Is God’s grace ever conditional? Is there a little box at the bottom of the salvation agreement that you must check, saying that you agree to abide by the terms and conditions?
If this sounds like a silly question—and it should—it is unfortunately a question that needs to be asked and answered, for in some Christian groups grace really does seem to have conditions attached to it. Classic five-point Calvinism, for instance, speaks of Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace i.e. that God chooses (elects) who is going to be saved and who isn’t, and he chooses according to his own reasons—or even whims—and there is nothing anyone can do about it. God either chooses you, or he doesn’t. And because God chooses and there’s nothing you can do about it, his grace is irresistible. If you are chosen, you will be saved, even if you don’t want to be. (To be fair, a Calvinist would say that if you are chosen, you will want to be saved, but the fact remains that whether you want to be or not is irrelevant. All that matters is whether God wants you to be saved.)
So election and predestination are unconditional, but grace isn’t. Its condition is whether or not you happen to fall into the “elect” category.
But I have no real beef with Calvinists. I don’t agree with them, but I understand their position. I have a lot of friends who are Calvinists, and there is much upon which we agree, and we work together in those areas.
More harmful are those who want to divide Christians into two groups, nominal Christians, and Real Christians—and who feel they can tell the difference. Depending on what is important to the individuals and the groups with which they associate, a Real Christian is determined by their position on certain doctrines, or certain political positions, or their views on evolution vs. creation, the nature of Scripture, or matters of church polity, even the style of worship music preferred.
It’s something that is easy to fall into. We all know people who appear to be going through the motions of following Jesus, but to all appearances are Christian in name only—hence the term nominal. And the more you dig into Scripture and matters theological, the more you tend to see some things as more central to what it means to be a follower of Jesus than others. And when other Christians seem to “major on the minors,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling somewhat superior. You know, they’re going through the motions while you are focusing on the stuff that really matters. Or even worse, that they are taking Christianity down a wrong or destructive path while you are trying to follow the true path of Christianity.
And that’s a very dangerous path to take, because even if you are right about the majors and minors—or maybe especially if you are right about the majors and minors, this is the path of self-righteousness.
In other words, you can be right about important things and still have a log in your eye (Matthew 7:1-5). And if you have a log in your eye, it doesn’t really matter how right you are.
The fact is that God’s grace isn’t conditional. It just is. It is who God is, and how God operates. His grace is unconditional, unlimited, amazing, overwhelming, comprehensive, incomprehensible—and absolutely necessary, for no one can be saved without it. In fact, Paul said that if grace isn’t unconditional—if there is something you have to do to get it, it isn’t grace at all. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:6).
Our challenge is to resist the tendency to receive grace unconditionally but give it conditionally. This goes not only for when someone sins against us or someone we love, but also for when someone simply disagrees with our cherished positions. To disagree is not to sin, and to feel or act otherwise is the ultimate log-in-the-eye position.
We who receive grace unconditionally must also give grace unconditionally, and that is hard, maybe the hardest thing in the world to do. But whoever said following Jesus was easy?
Ironically, those who have the most difficulty giving unconditional grace to others often have difficulty giving it to themselves. If being wrong about some theological or ecclesial matter is sin and grounds for disqualification from being a Real Christian, then you can’t afford to admit that you may be wrong. And you have to argue for your position even when it’s clear your position is untenable.
At any given time, all of us are right about some things and wrong about others. We shouldn’t get puffed up about the areas in which we are right nor down on ourselves where we are wrong.
Ultimately what’s important is not being right, but being in right relationship with a God of Amazing Grace.