God’s unmerited favor.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 November 2017

When the LORD chose Avram ben Terah, renamed him Abraham, Ge 17.5 promised him the land of Kenahan/“Canaan” and had him relocate there, Ge 12.1-3 and promised him an uncountable number of descendants, Ge 13.16 it wasn't because Abraham was a good man.

You might’ve known this, but in case you didn’t, go read Genesis again sometime. Most of the Abraham stories involve him screwing up one way or another. Abraham had loads of faith, but that was the product of his God-experiences; it came after God made all his promises. Abraham wasn't a particularly outstanding specimen of humanity.

So why'd the LORD establish a relationship with him and his descendants? Grace. Pure grace.

When the LORD sent Moses to rescue some of Abraham’s descendants from Egypt, patiently dealt with all these Hebrews’ misbehavior thereafter, and finally got their descendants to Canaan and helped them take the land, it again wasn’t because the Hebrews were good people. Read Exodus and Numbers: Without constant supervision, they’d go idolatrous within a month! Miraculously supply ’em with daily bread, and they’d still grumble they had it better in Egypt… despite all the slavery and infanticide. The Hebrews were just awful to their God. So why’d the LORD even bother with them? ’Cause he promised Abraham he would. Dt 7.7-8 ’Cause grace. Pure grace.

When Jesus decided to save me, what had I done to merit saving? Not a thing. I was a little kid. Not a good little kid either. I could be a tantrum-throwing brat when I didn’t get my way. (I still can be, which is why I gotta keep that misbehavior in check. God help my poor nurses if ever I go senile.) Plenty of Christians will easily confess they were just as rotten when they first encountered Jesus. Why’d he save us anyway? ’Cause he loves us. ’Cause grace. Pure grace.

Christians love to describe grace as “unmerited favor.” It’s more than that—it’s God’s entire attitude towards us, which includes unmerited favor. And often we forget the unmerited part: It really isn’t deserved at all. Totally unfair. Often inappropriate. It breaks all the rules of karma. We shouldn’t get it!

Hence there are a lot of people, Christians included, who still strive to achieve good karma. Who try their darnedest to be good people, try to balance out any bad in their lives, and make it so they do merit God’s good favor. Who think the whole purpose of good deeds is to make ourselves worthy of heaven. They forget God doesn’t work like that. At all. He forgave us already. He makes us worthy of heaven. Ep 1.15-23

Why? Nah; I’m not gonna repeat it just now. Go back and read it again.

When we try to earn God’s favor.

Have a conversation sometime with those people who are trying to merit God’s favor. You’ll find a lot of ’em make the effort because they originally weren’t good people at all. They’re trying to make up for bad karma. They were rotten people before they met Christ. Sometimes they’re rotten people now. But they wanna balance the scales, as it were. Good cancels out bad, and ideally they wanna have more good in their lives overall, and earn their spot in heaven.

Often something profound happened to them, and made ’em realize it’d be better for them to be good. Among Christians, that profound thing is usually a Christ-encounter: We met Jesus and learned he expects way better of us. But plenty other things than Jesus can get people to radically change. Profound loss. Profound gain. Near-death experience. Prison, riches, failure, success. Sometimes something just clicks in the mind, and people realize, “The world sucks, and I suck. I haven’t helped make things any better. I need to stop.”

However it happens, y’notice the reformed behavior has one thing in common: It started with that one “lightbulb moment.” You know, like the cartoon cliché… whether the artist draws a lightbulb over the head or not.

I give the Holy Spirit credit for this moment. Sometimes other people do; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they really won’t, and they’re still really annoyed with him about having to go through a hard time to begin with.

But the fact it turns around from bad, self-centered behavior into good, selfless behavior, means God’s grace has got mixed up in it. Doesn’t matter whether it’s saving grace; it may be nothing more than prevenient grace. But it’s all from God. These people were sitting in darkness, and they’ve seen light. Mt 4.16, Lk 1.79, Ac 26.18

And they weren’t shown light because they earned it. They hadn’t earned it. Bad karma, remember? Yet the Spirit showed ’em something which made them turn things around. Not perfectly; they’re never gonna get perfect till they actively trust the Spirit. Still, it’s a very similar experience to what we Christians experienced when the Spirit turned us around.

Titus 3.4-7 KWL
4 When kindness and love for humanity was revealed by our savior God,
5 it wasn’t from the righteous things we’d done.
Instead, he saved us from his mercy, by the Holy Spirit’s washing, rebirth, and renewal.
6 He richly poured out his Spirit on us, through our savior Christ Jesus.
7 Because we’re declared righteous by that grace,
we can become his heirs, and have hope of eternal life.

The only difference between their experience and ours: They’re still hung up on karma. They think they’ve gotta earn their way back into God’s, or the universe’s, good graces. It never sunk in that their lightbulb moment was the Holy Spirit’s attempt to inform them they’re never gonna make it. We need him!

Karma’s so prevalent in this world, so foundational to human thinking, it’s a huge hurdle to overcome. Even for lots of Christians, who still fall back into the world’s thinking, and try to remain good people lest we lose heaven. Who get mighty legalistic about it sometimes.

But it’s not how God’s kingdom works. Not a single Christian is getting what we deserve. Nobody but Jesus can brag about deserving our place by his side. Ep 2.9 None.

When we imagine God owes us.

Yet even among Christians, we find this poisonous idea of “I did what God asked of me. Therefore he’s obligated himself to do this for me.” We work out various bargains with God, and think we have merited his favor.

Note the quid pro quo is hugely disproportionate. What’d we do for God? Well, we offered to pray more often. Or go to church more regularly. Or give some money to the needy. And in exchange God’s meant to reward us with something major, like cure leukemia or keep us from going bankrupt. Or raise us from the dead and give us eternal life. Tiny effort, crazy payout. It’s like God’s a cosmic, but loose, slot machine.

These deals are so heavily slanted in our favor, we should recognize God’s not really making a deal with us. He’s tolerating our tiny token efforts, but he’s offering us so much in return. It’s kinda like a little kid telling his mother, “I want a puppy. If I give you what’s in my piggybank”—which is like $4.50 in change and washers—“will you buy me a puppy?” And she says yes. Not because a getting a puppy costs anything close to $4.50, but because she wants her boy to be happy (and totally realizes she’ll be the one feeding and walking and cleaning up after the dog), and the boy’s just so earnest about his wholly token contribution. In the same way, God puts up with our sad little efforts, pats us on the head, and gives us eternal life anyway.

He’s hoping we’ll realize this, and laugh about how immature we once were as new believers. Not turn it into a lifestyle, and institutionalize it as our new religion.

No no. God owes us nothing. He’s not trying to rub it in, and neither am I: He really does owe us nothing. But he wants to give us the kingdom, Lk 12.32 and we don’t have to work our way, or claw and scratch, into it. Ask and you’ll receive. ’Cause grace. Pure grace.