We’re wired for transactions. For giving-in-kind. This is true from almost the minute we’re born, making sure the cookie is split evenly and everyone gets a go. We say things like, “I owe you one,” when someone does us a good turn. We bristle when someone complains about something they’ve been given. We don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. We are told to be gracious, not to be too demanding, and to take pride in that which we have made or earned or done for ourselves.
Funny thing is, we can bring this same mindset to our relationship with God.
We hear it expressed in different ways. Sometimes it’s to the effect of, “God will accept me because I’m a good person on balance.” On balance, meaning you do more good things than bad. Sometimes it’s more overt, doing good things specifically to outweigh the bad things. It can be a sense of needing to suffer for our sins, to sit in shame for hurtful things we’ve done or said to another. You can even hear it in those desperation prayers of “O Lord, if you’ll do [x] I promise to do [y]!” It’s hard to find fault with this model in some ways, because it’s so familiar to us. It’s like walking up to the cashier, money in hand, and trading it for something we want or need.
But there are a few problems with this idea of grace.
It assumes I can afford it. Luke 7 has a parable that likens sin to a debt that all of us “were unable to repay” (7:42). It doesn’t matter the size of the debt, either in absolute terms or in comparison to others around us. Sin represents an insurmountable debt before a holy and perfect God. No quantity of good deeds could ever counterbalance it. We just don’t have it in us. If we did, we would have no need of a Savior.
It assumes I have something of value to God. God is all-sufficient. He’s not helped along if I give up something I enjoy or sit in church for the next fifty Sundays in a row. Isaiah wrote of this: “Bring your worthless offerings no longer” (1:13) and “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment” (64:6). If I’m selling something I own, then the buyer has to bring me enough money or goods in trade to make it worth my while. Otherwise it’s not a fair transaction. But we have nothing in us or with us to entice the Almighty into action.
It begins and ends with me. I think this is probably the most appealing aspect. If I want to go buy something, I decide to do it. If I don’t want it, I don’t go. The transactional model is based on my action, my initiative to complete it. At the very least, it’s dependent on mutual action – I do this for you, you do this for me. But, as we saw in the prior two points, what I want is too large and what I have is too small for any deal to be negotiated. The idea of grace from Scripture is very different from this. See Ephesians 2:4-5: “God, being rich in mercy… even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)”. Dead people can’t do for themselves! Have a look at Romans 5:6-8:
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
There you have it! It’s not a transaction at all. It’s the work of God, offering up salvation through His grace. He’s not holding it out there, measuring our goodness against an arbitrary scale with a prize only for those who can get it. It’s a gift of life offered to those who have no hope of achieving it on their own. It’s not an offer-in-kind, because God doesn’t need me. He doesn’t need you. He offers life to each of us out of His great love. Period. End of story.
Are there ways you hold to the transactional idea of grace?