I recently had a conversation with an atheistic Facebook friend about the nature of grace. By his own account, “JH” isn’t too keen on Christianity in part because of the hypocrisy he sees between the stated views of many Christians and the observable actions of those same Christians. If Paul’s contention is correct wherein, “It’s no longer [I] who live, but Christ who lives in [each and every Christian]” (Gal 2:20), then perhaps it only stands to reason that outward behaviors and actions are the result of inward belief. As such, perhaps it’s fair to make judgements regarding the validity of the Christian life based on the disconnect JH sees as to what Christians say versus what those same Christians do. To me, the problem is misdirected attitudes about a holy God based upon the behaviors and actions of God’s creation who nevertheless are saved from their sins but still exhibit a sin nature.
In any event, JH is always good at bringing up thoughts and considerations I would not have otherwise entertained. He forces me to think about and defend my faith. I enjoy my periodic chats with him and thought I’d post a portion of a conversation centered around the grace of God.
JH: It’s my opinion that grace would likely be a combination of good deeds and right actions in the pursuit of Christianity. Grace isn’t some fat slob driving around in their Ford-F150 with a bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” I’ve always had the impression that Jesus would demand more of people than simply getting a membership sticker for their soul. That can’t be all that Christianity requires of its adherents.
Bob: Here’s the definition of grace found in my NIV Topical Bible: “Grace is God’s life-transforming gift of his favor to those who don’t deserve it. The gift of salvation and forgiveness of sins is available for all who through faith accept his grace revealed in Jesus Christ, but so many miss the gift because they rely on themselves and try to earn grace by keeping the law.” As such, grace can’t be earned through actions, good deeds, tithing, or anything else. However, as it says in James 2:17, “Faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” I therefore think it’s more accurate to say that one’s actions, deeds, behaviors, etc. are the outward expression of God’s grace from within.
JH: I have to believe that there’s more effort [required] than simply announcing you’re Christian and then continuing with the same crappy behaviors as you did before. If that’s true, then Christianity truly would be a club I’d never want to belong to. I’d never want to spend an eternity with the likes of the scummy people who’d be there.
Bob: The Bible is pretty clear in saying that according to God’s standards, all of our righteous acts (good deeds et al) are like filthy rags (translation: used toilet paper). Christ came to bridge the expanse between a holy God and a sinful creation. It’s a free gift and one can accept or reject it. When one accepts that free gift, it IS a life-changing event and the good deeds (which I believe should naturally follow) come about because God’s love is the “fuel” to motivate believers into actions. Something IS wrong if one claims new life in Christ and continues with their crappy behaviors as before.
JH: I just can’t see that grace is that simple. If one isn’t living up to their beliefs, then one is a crappy Christian.
Bob: Perhaps the feelings I experienced when watching my kids being born are some small semblance of how God feels towards us. There was NOTHING I wouldn’t have done for that child the moment they entered this world. That child hadn’t earned or done a blessed thing. But there I am, loving it with all my heart and willingly giving that child everything I have. And even when one of them grew up and became an angry and drug-filled alcohol-laden teenager (which is true), I still loved him in spite of the heartache that he brought. Through all those difficulties and disappointments I only wanted the best for him and I was more than willing to do whatever I could to help him even though he continually rejected me. Put another way, God’s grace to us is perfect and unwavering. However, because of our sin nature, our response to God’s grace is, well, most of the time disappointing and leads to the hypocritical examples you’ve previously sited. Admittedly, Christian hypocrisy is an open sore. Everyone sees it. Everyone hates it. But the cure isn’t to “try” and “do” better. That’s nothing more than “works”. Rather, the solution is to submit to the love of God and allow God’s love to permeate through one’s life and flow out of the believer into the actions, behaviors good deeds, etc that people see.
JH: What non-Christians want most from Christians is simply to be left alone. We know about Jesus. We know about Christianity. We have a good idea as to what Christians think the “rules” are. But we aren’t interested. Is Christianity making you happy? Is your life better off because of it? If the answer is “yes,” then we’re happy for you and we might even be willing to take a closer look. However, if the answer is more along the lines of what is seen in Christians most of the time, we have to wonder why – trade the thing I have for something that looks like that? Christians range from very good people all the way down to the Westboro Baptist Church types.
Bob: Reading your last comment, an analogy came to my mind regarding Westboro Baptist Church. Think of it this way – the Christian faith is the absolute most delicious and plentiful food imaginable. And, it’s always available. Unfortunately, there’s something utterly gross, rotten and stinking to high heaven in the fridge. And, when we’d love to open the fridge to get a chunk of Christian faith, we can’t get past the smell of Westboro. On that point, I don’t think the Westboro types diminish the Christian faith – even if their actions truly stink up the place. Rather, I think the actions of the Westboro types more accurately reflect a lack of Christian virtue within their lives.
JH: There are many of us who aren’t Christian who’d be more willing to think about Christianity. But we remember the last thousand times Christians have tried to inflict their morals on us, called us devil worshippers, harassed us at work, knocked on our doors, left us tracts, wrote letters to the editor, or called for our death or imprisonment. I think everyone agrees that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. I still can’t see that grace is that simple. Or rather, as you imply, grace just IS – by definition. I still think if one isn’t living up to their Christian tenants, then one is a crappy a Christian like, well, most of the Christians out there.
So, how best does one follow-up or otherwise continue this conversation? I’ve heard Bob George, author of Classic Christianity, give an analogy how it’s the same sun that both hardens clay and melts wax. His inference, I think, was that God’s mercy tends to harden some individuals while at the same time it also has the effect of humbling others to their own sin and the need for a savior. Are discussions such as this counter-productive? Maybe JH’s heart is hardened against Christianity to a degree that he can’t contemplate that peace that passes all understanding because of what he sees as the outward behaviors and actions being the definitive “result” of “being a Christian”.