to go to heaven when we die.  We touch grace when we forfeit our old lives and take up a new life as an apprentice to Jesus in the Kingdom way of life.
So the “big question” of the day from above represents that we are creating a dichotomy that does not exists.  It is not free grace vs. costly demand.  The costly demand of following Jesus is the act of grace!

When Jesus walks up to us and demands the full forfeiture of our lives and possessions and sins and goodness, that is the moment when grace full and free is being offered.  You are given the chance to be an apprentice to the Son of God in Kingdom living.  There is no greater grace than that!  There is not salvation tasted, touched, and known apart from that.  To forgive us and yet leave us with no way of life other than the empty promises of affluence, the corrupting pursuits of power, the cancerous longings of acceptance, and the soul-deadening aim of success is not grace.  No, a "free ticket" is no grace at all.  It is a cruelty.  It acts as is "forgiveness" is the only need mankind has.  It leave unaddressed the corrupt realities for which we need forgiveness in the first place.  It makes we a saved person who lives a damned existence. 

I read this yesterday in The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves:

"One of the most difficult aspects of Christian life and ministry is how to understand the gospel through and through as gospel and not turn it into law, into obligation and into demand."

The Gospel is truly Gospel through and through - even in the cost of discipleship - because the greatest news, the greatest grace is that Jesus has invited us to throw away our old, useless, nothingness lives (all of it not just the sinful parts) in exchange for a Kingdom life - which we get to discover as His beloved apprentices!  And this Kingdom life will never end - only get better and better!  

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