Have you ever felt like you are not good enough? Maybe you’ve wondered if God is disappointed with you? Are you tired of your failures? Do you feel like you are on a hamster wheel, struggling to make progress in life, stop a bad habit, become more whole and healthy, be more consistent, stop a sin, think more purely? But you watch yourself mess up again and again. Ever been there?
I’d like to ask you to continue reading this post, to learn how to get off the hamster wheel. One word is needed: grace.
This week here and here I’ve mentioned that the concept of grace was so foundational for Martin Luther’s decision in 1517, and the years that followed, to make a break from the Catholic church. But what is grace? “Unmerited favor” is a very common definition. As I researched grace, I found so many wonderful definitions that expanded this definition. Maybe one of these will really be meaningful to you.
“God giving what is not owed.”
“God extending himself toward others.”
“God sharing his Fatherly love for creation in the Son through the Spirit.”
“God sharing his own perfect life with those who are not perfect.”
“God remaining fully himself, yet freely taking the initiative to share or communicate himself with those who have turned their backs on him.”
“The way in which God extends himself to the world so that creatures can come to know and love him.”
I think my favorite is from John Stott, who said that grace is, “love that cares and stoops and rescues.”
As you read those conceptions of grace, maybe you’re thinking, “Those are nice, but I was already pretty familiar with the concept of grace. What is the big deal?”
If you think something like that, I wouldn’t fault you. We Protestants have been exposed to it for 500 years. But for Luther, this was a major eye-opener. One of Luther’s main concerns was how to understand a concept the early Christian writer Paul talked about in the Romans, the concept of “the righteousness of God.”
In Luther’s era, which was the late Medieval period, it was common to understand righteousness as what a person did to make themselves acceptable in God’s sight. In other words, if you follow God’s Law, they thought, you will be OK. But all his attempts to be a good Christian, to follow God’s Law, left Luther with a nagging fear that he wasn’t doing enough to truly make himself acceptable in God’s eyes. Luther’s response: try even harder. So Luther practiced spiritual disciplines like you would not believe. If prayer and fasting were Olympic events, Luther would get a gold medal. But still it never felt to him like he was righteous enough.
Martin Luther himself once noted, “The Law says, ‘you must do this,’ and it is never done.”
But something amazing happened as Luther was studying Romans. Right in the middle of his fear that he was not righteous enough, Romans suddenly took on a new meaning to Luther. In Romans 4, through Paul’s teaching of the story of Abraham, “righteousness” is described as credited to those who have faith. Righteousness, therefore, is not something we can earn.
Remember the verse I mentioned yesterday, Ephesians 2:8-9? “For it is by grace you have been save through faith, not by works, it is the gift of God.” Paul’s teaching in Romans 4 and Ephesians 2 transformed Martin Luther’s perception of Law, righteousness, and grace. That meant his relationship with God was changed. God’s grace wasn’t something that Luther could manufacture. God’s grace is a gift to be received.
Earlier in this post I said that Martin Luther himself once said that “The Law says, ‘you must do this,’ and it is never done.” That was only half the quote. Luther adds, “Grace says, ‘believe in this’ and everything is already done.”
Maybe you have found yourself on the same hamster wheel as Luther, trying so hard to be good, but never feeling like you make progress. You can get off the wheel by accepting the gift of God’s grace. Think about that. God wants to give you his grace!
Want to talk further? Just post in the comments below. Tomorrow we’ll keep looking at God’s grace and how he wants to save us.