How God gives: grace alone
It seems more than obvious to point out that we live in a world filled with conditions, limits and expiration dates.
We are used to being told to act now, to study hard, to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, to drive the speed limit, or else we will miss out on the deal, won’t do very well in school, will have health problems, or will be in danger of receiving a speeding ticket.
These are not bad things, not at all.
The reality is this: In the conditional world in which we live, we come to believe that we can add to -- or take away from -- our lives.
While not problematic in and of itself, the real trouble comes when we think we can add to -- or take away from -- how God relates to us.
We try hard to put conditions on how God loves, forgives and saves us.
This kind of thinking was not foreign to Luther as he grew up.
Teachings of the time
Living under the popular medieval theological idea that each person is to "do what is in one" (facere quod in se est), Luther was taught that God’s gifts were boarded up and unleashed only after a person did everything in their power. Then, and only then, would God "do the rest" by giving people what is promised.
Some use the image of a staircase to identify how God conditionally relates to God’s people.
God stands on the top step; people stand on the bottom. By doing what is in them, people are able to ascend the steps to God. When they sin, or don’t somehow do all that they can, they either stand still or descend the staircase away from God.
The image suggests that in our relationship with God we are engaged in nothing more or less than divine step aerobics.
The result of such "exercising" is that people are in terror about whether they have, indeed, done "what is in (them)" so that God, by God’s grace, can complete what we’ve begun.
This was certainly true for Luther. Completely terrorized by the possibility that he hadn’t "done what was in (him)," Luther spent hours on end in the confessional describing the ways that he had fallen short. By so doing, he was hoping that then he would know the fullness of God’s forgiveness and love.
What Luther found at the end of the day, though, was not that he was wrapped in what God gives by "doing what was in (him)."
The only thing Luther gained from doing all he had done was pure exhaustion and further terror from all of the divine step aerobics.
Luther discovered something that rocked his medieval worldview, and changed the way he -- and we -- understand how God gives to us. Luther realized that God doesn’t wait for us to do our part before God does what God promises to do for us.
Fully, Luther came to understand, God forgives, loves and saves us completely apart from anything we do or do not do. When this came to light, it was for Luther as if "the gates of heaven were opened to me."
Such news clangs in our ears, however.
"I have to do something," we retort. "God isn’t going to do God’s thing with or for us without our first believing, right?"
When faith -- or anything else God gives -- is turned from a gift God gives to something we need to do first to earn God’s favor, we reveal something rather telling about ourselves.
We do not trust that God gives as God promises.
We do not trust God.
This is the very definition of the confession, "We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves."
We actually like doing divine step aerobics, thank you very much.
We would rather live in the terror of the law than the grace of the gospel.
Yet God will not have it. God’s gifts are neither something for which we barter nor prizes which we have earned.
For when God gives -- and God does give, wholly and completely -- we, like Jonah, "come to ourselves." We are left awestruck.
Where and when we want to hop back on the staircase to do our recommended daily allowances of divine step aerobics, God is the one who makes a move.
God comes down the staircase, gifts in hand, ready to dole them out to us who are caught empty-handed.
When God reaches us, God hands them out, as the one who sews seeds.
God throws caution to the wind and hands out God’s gifts with wild abandon. Foolishly. Freely. For us.
When we speak of grace alone, we mean to say something unconditional about the way God gives to us who are not ready and yet waiting for God’s presence and work among us.
God gives. We receive. Fully and completely.
In this there is hope.
Paul Lutter is a visiting instructor at Gustavus Adolphus College. He is working toward his Ph.D. from Luther Seminary.