In Gentle and Lowly Dane Ortlund wrote, “He [Jesus] sends his grace to us, personally, individually, eternally. Indeed, he sends himself—there’s no such ‘thing’ as grace …” (p.211).
Yes, Jesus shares God’s grace with us by the Spirit, so divine grace is his expansive love. And while we may recognize many special acts of divine grace, together they represent God’s self-giving in Jesus. The gifts—or “graces”—must not be seen to be independent from the source.
I wrote “Living Grace” in SG in February 2013 to say as much but the insight bears repeating. Life-changing faith—trust—comes alive once we recognize and respond to God’s grace. This is his doing, not ours, as Paul made clear in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Yet portrayals of grace as tangible gifts are all too common. We see this in the Lord’s Supper when the bread and wine are elevated as sacred elements—“sacraments”—to convey grace to participants. So, too, among Protestants grace has been tied to human acts. Bible reading, prayer, church attendance, and more, are said to be “means of grace.” There is also a view that God “infuses enabling grace” in some souls so they can achieve salvation. It serves as a divine power that achieves a required “act of faith.” Spirituality, then, is based on grace-aided steps to carry the elect soul to heaven. God gets ultimate credit for giving the power, and believers get credit for applying it to achieve faith.
What’s the issue? Just this: it misses the heart of the Gospel.
First, any call for human assistance in salvation remains a quid pro quo version of faith. It relies on a condition the person meets. Whether by participating in a Mass. Or, among Protestants, by requiring an act of faith. Even if God gets most of the credit in the arrangement the outcome is not one-sided. And the person still sees his or her role as pivotal. God may be the major partner, but he calls for our effort. This presumes a transactional version of grace.
Second, there are questions of how sin is defined and resolved through transactional grace. Sin is viewed here in a problem-and-solution symmetry, just as medicine operates in a diagnosis and cure symmetry. Grace is God’s means to approach sin as a moral disease needing a cure. And behavioral sins reasonably call for behavioral solutions through reformed human choices. A prooftext for this is 1 John 3:4—“sin is lawlessness.” So, law-keeping is the obvious solution.
But free grace, by contrast, meets the problem-solution symmetry at a different level. Motives are recognized as the basis for behaviors. So sinful actions are merely presenting issues that reveal underlying motives—products of ungodly hearts. And hypocrisy is a term for changed activities that hide unchanged motives or desires. This problem isn’t solved until a new “heart” with new motives is formed. Only Jesus, by his Spirit, can perform this supernatural surgery by his sharing his captivating love. This is grace, and faith is our response.
Here are some real-world contrasts between transactional grace and free grace.
We start with Jesus. Does faith feature Jesus as a captivating companion and Lord? Or does a person or community view faith as a creedal affirmation? Is faithful church attendance the main point of Christian life? Or is church attendance a life-sharing time with others in growing closer to Jesus? Is Jesus, in other words, a beloved personal companion? Or an instrument needed for assembling faith? Without the former, living grace is still missing.
Next consider the fabric of faith. If we ask friends about their personal spiritual lives do some answer with activity reports? Or with testimonies of lively spiritual communion? Living grace always prefers the “who” of Jesus over moral reforms. Think, for instance, of the shocking difference between Barnabas over against Ananias and Saphira at the turn of Acts 4 and 5. The difference was in their separate points of devotion. The joy that comes when a spiritually lifeless soul meets Jesus—even if it took place years ago—is a common link for those who know him as a living grace. He remains the perpetual touchstone of active faith.
Another distinction features the Bible. Is Bible reading a duty or a delight? Does it stir the heart, even in hard times? Jesus tells us he is available in the entire Bible. And in the Bible he emerges as a companion, and not as a distant icon. When the Spirit is active in a life, he faithfully invites believers to “taste and see the Lord is good” throughout the Word
Finally, an ultimate sign of authentic discipleship—noted by Jesus in John 13:35—is the shared, mutual love of all who know him. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This unique bond ensures the felt “koinonia” of Christ’s love among all who share in his living grace as he forms loving communities by the Spirit. Yet many professing Christians still fail to display his love, so it becomes a way to sift and sort faith claims.
In returning to Ortlund’s contrast between grace treated as a “who” versus a “thing,” we see his point as a decisive feature of true faith. And an invitation to move from one view of Jesus to another once we see the difference. By God’s grace the Spirit awakens hearts to recognize the Son’s transforming love. And it always invites a response. Always, and in every way.