The apostle Paul describes the grace of God as “salvation-bringing” (Titus 2:11). Many in the church would say, “Well, duh, of course!” But let’s be sure to get as much of what Paul is implying as we can. In fact, everything depends upon it for the sake of the church, the world and for our own sake.
I would suggest that the grace of God is the eco-system in which “salvation-life” is birthed, nourished, sustained, matured, and fulfilled. Grace works powerfully and transformingly in our lives and world. It does or it’s not genuine grace.
When Paul says elsewhere, “It is by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:5, 8) he’s saying far more than he is often credited. He would insist that we find new life by grace and then live in new and different ways by grace, and then exercise telling influence or impact by grace—so that, over the course of time we actually participate in things only God can do.
We tend to recognize only one dimension of the grace of God. It is God’s kindness and favor extended to us—just because. It is the offer of another chance, a clean slate, pardon for any number of stupid or destructive or defiant things we’ve done. It is open arms eager to embrace us. Indeed, that is the grace of God. But that’s not the whole of God’s grace. God loves us and love always does something.
Grace is also the power of God at work in the interests of his love. On the strength of God’s grace therefore we are reborn, but on the strength of that same grace we also grow up, become mature, learn actually to live the Jesus life, learn and become adept at serving in partnership with Jesus. All this and everything else comes by grace.
There is much confusion about this. It is common, after the Protestant Reformation, to think that the opposite of grace is work or effort. But actually the opposite of salvation by grace would be salvation by achievement. Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to the notion that we could earn or achieve our way.
But grace works! It enlivens our capacity to cooperate with all God wants to do, to be an appropriate agent of kingdom power—power that transforms us and others as it works through us. That is why Paul can say work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Not that we must work hard because our salvation is questionable or up for grabs. Rather, the grace that saves works in us and with us and through us in saving ways. So, work it out. Cooperate fully with all the Holy Spirit wants to do in your life (see Phil 2:13 in this connection).
In his guidance to Titus, Paul says, grace trains us to say “No!” to ungodliness and worldly passions. Every addict—of whatever sort—who has entered recovery will tell you they once sincerely and deeply believed that what came to enslave them actually was good, right and true. They perceived their master as their great liberator and the bind they were in as the freedom they so desperately craved. But at some point they learned it was all a lie. It works the same way with the sin-addicted, which includes all of us. The true grace of God awakens us to reality; it enlightens our eyes to see that what we thought was sweet is bitter, what we identified as life is actually death, and then that same grace reprograms our hardware so that we more easily recognize reality and no longer want to be driven by the things that once dominated us and drove us. Finally, grace writes new software that permits us to live our lives with focus, according to what is right and in sync with the ways of God whose goodness and kindness make our life possible.
In many churches the only grace known is really just indulgence. You are OK just as you are. You blew it but that’s OK. It’s just the way you are. However you are is OK, just as however I am is OK. That is, in many churches denial reigns—just like the addict that can quit any time and is really in control. So members just continue to be themselves, nursing their sickness, dressing it up to look respectful, settling for little do it yourself projects to get us by, only to relapse to their same sick and unhealthy patterns of being and doing which everyone would like to change, even the sick, but which of course can’t really be changed. Most everyone says that Jesus is a lovely person and is after all our Savior and has made it possible for us to go to heaven some day, though they hope not too soon. The thought that they might actually live more like him seems attractive, but never really happens. They just put up with whatever in relation to themselves and one another. And perhaps they wonder why those on the outside do not see the wisdom of accepting their vision and joining their church.
What such a church needs is grace. Not indulgence, but grace. Indeed, the only we reason we are not more like Jesus and do not carry on the continuing mission of Jesus in powerful ways is that we really do not want to be or we do not actually know what grace can do. The grace of God that is salvation-bringing let loose in human life will shape that life into Jesus patterns.
We must be about such grace. It must be the air we breathe, the life-support and life-thrive system on which we depend.