For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Sometimes when I’m doing a Bible study with a new group, especially a group that’s been involved in the Church for a while, I’ll open with an activity that asks some a couple of questions. I usually start with the easy one, “What is it you can do to make God love you less?” The answers are pretty predictable, with most Christians (and Lutherans in particular) rushing to affirm that there is nothing they can do to make God love them less. That’s absolutely true, of course, and I’m glad they’re starting from that place. There’s a powerful security in knowing that our sins are powerless over us and that the things we do no longer have the ability to separate us from the Love of God.
The second question, though, always gets the more interesting answers. It’s the kind of question that keeps us awake at night. “What can you do to make God love you more?” There’s usually an uncomfortable silence, followed by some tentative, convicted suggestions. We could read our Bibles more often. Come to church more often. Help other people more. I could teach confirmation class, because surely that’s worth something, right? There’s so much good that we know we should be doing, and deep down we can’t help but see that and wonder if we’re not disappointments to God. Maybe if we’d just step it up…
But that’s not the story of Grace. If Grace can be earned in any measure then it’s no longer grace we’re talking about, is it? If any part of this whole salvation thing depends on me then I’m in trouble. As Brennan Manning puts it in The Ragamuffin Gospel, I’m “an inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off [his] cracker.” I mess things up. I vow to get serious about serving God, and I do, for a few…um….seconds. In the end, though, it falls apart, and I’ve got nothing to depend on but Jesus and his Grace. The Reformers reflected often on this reality, and even included it in the three Solas, the foundational statements of faith. Sola Fides. Sola Scriptura. Sola Gratia. By Faith alone. By Scripture alone. By Grace alone.
If there is a single central truth to the Reformation, it’s that God has given you a new identity in your baptism and it’s that reality that gets lived out in obedience to him.
But it’s not in my nature to accept gifts gracefully. I want to be worthy of them. And so I flip the equation. I begin to live as though I can prove my identity by my behavior. If I just do the things a Christian does then that will mean I’m really a Christian, right? And, if I follow that broken though process to its conclusion, if I behave as a Christian and show that I truly am one, then I’ll know that God loves me. He’ll have to, right? I’m living the right way, so He must love me. Unless He knows about… Or He saw me that one time… Or He heard me saying that one thing to… Soon enough my victorious walk with Christ looks more like crawling deep in the mud.
But we serve a God who redeems people from the mud. Who picks us up where we’re at and loves us with an infinite love revealed in the Person and Work of Christ. Rest easy, dear friends. Not only is there nothing you have to do to make God love you, there is nothing you can do. You are beloved, just as you are. You have been redeemed, just as you are. You are free. By Grace alone, you are free.