Philippians 3:8-9, 12
The gift of grace is central to the story through which Christians under-
stand themselves and how they are to live before the face of God.
Human beings, sinful human beings, are also justified sinners. But how
best to understand this truth about the grace of God and how best to
relate it to a godly life has been a matter for discussion and disagreement throughout the history of the church.
Transformation and Declaration
Forgiveness, as a form of love which is beyond good and evil is bound to be offensive to pure moralists. When we read the parable of the prodigal son and the elder brother, we cannot but sympathize a little with the elder brother who was offended when his father welcomed his returning prodigal brother with open arms and kisses. “These many years I have obeyed you and never disobeyed a command.” If this makes no difference, why be good? And at the same time the waiting father seems right when he says that it is fitting “to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and he is alive, he was lost and now he is found” (Luke 15:29,32). To make the grace of God, the justification of sinners, central in the Christian life is always to run the risk of offending the moralist in each of us. But to fail to run this risk is costly, for then we might become moralistic elder brothers and lose all sense of free grace.
There is within the heart of a Christian a permanent tension between the two ways of understanding the grace of God. We may, if we do justice to the concern for progress in the moral life, think of grace chiefly as the transforming power of God underlying and sustaining the believer in the long journey from sinner to saint. We may also think of divine grace as declaration rather than transformation: the pardoning word of forgiveness and acceptance of the sinner. From this perspective the Christian life is not so much a journey toward holiness as it is a constant return to the justifying Word of God. There will be progress but it is often hidden and imperceptible to our own eyes.
Each of these conceptions of the grace of God is necessary and central in the Christian life. Each affirms that Christians live sola gratia (by grace alone). When, however, we emphasize grace as transforming power, our attention is directed to our need for and the importance of sanctification. Life is a journey toward holiness, empowered by the Spirit of Christ. When we emphasize grace as an announcement of our acceptance our attention is constantly redirected to the promise that Christ’s holiness is our by faith alone. Life is a constant struggle to trust that we are what we seem not to be: righteous in God’s eyes. Neither emphasis is free of danger. If grace is primarily a word of pardon to which sinners constantly return, we leave ourselves little hope or opportunity to speak of progress or growth in grace in the Christian life. Any language that speaks of development of the self becomes suspect, for grace as pardon and acceptance suggest a continual shattering of the self and a negation of its achievements. But on the other hand, if grace is chiefly the transformation of the sinner’s life through the power of Christ, we may at times seem to make grace conditional. Anders Nygren noted how a moralist might rewrite
Jesus’ story of the prodigal son, telling of “a father whose son had wasted his substance with riotous living in a far country and then returned to his father destitute but with good intentions; but the father, who knew from experience what such good intentions are usually worth, met his son’s entreaties with the stern reply, ‘My house is closed to you until by your own honest work you have earned a place for yourself and so made amends for the wrong you have done’: and the son went out into the world and turned over a new leaf, and when he afterwards returned to his father he thanked him for the unyielding severity that led to his recovery, unlike the foolish softness and weak indulgence of some other fathers, which would have let him continue in his prodigal ways.” Is this a gracious father? Some might argue that these are not the conditions for regaining the father’s favor but rather are a description of the kind of son who would want it. This kind of reasoning undermines grace and the unconditional acceptance of the sinner.
Because neither understanding of grace is free of danger and distortion, perhaps it is necessary to use both ways of understanding and characterizing grace as both pardon and power. To try to rid ourselves of this tension by elevating one over the other leads to moralism/legalism on the one hand and cheap grace on the other. Justification, the pardoning word must be distinguished from but never separated from sanctification, grace as sanctifying power (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:10).
Gift and Task
The tension between these two ways of describing God’s grace is often put in terms of a tension between gift and task, indicative and imperative. If we understand grace as transforming power we will be attracted to the commands which direct us to needed transformation, but God may seem to be more of a lawgiver than a lover. It may seem more obvious that He commands what He wills than that He gives what He commands. If, on the other hand, we understand grace as pardoning declaration there may seem little need for moral exhortation. Yet in the New Testament and especially in Paul’s letters, indicative and imperative stand side by side. “If we live by the Spirit (indicative) let us walk by the Spirit” (imperative) (Galatians 5:16). Both gift and task are affirmed and the tension seems firmly in place. It is legitimate then, to speak of grace both ways and any attempt to overcome this tension loses the Gospel.
The grace of God is pure, unconditional gift—acceptance, forgiveness, pardon and justification. The grace of God is also the transforming power of the Spirit, committed to renewing, empowering and sanctifying those He has pardoned. From the perspective of the goal toward which God works, gift and task are one. Not one in the sense that gift is the announcement of a new taskmaster, but that embedded in the imperative is the divine promise to transform that imperative into a future indicative. Put another way we can say, command what You will and give what You command. Thou shalt is not only a command, it is a promise. Paul underlines grace as gift and task in Philippians 3:8-9,12 by proclaiming grace as acceptance of Christ’s righteousness and a sense of imperfection which calls for progress in the Christian life.
For believers there can be no easy resolution to this tension. Assertion of the task will often seem to “swallow up” the gift but will in reality awaken a sense of the need for a renewed appropriation of the gift. And in the same way, the gift, when really experienced as grace, will seem to require no imperative as a spur to action. Good works will flow spontaneously. There is no way to overcome this tension within our lives. The best we can do is to embrace both gift and task, pardon and power, indicative and imperative.
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