Theology Matters

Faith Virtue Knowledge


Grace #2: An invitation or an obligation?

I have to be honest. I have really wrestled with this post. In my introductory post to this series, I suggested that the revival of interest in the subject of God’s grace which has occurred in the church over the last couple of decades was sorely needed. But I also suggested that we may be missing something. I don’t at all mean that we preach a half-truth when we say that God’s grace invites us to come as we are, and that there is nothing that we can do to earn or deserve it; it comes free of charge.

“So what’s the problem and why the wrestle?” you might ask.

Well, let me ask a question. How do you imagine the parable of the prodigal son ending? I mean, it doesn’t really end, does it? The younger son goes off into the far country and spends his inheritance on wild living—the inheritance that he had the gall to ask for while his father was still living. He recognises his mistake only when he runs out of money and comes back to the father’s house repentant, begging to be taken on as a servant. His father forgives him and reinstates him as a son. And that’s it—o, except that the older brother is annoyed and won’t join the homecoming party, even at his father’s invitation.

But how does it end? I mean the day after the party. Do you imagine the younger son waking up in the morning and asking for more money so that he can leave again? I imagine him waking up in the morning overcome with gratitude that he has been reinstated and, well, acting like a son again. Of course, if he did wake up and ask for more money and take off again, I’m pretty sure that the father’s heart would again be broken and the father’s arms would again be open. But the son would be missing out.

So here’s my problem.

We all know deep down that a gift creates an obligation. “But wait a minute?” I hear you ask. “That’s not always true. What about Christmas? Surely Christmas is a time to give without expecting anything in return?” Sure, but most gifts at Christmas time (I would say all, but I won’t argue with you if you disagree at this point) are given in the context of an expectation for a gift in return. That’s why so much work goes into arranging a ‘Kris Kringle.’ “Ok, I’ll get one for him, and you get one for me and he can get one for her.” And that’s why you are embarrassed when somebody who you had not thought to get a gift, gets you one out of the blue.

Sometimes this obligation works against us, like when marketers offer us something for ‘free’ in the hope of using the hook of reciprocity to persuade us to purchase something of far greater value. But sometimes the obligation itself works in our favour, like when our parents give us music lessons that obligate us to practice. And sure, as many of us have found, we don’t have to do the practice, but if we don’t, we haven’t really properly received the gift that we were given, have we?

Obligation is a dirty word. Maybe people in our generation are not motivated by duty as people used to be. I don’t know. But I do know that I hate being told that I have to do something, or even that I ought to (that I am ‘obliged’ to). I’d far rather want to. But is it the same with God’s grace? Does the free gift of God’s grace obligate us? In my next post, I am going to continue wrestling with this concept by looking at some scriptures that do seem to imply this. Rom 8:12 is a good starting point if you are interested in sharing your own thoughts in the comments. But for now, let it suffice to say that I believe God’s grace saves us freely, and yet saves us for a purpose. Paul says it better in Ephesians 2:8–10:

For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Sure there are good works to do, but the gift of God’s grace is best seen as an invitation not an obligation. The Bible refers to this invitation as a ‘call’ or a ‘calling.’ God has chosen you. God has called you. God has a purpose for you. The question is not whether or not we want to do the good things that God has called us for. Philippians 2:13 makes it clear that God works in us to give us the power both to want what he wants for us, and to carry it out. The question is how we will respond to God’s gracious invitation.

I’ll continue this series in the New year (beginning late Jan). Thanks for reading, and for your comments and feedback thus far. God bless you this Christmas.