The Grammar of Grace

Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating good news? It all depends upon how we understand the dynamic of grace. 

Augustine of Hippo, the great theologian of grace, as depicted by Sandro Botticelli, 15th century.

Several years ago, when I was seeking my first position as a pastor, I was asked what I thought was the top theological issue in our world today. After some thought, I answered that for me it was how we relate Christian behavior to the life of grace.

I felt then (and I still do) that most American churches get it wrong, not in the words they use, but in their actions. They preach salvation by God’s grace, but practice a life that the Protestant Reformers called salvation by works. That creates huge amounts of anxiety in people’s lives. It also drives many away from organized religion.

It’s an irony, of course, because some of the most heated debates in the Reformation were over this very question: How are we saved? Or more crudely, how do we get on the good side of God? By works of righteousness that we perform or by God’s free gift (grace) that we appropriate by faith? The Reformers answered with the latter option. That conviction is supposed to be one of the distinctions of Protestantism.

Yet for many American Christians today, the Reformation debate feels hollow. It sounds like just another of the Reformers’ interminable doctrinal food fights. That’s because we can no longer connect the theological language in which the debate is worded with our lived experience.

A Need for Relearning

To use a metaphor, we no longer understand the correct grammar for talking about grace. Grace still tends to be a warm and fuzzy word in our religious vocabulary. It resonates with good vibrations. We’re just not sure what it means. So it is easy to misuse it. And when we do, we can mess up our lives badly. We need to relearn how to use it correctly.

It helps to begin with the origin of the word. The English word grace comes from the Latin word gratia, which means literally favor, kindness, or esteem. Ultimately behind the Latin lies the root meaning of pleasing. Gratia is the favor or kindness we feel when something or someone gives us pleasure.

When we apply the word grace to God, we are talking about the favor, the kindness, or good esteem that God shows to us. We are his good creation. He declares us very good, at the end of the Genesis creation story (Genesis 1:31). And so, I believe, we give him pleasure.

Not everyone agrees. Several years ago, my sister told me a story about an incident in her church. A young couple came to church one day with their newborn baby. Church members crowded around to ooh and ah over the child. They kept saying what a beautiful baby it was.

After several minutes of that, the father suddenly burst out: “This child is a God-damned sinner, and he will go to Hell someday unless he gets saved.” My sister, to her credit, was shocked just as I am by his outburst. Yet it is a common theological belief in many religious circles.

I contend its understanding of God and God’s attitude to humanity is simply wrong. We may stray from God’s way of life and despoil his good creation. But that does not transform God’s attitude from one of love to one of hate. We remain objects of God’s love, because we are God’s good creation, no matter how badly we screw up. He continues to love us and seeks to restore us to wholeness.

Challenging a Twisted Belief

Most of us, however, develop the twisted belief that we must do something to make this hating God love us, to make God look with favor and good esteem on us. We hear this belief often expressed by people in church when they say they try to live good lives so they will make it into heaven when they die.

So we struggle hard to achieve that acceptance with God. Such a belief makes perfect sense to most of us, because it is the way a lot of the world works — the world in which most of us live and do business. Advertising, for example, would have us believe that if we don’t wash our hair in the latest and greatest shampoo, we will not be attractive and will therefore not be loved.

I see this twisted belief at work all the time in the corporate world, where I spent 30 years of my working life. There it is standard operating procedure.

People get promoted to a higher status in their companies allegedly on the basis of their achievements–or in corporate language, on the basis of their performance. If I reach executive status in the company, it is because I have performed exceptionally well in lower positions.

This is the dynamic of un-grace. It can be stated very simply: I am what I am because of what I do.

Have you ever noticed that at social occasions when we are introduced for the first time to a stranger, the first question we usually ask is: What do you do? That’s because in a lot of American life our identity is tied up with what work we do. In some other circles our identity is linked to the family or tribe we belong to.

The besetting vice that accompanies this dynamic of un-grace is pride. If my performance achieves me my status, then I can rightly feel proud of what I have achieved. Maybe that’s why we Americans are so afraid of being called a loser. We are obsessed with winning, because our status and respect in society depends upon it.

The Gospel Reversal

The Gospel turns this dynamic on its head. I do not attain my status in God’s sight because of anything I do. Instead, I am chosen by God and adopted into God’s family by his redemptive work in Christ. For the Christian, the sign and seal of that adoption is the sacrament of baptism, which unites us to Christ through trusting faith.

The fact there is nothing I do to achieve this status is particularly striking when baptism is performed in infancy. When our parents present us for baptism, God adopts us as his own. We become children of God because God acknowledges us as such, not because of anything an infant does. All the infant may do is squeal when the water is poured on its head.

Once we are members of God’s family, there are behaviors that grow out of our status.   We are called to live in a particular way–a way that is described in our ethics, our spiritual disciplines, and in our worship practices– but these ways do not achieve us our status before God. They are responses to the status conferred on us at baptism.

In the realm of grace, behavior grows out of who we are. Here the logic in its simplest is: We do what we do because of who we are.

Let me repeat this contrast.

The way of the world is expressed in the formula: I am what I am because of what I do. I achieve my status of acceptance with God by how I live my life. This way of living is what our ancestors in the Reformation meant when they denounced salvation by works.

The way of the Gospel is expressed in the formula: I do what I do because of who I am. I am a child of God by God’s initiative. All I have to do is gratefully accept that gift of status that God confers. Once I do and begin to realize the depth of this truth, my behavior is going to change, but as a response to the gift God has given.

This is how I understand what the Reformers meant when they upheld salvation by grace through faith. God adopts us into his family by his gracious, free initiative. When the prodigal son returns to his father, he is received joyfully as a son, not as a slave, because he is in fact already a son. The father throws a party. All the son can feel is humility and immense gratitude before his father’s amazing graciousness.

When we understand the correct dynamic, then what the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10 explodes with new meaning for us:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

The Importance of Knowing the Correct Grammar

 Getting the grammar right in how we talk about grace is so important because it makes all the difference in how we experience the Gospel. Is the Gospel a depressing burden or exhilarating Good News? Something we dread or something we welcome with joy? A way to death or a way to overflowing life?

When the Gospel sinks deeply into our consciousness, we act the way we do not out of a sense of deadening obligation, but out of thankfulness and gratitude for what God has done for us. To be honest, however, as we start out our Christian lives, that sense of thankfulness and gratitude that lies behind our behavior may feel somewhat forced. That’s because we still carry within our psyches lingering feelings of obligation.

But as we grow more mature in our spiritual lives, the Spirit begins to dissolve those feelings of obligation and transform themselves into traits of character. We do what we do naturally and hopefully joyfully because it is what we have become. Our honest desire is to be who we are.

And that is what freedom becomes for us. We realize that God has all along been inviting us to enter into the freedom of being fully who we are. We are truly amazed by God’s grace. Our behavior becomes one part of our sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.

A Prayer that Exemplifies the Grammar of Grace

This is so beautifully caught in one of my favorite liturgical prayers, the Prayer of General Thanksgiving, a prayer written by a Church of England bishop in the 17th century.

The prayer goes like this:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thy unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving kindness to us and to all. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. But above all for thy inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

 At this point the prayer makes a significant shift.

 And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful and that we show forth thy praise by giving up ourselves to thy service and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ our Lord to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.

This prayer gets the grammar right. We thank God for his many gifts, especially for the gift of redemption in Jesus. And we pray that the way we live our lives – in what the prayer calls holiness and service — may be an expression of genuine, felt-deep-in-the heart praise and thanksgiving to the God who graciously redeems us and makes us whole.

We can return to this prayer again and again when, enticed by the delusion of salvation by works, we find ourselves losing our bearings within the Christian life. It will remind us of the correct grammar.


God’s Law as an Ice Cream Sundae

In its attitude towards Torah, Psalm 119 easily throws us off balance.

One of my pleasures in life is eating an ice cream sundae. Take some chocolate ice cream, pour on some melted marshmallow, pile on the whipped cream, and top with a maraschino cherry. I don’t often indulge in such pleasure. My weight control discipline won’t allow it. But when I do, it is sheer delight.

This image comes to mind when I read Psalm 119. This is the longest psalm in Book of Psalms–176 verses. It is an extended celebration of Torah.

Most Bible translators translate the Hebrew term Torah as Law. That has precedent in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. Certainly Torah has many laws, precepts, and commandments. The ancient rabbis are said to have identified 613 in that most narrow of meanings of Torah: the five books of Moses that open the Hebrew Bible.

But Torah means literally “instruction,” and includes the narrative portions of the Pentateuch as well as the legal portions. As Judaism developed, Torah grew to include the oral Torah as well as the written Torah. This development found its definitive expression in the Talmud. So in many ways, I think it is legitimate to understand Torah as the whole extended theological tradition of Judaism, something that extends beyond just the laws and commandments themselves.

Psalm 119 is like one exuberant aria celebrating Torah. But the psalmist particularly has the legal portion of Torah in mind, as we see the many synonyms he uses for Torah. They include: commandments, ordinances, precepts, statutes, as well as promises, words, and testimonies. He seems especially focused on the Torah’s guidance for behavior.

An Unexpected Way of Looking at Torah

Now here’s the unexpected thing about Psalm 119 that can easily throw many Christians off balance. We have a long tradition of looking at the Jewish Torah as an oppressive, deadening legalism. We think it is a burden, whose function is primarily to instill a sense of guilt. That view of Torah has a long history in Christianity. It finds particular expression in the characteristic way the Protestant Reformers played off law against grace.

But when you read Psalm 119, you find none of that depressing spirit. For the psalmist, Torah is the joy of his life. When I read the psalm, I am struck by the repeated use of the word “delight” in the psalmist’s description of the Torah. In the Revised Standard Version translation, we find the word in 119:14, 119:16, 119:24, 119:35, 119:47, 119:70, 119:77, 119:92, 119:143, and 119:174.

Along with these verses are a number of verses where the psalmist declares how he loves Torah (119:47-48, 119:97, 119:113, 119:119, 119:127, 119:140, 119:159, 119:163, 119:165, 119:167). In 119:111, the psalmist asserts that Torah is the joy of his heart. In 119:127, he says he values Torah higher than fine gold.

And in 119:103, he says:

How sweet are thy words to my taste,

                        sweeter than honey to my mouth!

It’s as if Torah is this particular person’s ice cream sundae.

Many Christians find the psalm unnerving. How can anyone say such startling things about something as oppressive as the Mosaic Law? Does the psalmist have some warped sense of value?

Judaism as a Religion of Grace

To appreciate the psalmist’s sentiments, a lot of Christians are going to have to radically revise the way they look at Jewish Torah. For what the psalmist does is show us how Judaism is as much a religion of grace as is Christianity.

How can I say that? It is important to reflect carefully on how the Bible pictures God’s giving the Torah to Israel. The gift of Torah comes at Mount Sinai after Moses has led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and in the years following. It is important to notice the dynamic of the Biblical narrative as we have it in the five books of Moses.

God does not give Torah to Israel before its liberation from Egypt. God does not give Torah to Moses at the burning bush and then say to Moses, “Take this law to my people Israel in Egypt. If they obey it, then I will come and release them from their bondage.” If that had been the case, liberation would have been conditional on Israel’s obedience. Torah would indeed be legalism, and Israel’s religion a religion of works righteousness, to use a favored Protestant theological term.

No, God liberates Israel from Pharaoh’s tyranny, brings them out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, and there creates his covenant with Israel, with Torah as part of the gift of this covenant. Obedience to Torah had nothing to do with Israel’s liberation. Its liberation is an act of God’s sheer grace, of his faithfulness to his own promises.

But now that Israel is free, how will it sustain its freedom? How will it avoid falling back into the behaviors that would re-establish the kind of bondage they experienced in Egypt? Torah is the answer. In its laws and commandments, Torah establishes a way of life, a way of behaving, that offers assurance that Israel can preserve the freedom and liberation God has given it.

Yes, there may seem to be some strange laws in Torah that Christians don’t understand how they sustain freedom. I cite the commandment not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19). But the heart of Torah is its many regulations for ordering Israel’s relationship to God and the relationship of Israelites with one another. Jesus will later summarize the focus of Torah in the two summary commandments: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Torah gets specific about what that means in practice.

When Israel fails to live by this structure of law, it gets itself in trouble. That becomes clear as you read the Old Testament prophets. Their denunciations of Israel revolve around two major sins: the apostasy of idolatry and social injustice.

Torah as God’s Good Gift

So in this Biblical perspective Torah becomes a great gift. It points the way to fruitful living. It is wisdom. We hear that theme ringing through Psalm 119.

I will never forget thy precepts;

            For by them thou hast given me life. (119:93)

I will keep thy law continually,

            for ever and ever;

and I shall walk at liberty,

            for I have sought thy precepts. (119:44-45)

We live in a world today where many people regard religion as a form of oppression. I think that is the view of religion that most people have in mind when they say: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” For them, religion consists of a mass of obligations, dry rituals, guilt-producing preaching, and hypocrisy. They cannot imagine the traditions and rituals and morality practiced by historic religions, like Christianity and Judaism, as anything being near to liberating. Give us instead something freer, a spacious but largely undefined spirituality.

That is not the attitude, however, of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 119. In the commandments, the statutes, the precepts of Torah, he finds something that allows his spirit to soar. As a result, he breaks literally into song.

How can we recapture the spirit behind his song? I think it means we must get in touch once again, at a very deep existential level, with an experience of God’s saving grace. Only when we know that at his very heart God is a God of love who yearns for the best for his people can we begin to appreciate how the doctrines, rituals, and moralities that express our understandings of his grace can become life-giving and freedom-sustaining.