I listened to a program that featured a Christian and a Mormon debating the concept of grace. The Mormon representative delivered a grace with which I was very familiar, as it exactly mirrored the Church of Christ idea of grace I have known since I was a child. While the debate, itself, wasn’t particularly enlightening, it did get me thinking about the subject.
I am very familiar with the main formulations. I find Calvinism vs. Arminianism debates quite entertaining, and most on point. Listening to people debate Paul vs. James can also be rather enlightening. But the epiphany I had when taking in this particular debate was that I had absolutely no idea what any of it actually meant. The more I study grace, the more nonsensical it seems. I’m not sure how I ever thought I understood it.
Though different groups pour different meanings into the words, everyone seems to agree that grace is a free gift from god to humans. This is the gift of salvation, as without it, everyone would be lost (burn in hell, live eternally without the presence of god, be completely annihilated). Salvation and condemnation are yet more concepts different groups apply different meanings to.
But the more I study grace, it strikes me that it is neither free, nor a gift. And it seldom ends in salvation, whatever that happens to mean. Obviously, I’ve got some unpacking to do:
Free as in Beer
I don’t at all understand the literal imagery of this expression. But I know what it has come to mean. Free as in beer suggests that something is absolutely free with no strings attached. Not only is there no up front payment, there is never any expectations for payment, or even appreciation after the beer is drank. Free as in beer is as free as it gets.
When Christians talk about salvation being a free gift through grace by faith, they seem to have a very different idea of free than I do. Even as a Christian, I always struggled with this one. The formulation I learned is that salvation is the free gift of grace. But you had to receive the gift through certain fulfillment mechanisms.
We were careful not to label those fulfillment mechanisms as works. But we definitely understood that there was something we had to do in order to take possession of the free gift. It is not that we earned the gift in any way. We didn’t. We just had to take possession of the gift. Make no mistake about it: The gift was still free.
Receiving the Gift
One of the quiet scandals of the gameshow: The Price Is Right, is that many winners couldn’t claim their prizes because they couldn’t afford the taxes on those prizes. Yes, the prizes were free. But they still had to pay the California state tax.
A more common example you may have experienced happens when you order something from TV. Often, there is a free gift with your order to incentivize you. When you have a representative on the phone, they tell you that all you have to do to receive the free gift is pay the shipping and handling. Shockingly, that shipping and handling fee is often the real, hidden price of the free gift. No S&H fee, no free gift.
At that point, it becomes a matter of semantics. How much do you have to do before the gift is no longer free? I am reminded of the classic Nigerian scam. Some wealthy royal is escaping from a desperate situation, and needs help moving his substantial cash hoard. He offers to give you a lavish reward if you help. He just needs you to send a small amount of money in U.S. currency for whatever transaction fees he concocts. To receive your free gift, all you have to do is send him a few hundred dollars. What a bargain!
For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that there really is a substantial reward at the end of the deal. It still wasn’t free. You had to pay to get it, just like you have to pay the gameshow and the S&H fees. Semantically, the Christian can say that salvation by grace is free. But the loophole is that you have to do something in order to receive it, to claim your prize. You either have to be baptized so you can come in contact with the cleansing blood, or swear fealty to Jesus, your new king and master, or profess belief in propositions you can’t square with the facts. There is always something that you are expected to do to receive your free gift.
It gets even worse, and more confusing…
The Pearl of Great Price
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid. Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything he had and bought it. Mt. 13: 44-46
I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand these parables. I can only tell you how I understand them based on study, and how they have been taught over the years. The treasure and the pearl represent the kingdom of god. We are meant to be the person who finds these treasures. To truly possess the treasure, it costs us everything we have. These treasures (gifts) are so valuable, no one could possibly pay the true price. To obtain it, you must give (pay) everything you have.
The interesting thing about the gospels is that Jesus never talks about grace. He tells some to keep the law in order to be saved. To others, he says if they love him, they will keep his commandments. Both he and his predecessor required their followers to repent and be baptized to be saved. In the above passage, salvation costs more than belief, repentance, and confession. It costs everything you have and are. That seems like a pretty high price for a free gift.
The Gift that Keeps on Taking
When a gift is not really free, it’s not really a gift. The moment I make a payment to receive it, it is no longer a gift. It is merchandise. I now have a contract that states that when I perform an action, you have to make delivery of your promise. When I pay shipping and handling, the free gift had better show up. Semantics aside, what we have is a two-way contract, not a free gift.
God’s free gift is even more problematic. We can understand why there has to be some kind of fulfillment clause among humans. If I offer every person in the world a dollar, it is reasonable that I require them to send me an SASE. I’m only one person. There isn’t enough time left in my life to address 7 billion envelopes. As humans, we have limits. God does not.
This is where the charade gets just a little bit transparent. God doesn’t have to require us to pay a state tax, or shipping and handling, or provide a self-addressed stamped envelope. We don’t have to seek him, or decide if he is even real. We don’t have to believe in him or trust him. If he wants to give everyone in the world a free gift, he can just do so without drama or fanfare.
If he wanted everyone to be saved, everyone would be saved. There is no need to jump through fulfillment hoops. He requires artificial fulfillment clauses precisely because he does not want to give his pearl of great price away for free. He does not want to give what is holy to the dogs. He wants us to show that we are worthy of the gift for which we can never be worthy. By definition, god has made certain that his gift is not free.
He has also made certain that his gift is not actually a gift. It is not just that we have to pay something to receive it. We also have to go on paying after we have supposedly received it. I say “supposedly” because there is no verifiable, extrinsic, measurable sign that we have received anything other than a good feeling.
We don’t get any added health benefit, as well still get sick and die from the same diseases as everyone else.The lifespan of the believer is not longer or happier than anyone else’s. Their finances are not any more stable. Their marriages are not any more secure. Their kids are not any smarter or obedient. Their parents suffer from the same geriatric issues. There is simply no received gift that can be externally demonstrated.
The big gift is eternal life. Of course, there is no way to verify that gift without first dying. Once dead, there is no coming back to verify the gift for someone else. Your only gift is something that you cannot verify, and is highly doubtful. And for that gift, you are expected to do an awful lot.
A Life of Sacrifice and Self-denial
Jesus tells his disciples they have to take up their cross and follow him. What kind of gift is it that requires the most loyal to carry an instrument of torture and death for the rest of their natural lives? Paul put it this way:
You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted… 2 Tim. 3:10-13
Paul made a point of his many sufferings so that he could pay it off by saying that every godly wannabe has to likewise suffer. Forgive me if I remain unsold on this gift that is starting to look a lot less like a gift. If my salvation has been completely paid for by the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus, why am I expected to pay through my self-denial and suffering?
There is an even more troubling aspect of this gift. If this grace thing is really a gift, who is the giver, and who, the receiver?
An Eternity of Obedience, Worship, and Devotion
Jesus says that if we love him, we must keep his commandments. Does this ever stop? Will we always have to be subject to his commands even in heaven? Is there ever a time when we can say, “Nope. I think I’d rather do something else”?
One of my secret fears as a child was that I would go to heaven, get conscripted into the choir, and be stuck singing praise anthems to god for the rest of my eternal life. Is there a time when you can duck out of the song-fest and go shoot pool with some of your buddies? In heaven, can you have any conversation other than about how great god is, and how thankful you are to him for his free gift?
If life on earth is any indication, probably not. Once we have taken possession of our free gift, we are to be in a constant state of thanksgiving, prayer, and remorse for our sinfulness. We are never to trust inner own understanding. We are never to plan to do anything without first acknowledging that we can do nothing if it is not god’s will that we do so.
The advice of Ecclesiastes is that we should fear god and keep his commandments. This is the whole duty of man. Paul says that for him to live is Christ. And for him to die is gain. It seems that the only one getting a measurable benefit from the free gift is god.
He gets willing receptacles for his disembodied spirit. He gets us to give him money instead of the other way around. He gets us to volunteer our lives whenever he needs a sacrificial lamb. And he gets an eternity of worship, praise and sycophantic devotion. Even if we do get eternal life in the bargain, it seems god is getting much more. He is not giving us a gift. He is giving us a bill. And we will be paying it for the rest of our natural lives. Count me out!
Conclusion: Candy from Strangers
Why do believers accept this idea of a gift so uncritically? We look gift horses in the mouth everyday. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. When did we stop believing that? We know about cons and scams. If you believe in cosmic, otherworldly beings, why could there not be cosmic, otherworldly scammers?
The promise of heaven and eternal life in a state of undefined bliss sounds a lot like candy from a stranger. At least then, you get the candy. Religion promises so much more, demonstrates no ability to fulfill it, and requires that you give all that you have to obtain it. Isn’t it reasonable that we ask more information about this god who speaks to us in parables through ancient intermediaries?
As I have already made clear, I don’t understand the grace thing. It is a free gift for which I don’t have to do anything. Yet if I insist on living my own life on my terms, then I don’t qualify for this thing that god so desperately wants me to have. No, I don’t understand it at all. I don’t see how it’s free. And I don’t see how it’s a gift. But even if I did, I don’t believe it!
I don’t believe there is a reward waiting somewhere in outer space for those who live their lives in a particular way. I don’t believe that there is anything beyond the grave. I don’t believe there is a hell from which to be saved. If there is such a hell, I do not believe that the human sacrifice of an ancient, Middle-Eastern man can do anything to help me avoid it.
I don’t believe any of it. There is simply not sufficient evidence for me to do so. It is not that I haven’t tried. But if there is a god who represents a universe where all of these things are true, he knows exactly how to reach me. He knows the kind of evidence that would convince me. If he was interested in saving me, he would not try to do so by the equivalent of offering candy from a stranger.
He intentionally and consistently avoids allowing me to see any evidence that I would find persuasive. He will not do for me what he has supposedly done for so many others. He will not appear to me. He will not talk to me. He will not even give me a hallucination. He will not give me an argument that I can’t easily defeat. He will not give me an unmistakable sign, or even a feeling.
Contrary to the song I sang for so long, his grace most certainly does not reach me. And I suppose that is a good thing. Because like the prizes on the Price Is Right, I couldn’t afford it anyway.