// law, grace and running

There’s a particular Christian acronym, that’s been around for a while, which keeps rearing its head from time to time. It did so this morning, in fact, while i was talking to a friend of mine about this blog post. “What should i say about grace?” i asked him. I’m not a systematic theologian, and i can’t hope to compete with some scholars, whilst he, instead, is in his final year of an Oxford theology degree. “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense”, he dutifully answered. (That’s the acronym, by the way. Look again.)

There it was, then. One of the most astonishing concepts of the Christian faith reduced to a pithy, five-word statement. And that, i think, is what gets me about that phrase – not that it’s not useful as an exposition, not that it’s not concise, but that it reduces one of the most truly amazing facts of all time into a soundbite. It sucks the poetry and depth out of grace. It has appeared, verbatim, in worship songs. It is, from the outside of the Christian sub-culture, virtually impenetrable (if there are any non-Christians out there reading this, by the way – do you have any idea what “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense” actually means? Christians, do ask them…). And, most frustrating of all, it treats grace as something that is over, a formulae outworked 2000 years ago into which equation we simply have to find our place. Bear with me a second on this, as i’m going somewhere.

What does grace actually mean? Not just in a, ‘let’s practically outwork this theological concept’ sort of way, but really, how would you explain this central part of the Christian faith?

Think about that, now. Please, do take the time to do so. See if you can. It’s not easy, is it? It’s certainly not easily reducible.

Grace starts with God, not us. Yes, it starts with Jesus dying on a cross. With God making a way for us to draw near to Him, forgiving us from our failures to be able to follow Him. But that is His choice, not ours. When Paul writes to the Ephesians, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God,” he reminds us that it is God’s choice to allow us to draw near, God’s choice to choose forgiveness, and to keep choosing forgiveness. It’s not just a theological formulae that He’s ‘locked into’, it’s a consistent decision on the part of God, born out of His particular motivation, and we need to stop thinking that we have earned it. All of this, the chance to draw near at all, comes from Him. Still with me?

Given that we have been set free and are being set free, then, maybe the reason behind my dislike of “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense” becomes clearer. It makes it seem like grace is simply a done thing, which we accept and then get on with living morally, as yes, we were saved undeservedly, but now that’s done. The theologian Karl Barth saw it differently. He claimed that “God’s free grace is God Himself in His most inner and essential nature, God Himself as He is…” – that God keeps choosing, by his very nature, to have grace; to draw near and allow us, a broken, battered, sinful people to draw near to Him. “We never have it,” he said of grace, “it can only be shared with us ever anew… and we must plead, pray, and give thanks as though it were ever totally new and quite foreign to us…” Grace is God’s continuing and consistent decision to look on us with no condemnation (see Romans 8:1), to accept the sacrifice made by Jesus on that cross.

The best i can come up with in any definition of grace is this, then: “totally undeserved action, motivated by love”. Less catchy acronym, i’ll admit, but with that same dimension of active grace. And we need that dimension if we’re to be any kind of graceful Christians at all. If grace is just a state, a formula, then it doesn’t require us to modify the way we act or relate at all… But if we see grace as God’s active choosing, then we see a sense of how we are called to live that grace, too:

Loving those who the world sees as totally undeserving of love.

Going the extra mile for those who will never reciprocate.

Choosing to serve, even if we are never appreciated or rewarded for it.

This is not ‘cheap grace’, this is immensely costly grace. But it is life. Pete Greig tells the story of falling in love with his now-wife, Samie, on a year-long training program run by the Pioneer church network, moments after signing a contract prohibiting dating relationships for the duration of that year. When she went to her mentor to talk about ‘Section Six’, the paragraph prohibiting such relationships, she was met with the response, “forget it! What do you and Pete want?” She then found herself discussing the pros and cons of entering a relationship in that period and deciding against it, seeing the value of that law as a way of life apart from the binding condition to follow it.

This is “the moment where the ‘should’ of law becomes the ‘could’ of grace”, as Pete puts it. When you start to accept that you have been forgiven, and you will continue to be forgiven, because of that ‘totally undeserved action, motivated by love’ (aka. “grace”), then you start asking questions. Like, what is the best way to live this life? What value is there in not having sex before marriage? What is the rationale behind blessing those who persecute you, loving those who hate you? If you can freely do the opposite to the law, then what is the motivation that set out those laws in the first place?

And if you investigate that motivation, i’m fairly sure you’ll find that it’s a good one.

I was thinking about this as i went running the other day. I’m currently revising for my final exams, and since i started i’ve resolved to do eight hours work a day. As a result, i’ve not been running since i started, about a month ago, as there’s just not been time – i get home, decide to run and then am too tired, or too stressed, and end up doing an extra hour at my desk instead. It wasn’t until i asked myself what the motivation behind that eight-hour rule was that i really saw how mad my perspective was. It’s to make sure that i do enough work to prepare for what those exams throw at me. But my rules made that a brutal, mechanical grind. I was exhausted, but rigidly keeping to my eight hours a day, at least.

It was remembering that nothing is owed; that working to that extent is good, but not the final end of my life; and that there is freedom to choose – it was all of those things that made me evaluate whether or not to run, and in the end it was a good decision, even if it meant that i only did seven hours work by the end of the day. Running round Christ Church meadows felt like freedom, a remembrance of the value both of work and of relaxation…

Much as i hate twee Christian analogies, it was that which made me think. Nothing is owed. But nothing is owed because of the choice of a God to keep forgiving, to keep acting in grace, motivated by love, in order to allow us the freedom to see that it is Him who saves, to choose to choose Him.

I don’t know that what i just wrote answers any questions at all, even the ones i originally posed; doubtless i just violated a number of major theological doctrines. If i did, or even if i didn’t, i’d appreciate your thoughts on how we express this vital fact. But i hope it provides a fresh appreciation of grace, if nothing else, as i know one thing – i’m still in awe.

I hope that you are too.

    • Simon
    • April 19th, 2009

    As your representative non-Christian reader: nope, no idea. I can see how grace could be considered one of your god’s virtues, but how is it at Christ’s expense?

    [read rest of post]

    This seems to be a different definition of grace to the one I knew, which was pretty areligious. You explained it pretty well, though…

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