Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God. (Isaiah 50:10)
I recently reread What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey. Many will recognize Yancey as a devoted follower of Jesus and a gifted writer. He is a natural storyteller with a wonderful ability to catch and hold our attention. I have read a number of his books and will continue to do so in the future. However, in What’s So Amazing About Grace he writes, “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more … And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” This is hardly a radical statement for Evangelicals. For example, I heard Rich Nathan, Sr. Pastor Vineyard Columbus, say essentially the same thing in a sermon – “Nothing we do can make God love us more and nothing we do can make him love us less.” For many fundamentalists, this is probably as close to extra-Biblical “black letter law” you will find. A seemingly straightforward paraphrase of the good news of the gospel.
Now I don’t want to be too picky about theological matters on which I am not qualified to opine. And I certainly don’t want to take a heretical stand on a popular and oft-pronounced mantra of our faith. And yet, my mind seizes whenever I hear this repeated because it seems so contrary to Scripture. Moreover, it has enormous practical consequences for how millions of Christians are (or not) living out their faith.
Contrary to Scripture?
On its face, the statement is contradicted by much of what we read in the Bible. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more? There is nothing we can do to make God love us less? Really? The Old Testament tells us that God loves the righteous and hates the wicked. There are far too many examples to make this even debatable. The Psalms are particularly pointed, “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne. He observes everyone on earth; his eyes examine them. The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion. On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot. For the Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.” (Psalm 11:4-7) And again, “For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness; with you, evil people are not welcome. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence. You hate all who do wrong; you destroy those who tell lies. The bloodthirsty and deceitful you, Lord, detest.” (Psalm 5:4-6) And yet again “The Lord loves the righteous.” (Psalm 146:8) There are many other such statements.
Old Testament examples are not limited to the Psalms. Consider, “Here are six things God hates, and one more that he loathes with a passion: eyes that are arrogant, a tongue that lies, hands that murder the innocent, a heart that hatches evil plots, feet that race down a wicked track, a mouth that lies under oath, a troublemaker in the family.” (Prov. 6:16-19) And again, “The Lord declares, ‘Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated’” (Malachi 1:2-3) And this is not to overlook God’s judgment on those who did evil in his sight – for example, “Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) Hardly the stuff of a God whose love is disconnected from how we live our lives.
And lest it be supposed that Jesus somehow changed all of this, consider how he tied the Father’s love to our obedience, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John:14:21) And again, “Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23) Jesus instructs his disciples to remain in His love, which is done by obeying his commands. Jesus thus implies that they (and we) can fail to remain in his love, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.” (John 15:9-10).
A similar thought is stated by Jude, “But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.” (Jude 20-21) And Peter is most direct in contrasting God’s love for the righteous and his judgment on those who sin and otherwise follow the desires of their flesh, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment.” (2 Peter 2:9)
In fairness, there is a valid Biblical interpretation of “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we can do to make God love us less,” which involves a warning and a promise. The warning, “there is nothing we can do to make God love us more,” is directed towards those who suppose that they can earn their salvation by their own works and not by the grace of God. Indeed, a seminal verse for the Reformation is, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Forever foundational to our spiritual life is that we are saved by faith in Christ, not by ourselves. And so we take it as a warning that we cannot earn our salvation, it is solely by God’s grace.
The promise, “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less,” is that no matter how far we have fallen or for how long we have strayed, there is always a heavenly Father ready to welcome us home. Captured well in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), Jesus describes the heart of God to those who are lost, come to their senses, and return to Him. To hear that God still extends his love to us despite the awful things we may have done, is the amazing hope of the gospel.
Unfortunately, the foregoing interpretation must be teased out of the words, since the natural reading clearly suggests that our actions count for nothing, meaning we gain nothing (as far as God’s love is concerned) by living a virtuous life, and lose nothing by indulging in a profligate lifestyle. While God may prefer that we act in a certain way, at the end of the day he is generally indifferent to our actions – at least insofar as our “salvation” is concerned. And this I believe is the state of mind of many in the church today, which is empirically reflected in the similarity of lifestyles between many professing Christians and the culture in which we live. Not that there is an aggressive pursuit of sin as such, but rather that there is not a pursuit of virtue, which often amounts to the same thing. Virtue, you see, does not happen automatically. As noted by N.T. Wright, “The qualities of character which Jesus and his first followers insist on as the vital signs of healthy Christian life don’t come about automatically. You have to develop them. You have to work at them. You have to think about it, to make conscious choices to allow the Holy Spirit to form your character in ways that, to begin with, seem awkward and “unnatural.” (After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters)
In truth, we live in an age where many in the church understand the pursuit of virtue (obedience) as a “nice to have” but not an essential part of their salvation. Such pursuit being at best a sideshow to the main act of being “saved,” which often reduces to only a heartfelt profession of faith. But, as Dallas Willard has asked rhetorically, “Can we believe that being saved really has nothing whatever to do with the kinds of persons we are?” He has written, “The sensed irrelevance of what God is doing to what makes up our lives is the foundational flaw in the existence of multitudes of professing Christians today. They have been led to believe that God, for some unfathomable reason, just thinks it appropriate to transfer credit from Christ’s merit account to ours, and to wipe out our sin debt, upon inspecting our mind and finding that we believe a particular theory of the atonement to be true – even if we trust everything but God in all other maters that concern us.” (The Divine Conspiracy)
The conundrum for many thoughtful Christians is how to square the agape (unconditional) love of God with the plain teaching of Jesus in the Gospels? Because nowhere does Jesus say that our actions do not matter to God, or that God is indifferent to whether or not we pursue him and a life of virtue. To the contrary, Jesus insists upon trust and obedience to him and the Father, with the promise of a full and abundant life for those who do. Indeed, Jesus teaches extensively on living a life of virtue – from honesty and purity, to kindness and humility. He shows us the futility of focusing on outward appearance over the greed and self-indulgence within. He calls us into radical discipleship with the promise that those who follow him through obedience will know the truth and experience real freedom. He commands us to love others. He blesses those who care for the destitute and hungry, and affirmatively disowns those who don’t. (Matthew 25) All of this he did during an earthly ministry that commenced with a call to repentance and ended with a commission for us to teach the way of obedience.
I submit that what makes God’s love unconditional is that he extends it to all without condition. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son … ” (John 3:16) And, “while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8). God makes the first move and he never wavers. However, in order to realize his love, we must receive it by faith expressed through obedience. But therein lies the rub. Many Christians today either gloss over the meaning of faith, redefine it to mean some form of mental assent, or understand it as trusting in Jesus for life after death but not life today. James, of course, makes it clear that faith and action go hand-in-hand. And in this way he affirms the two great non-negotiables of the Gospel of our Lord, namely, trust and obedience – pillars of our faith that line the narrow path of discipleship.
Still, many Christians become uneasy when the pursuit of virtue is mentioned in the same breath as eternal life, for fear of the heresy salvation by works. But consider what bad news it would be if eternal life were disconnected from a life of virtue. Holding aside the words of Jesus (indeed the entire Biblical record) that conjoins a life of virtue with a life with God, the practical consequences of not trusting and obeying Jesus portends bad news for all. The idea that a person can live life as they please and have heaven to boot may seem like good news for them but is actually bad news for everyone else. It would be like a student thinking it good news to be awarded an MD without attending class, studying or passing any exams, which would obviously be very bad news for the doctor’s patients. Similarly, it may seem like good news to receive eternal life without any real commitment and effort towards trusting and obeying God, but those who live this way are going to be very bad news for all of those around them.
No Other Way
The fact is that we all must choose whether or not to pursue a life with God. He doesn’t force himself on anyone, but has given us freewill to accept or reject His love (grace) – a love that He extends to us freely and unconditionally, but that is realized by us only through trust and obedience. Indeed, our spiritual journey is reflected in how we receive his love – it is a narrow way we must follow as we repent (turn) from an old life focused on ourselves to a new life of trust and obedience to him. In the words of the honored hymn Trust And Obey – “there is no other way!”
When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word, what a glory He sheds on our way! While we do His good will, He abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey.
Refrain: Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies, but His smile quickly drives it away; not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear, can abide while we trust and obey.
Not a burden we bear, not a sorrow we share, but our toil He doth richly repay; not a grief or a loss, not a frown or a cross, but is blessed if we trust and obey.
But we never can prove the delights of His love until all on the altar we lay; for the favor He shows, for the joy He bestows, are for them who will trust and obey.
Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet, or we’ll walk by His side in the way; what He says we will do, where He sends we will go; never fear, only trust and obey. (John Sammis, 1887)