Grace, Then Gratitude
For many of us, the thing that we fear the most is being insignificant. This is why we are so driven and ambitious—we think that we have to do everything we can to prove that we are significant and that our life counts for something. We scramble to find whatever meaning, value, and purpose this world alone can offer.
Although it is true that there is no good or fulfilling life without significance, through Jesus we are offered not only significance but grace. While we may be tempted to try and prove our worth to God or others, God relates to us not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of grace. Our life is simply a response to his love.
God showers his love upon us simply because he loves us—not because of what we have done, will do, or what potential he may or may not see within us. This is what gives us absolute and utter security. If we do not do anything to win God's love, there is nothing that we could ever do to lose it either. Furthermore, grace means there is nothing we could ever do to make God love us more, and there is nothing we could ever do to make God love us less. His love for us is immovable.
This is the difference between Christianity and every other religion. Religion requires you to obey before you are accepted. But the message of Christianity is that you are accepted in and through Jesus Christ first, despite all your faults and failures, and therefore, you obey—not in order to try to win God's love or out of obligation, but out of gratitude for the love you have first been shown.
Consider the Exodus story. God could have given his people the Ten Commandments while they were living in bondage in Egypt and required them to follow the law before he rescued them. But instead, he rescues his people first. It is only after he delivers them from their bondage that he then gives them the law in order to show them how to live their lives in response to his love.
It is not law, then grace. It is grace, then gratitude.
Grace is the most powerful force in the world. And yet, at the very same time, it is the most difficult thing for us to accept because it is an affront to our pride and self-sufficiency. When we accept God’s grace, we acknowledge that we cannot save ourselves.
Years ago I had a conversation with a college student who told me, “I hate the very concept of grace because I want God to love me for me. I want God to love me for the things I do for him because then I know what I'm worth. Then I know that I'm valuable.” I tried to help her see that grace is far better. Consider the words of Victor Hugo who said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved—loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.”
God's love is not conditional or even unconditional. His love is contra-conditional. In Jesus Christ, he does not merely love us as we are. He loves us despite who we are and despite what we have done. That is why Pastor Jack Miller used to say, “Cheer up! You're worse than you think! But in Jesus Christ, you are more loved than you could ever imagine.”
The House of David
In 2 Samuel 7 we read that several decades after God raised David up to be the prince over Israel, David decides to build a house for the Lord. David is living in a luxurious house with paneled walls made out of fine cedar, and he realizes that by contrast, the Ark of the Covenant—the place where God said that he would dwell in the midst of his people—is being kept in a tent. It suddenly dawns on him that his housing is better than God’s! David, understandably, wants to do something for God by building him a permanent house.
But rather than allowing David to follow through with his plans, God responds by saying God is going to make a house for David, and David's son, in gratitude, will be the one who builds a house for the Lord. In 2 Samuel 7:16 God says, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” God makes this unconditional promise to David—not because of any merit on David's part but out of sheer grace. This is how God works with all of us. Like David, we might want to go out there and do something great for God as a way to prove our worth or win other’s respect and admiration. But God’s grace always precedes our work. He makes the first move and takes the initiative. His grace comes first.
If you continue reading through the Bible, you discover the house of David eventually comes crashing down. The kingdom is plagued by civil war, and eventually, the Babylonians conquer David's kingdom, setting fire to the temple that Solomon builds and carrying away the last kings in the line of David into exile. And yet centuries before, the prophet Isaiah promises that one day a child will be born who will establish and uphold the throne of David with justice and righteousness forever.
The promise made to David in 2 Samuel 7 points us forward to Christ, the true son of God, who knows God as Father. That is why Jesus is repeatedly referred to as the Son of David. When Jesus begins his public ministry, he proclaims: “the kingdom of God is at hand.” And when Jesus establishes the kingdom of God, he says that he will build a house for the Lord in the midst of his people, not in a temple made out of human hands. This means that the moment we put our faith in Jesus, we become a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Building for the Kingdom
After becoming a Christian, we might start talking about bringing the kingdom, building the kingdom, advancing the kingdom, expanding the kingdom. But “bringing the kingdom” is precisely the one thing that we cannot do. Only Jesus can do that.
Matthew 6:33 tells us we are called to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” We are called to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, to testify to the kingdom, to inherit the kingdom. The kingdom is not something that we achieve through our own effort but rather something we receive as a gift of grace. But that does not mean that we are supposed to sit back and passively await the coming of the kingdom in its fullness. We may not be able to build the kingdom of God, but we can and must build for the kingdom of God. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright writes,
“The final coming together of heaven and earth is, of course, God’s supreme act of new creation, for which the only real prototype—other than the first creation itself—was the resurrection of Jesus. God alone will sum up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth. He alone will make the ‘new heavens and new earth.’ It would be the height of folly to think that we could assist in that great work.
But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom…You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God.”
The kingdom of God is a present reality because the kingdom is present in Jesus. It is a kingdom of grace, which means that it can only be received. That is why Jesus said in Luke 12:32, “‘Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’” He went on to say that only those who receive the kingdom like a child will ever enter it. How does a child receive the kingdom? With empty hands. Our faith does not add or contribute anything to our rescue. Faith is simply empty hands which receive what Jesus gives. And what Jesus gives us is himself. Wherever Jesus is, there is the kingdom. There is grace.
Adapted from David and The Good Life: Grace, a sermon delivered by Jason Harris on October 23, 2022. Listen to the sermon or read the full transcript.
Christ and Contemporary Culture is a journal written by Jason Harris which reflects on the intersection between Jesus Christ and our contemporary culture. If you are skeptical or resistant to Christianity, the hope is that you might pause to reflect on your pre-existing ideas about the way things are and perhaps think again. For those who have embraced Christianity, these posts will serve to encourage you in your ability to communicate the gospel in a way that takes our current cultural context seriously.
Produced by Mary-Catherine McKee