Getting Saved, Doing Nothing
We are all familiar with Paul’s thematic declaration in Romans that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). The Gospel is that power because it does everything that needs to be done to save sinners. It bestows the saving gifts and works faith. It is not nitpicking to point out that it is a mistake to refer to God’s grace as an offer. The Gospel is not mere information designed to motivate sinners to make a good decision to secure a happy forever. It is the Word that saves sinners by declaring them already forgiven in the finished atonement of the crucified Christ. It is a distortion of the Gospel to express that God merely desires to forgive, and this could happen if the sinner makes the right decision. The Gospel declares the existing forgiveness of Christ, a revelation in our space in time of what is true in eternity. And, what you hear is what you get. The declaration does what it says and gives what it guarantees because this saving gift already exists. It is not some future possibility.
The grace of Christ is the business of getting saved, doing nothing. Some simple language and grammar distinctions are important to get this right. Sometimes we hear the grace of Christ expressed as an offer of forgiveness requiring us to ponder and hopefully decide to have it. However, the Word grace means gift; it does not mean offer. We are saved by grace, and strictly speaking, not by an offer. Gifts must already exist, and whoever possesses them makes the decision and is responsible for conveying them to others. Offers, on the other hand, describe future possibilities. They are, as they say, put on the table. You acquire what is offered by your decision to meet the specified conditions. Offers are taken, but gifts are only received. You cannot take a gift. This important grammar lesson is well illustrated by dialogue in the great Western, Open Range.
Kevin Costner plays a gunslinger who is about to head to town with his partner, played by Robert Duval, for the final shootout with the bad guys. He has this thing for the sister of the town’s doctor played by Ann Benning. Coming to her door, he discloses his affection for her but that he might not be coming back. She excuses herself for a moment and returns with a locket. Placing it into his hand and closing his fingers around it, she tells him that she wants him to have it. It belonged to her mother and always brought her good luck. Costner opens his hand, staring at the locket and responds; Oh, ma’am, I don’t think I can take this. To which she curtly responds; Of course, you can’t, it’s a gift. Right!
You cannot take gifts, and you make no decisions to have them. It is just wrong to explain that getting saved is a matter of taking an offer of grace from God and deciding that Jesus is your Savior. It gives the false impression that you are in control and your choice determines if God will forgive you or not. Or, as if the Gospel teaches a decision theology where Jesus says: Here’s the deal. I am willing to forgive your sins; you contribute faith and a commitment to me. Now, you go first! It is also worth noting that grace is not a matter of getting a warning instead of a ticket for your infractions. Saving grace is not God saying No Problem! Do better the next time. Grace is not a matter of God cutting you some slack and giving you more chances and time to clean up your act. Moreover, forgiveness is not God posting credits in your heavenly account to offset your bad deeds and get you to a zero balance for the time being. As Capon has put it so eloquently, grace announces that God has torn up the books and permanently gone out of the accounting business.
The biblical Gospel does not teach the forgiveness of Christ as something that could happen up the way if you play your cards right. The Gospel announces God’s already-existing acceptance and forgiveness. It’s a done deal - signed, sealed, and delivered in the saving Word. There are no fine-print conditions that you first must click on and accept before you can have this saving application. The Gospel proclaims God’s forgiveness as an already-given reality that He bestows on the sinner without conditions. There are no if's, and's, or but's that first require us to do something to make it so. We do not have to make a commitment, say a sincere prayer, give our heart to Jesus, or clean up our lives. Nada! But isn't this cheap grace? No, it is not cheap grace; it is absolutely, unconditionally free!