God’s Promises, God’s Grace

Are God’s promises unconditional? Why do we sometimes have to do something to “collect” on His promises? In my experience, the first cousin to the tension between grace and effort (see my previous blog here) is the tension between grace and conditions.

Grace is usually understood as the unmerited favor of God expressed to us out of his loving nature. Vine’s New Testament dictionary defines grace (charis) as “that which bestows or occasions pleasure, delight, or causes favorable regard.” In the Old Testament the concept is expressed by the word lovingkindness.

We usually think of grace as being unconditional, but when we read the promises in Scripture, most often they do contain a condition: an “if–then” connection. This creates a tension, because in our minds, fulfilling conditions is the same as trying to earn or merit God’s favor. A merit-based life contradicts a grace-based life. We may handle such tension by choosing one extreme or the other, and as a result claim the promises but disregard the uncomfortable (even unwanted) conditions.

An example of a promise with conditions is Philippians 4:6-7: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The promise is that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds. It is clearly a gracious offer by God for our benefit. Who wouldn’t want to trade anxiety for peace? But the gracious offer is prefaced by unmistakable conditions: prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving! Does that mean we have to “earn” God’s peace?

We can resolve this tension between living by grace and fulfilling conditions not by ignoring the conditions but by separating them from the concept of merit. 

Recently some friends of ours called to offer us tickets to the Kansas City Symphony. They said they were a gift. We could pick up the tickets at the “will call” window before the performance.

Arriving a little early to the concert, I stood in line to receive the tickets. Then we eagerly (and gratefully) took our seats in the auditorium.

Nowhere along that process did I think that by standing in line and asking for my tickets I had somehow merited them. However, had I failed to do just that, the tickets would still be on the shelf and we would not have heard the concert. The tickets, offered without merit, required an action on my part for the gift to be experienced. The action was actually quite trivial compared to the gift itself. The gift was free but experiencing the gift was not automatic. It required action, a response on my part.

In the same way the gracious gift of reconciliation with God is freely offered without merit (other than Christ’s), but it is not unconditional. Although we need to comply with the conditions, we should not think that by fulfilling them we are somehow meriting the gift. To do so would be arrogant, foolish, or just naïve.

Similarly, we should not expect the gracious gifts of God without respect for the conditions he connects to them. The conditions are never arbitrary but wisely given as a further expression of His grace.

When our youngest son was about six years old he came to me one day and asked if he could have his own “boys’” bike. I asked him what was wrong with the bike his sister learned on.

He said, “It is pink and has Smurfs on it.”

So, I asked, “What kind would you like?”

“I want a black one with knobby tires!”

That day I made him a promise. If he learned to ride his sister’s bike without the training wheels, I would get him his own “boys’” bike—black with knobby tires.

The condition was not a merit system in which he would earn enough money to buy the bike. I gave it to encourage the development of a helpful skill (bike riding) that I knew would help him in life beyond the current desire for a shiny new bike.

A few months later he came to me to claim what I had promised. After he rode the pink Smurf bike down the driveway without training wheels, we went to the store and picked out a cool black bike with knobby tires.

In a much more significant way, God graciously offers us promises to live by along our journey of discipleship. We must not ignore the conditions for those promises nor think we must earn their fulfillment. Rather they are God’s gracious provision for our walk of faith.

Here’s a question for you to consider. What promises or conditions do you find in the following: John 3:16, Hebrews 4:16, Joshua 1:8?

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