“You are under no obligation to God,” the speaker’s words rung out through the hotel ballroom. I was surrounded by women, all busily taking notes and listening with rapt attention, but I couldn’t get past that one statement. Without even really knowing why, I suddenly found myself very, very angry.
“You are wrong!” I shouted at her in my head. Christ had died for us; he had saved us! Of course we were obligated to him! I owed him everything; my life, my heart, my family, my actions. The very least I could do to repay him was work hard to serve him. Who was she to say that I didn’t have an obligation to God?!
But the speaker went on. You see, she explained, we are under no obligation to God because he’s not asking us to repay him. We don’t owe him anything because we have no debt. God, the creator of heaven and earth, the savior of my soul, was not asking me to pay him back because his rescue of me was not a loan. It was a gift. What she was talking about was grace; she was teaching us about the gospel. I didn’t want to admit that she was right, but I knew that she was and it stung. I knew the gospel, I had studied that gospel, I had even taught the gospel, but suddenly I was faced with the fact that I had not been living it.
A Gospel of Grace
There, in that ballroom, I wrestled with God. Not the soft arguing of a simple disagreement. No, it was the gut-wrenching, to the depths of your soul wrestling that comes from the dark places of the heart. Yet despite my protesting, God broke through. His voice of peace spoke to me; his whisper was grace.
Grace, that unmerited favor, that unearned gift, is a word and concept often tossed around in Christian circles. It is easy to talk about, but hard to really grasp. I became a Christian when I was a child. I believed in Christ’s death and resurrection to save me. I knew that salvation is through grace alone. And while I understood that there is nothing I can do to earn my way to God, I had certainly been trying. Not trying to earn salvation, so much as desperately trying to pay God back.
Somewhere along the line, the shame I originally felt at my sin (and rightly so) had been replaced by shame I felt for my need. I didn’t realize it before that day, but I had become deeply ashamed of the fact that I couldn’t do it on my own; and I have a feeling I’m not the only one. We live in a culture that praises independence and builds up self-reliance. Asking for help is seen as weakness and accepting it can be downright disgraceful. Yet that’s what the gospel is all about!
Grace Upon Grace
Enter into this realization John’s startling statement in John 1. He’s introducing us to Jesus Christ. He tells us about the creation of the world and the incarnation and then, in verse 16 he says, “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (ESV) In Christ, fully manifested as God and man, we have received not just grace, but grace upon grace.
When I first came across this passage I assumed John was using repetition to emphasize the amount of grace offered by Christ. I thought he was essentially talking about that never-ending, unquenchable fountain of grace found at the cross. And there is that; the grace found in Christ’s death and resurrection is infinite. But this passage is actually about much more than that.
You see, John goes on in verse 17 to add, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (ESV) John isn’t merely emphasizing the quantity of grace brought by Christ; he’s contrasting it to the grace found in the law. In fact, some translations of verse 16 actually say, “grace in place of grace.”
John is making the point that there are two major types of grace. The first is the grace found in the law of Moses, because yes, the law was grace. It was a means by which God worked to show his people their need. The law pointed towards a day when Christ would come and finally atone for sin. It was, “our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified through faith.” (Galatians 3:24, ESV) The law of Moses was a grace, but Christ, in the fullness of his incarnation was the fulfillment of grace. As John Piper says, “… Moses points to grace, but Jesus performs grace.”
Living Under Grace
Christ’s death and resurrection was a one-time, it-is-finished atonement. He covered and paid for all the sins of all his people. No more sacrifices, no more blood, no more debt. It is done. There was nothing we could do to earn salvation (for none of us could keep the law nor achieve perfection), and there is nothing we can do to pay him back. That last part was where I was stuck. I knew I was saved, knew that Christ did it all, but still felt so ashamed of my need that I was altogether focused on trying to pay him back.
For me, and for many Christians today, it is easier to live under the law than under grace. The law gives us something to cling to in our humanness, and we trick ourselves into thinking we can help in the salvation process. But Christ did it all! Living under this second grace, however, means living each and every moment in the realization that we had a deep need and it has been met by our God. This is both awesome and humbling!
That day, perhaps for the first time, I began to understand that salvation doesn’t just cover our sin, it covers our shame. Christ wasn’t surprised by my need; it’s what brought him here in the first place! What’s more, he isn’t surprised by my attempts to pay him back. But repaying him is not what he wants from me and it’s not what he’s asking from me. In fact, John goes on to add in verse 18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Not only does grace save us, grace lets us see Christ for who he really is.
When I chose to stop trying to pay God back and humbly brought my shame to him, I saw Christ in a deeper way. I was set free from the burden of obligation and able to love him more. That is what he wants! He wants us to see him. The daily life of a Christian isn’t about working to repay Christ for what he did; it’s about seeing him for who he really is. We are under no obligation to God, rather, we are drawn by grace, by grace upon grace, to sit at his feet and worship him.
By Elizabeth Garn