(This is the fourth chapter from a book I recently released called “Beautiful and Believable: The Reason for My Hope.” It is available here, and an ebook version is available on Kindle, Apple Books, and Kobo.)
Is the manner in which God relates to us beautiful? That is, does the relationship offered by God make us go “Wow, that makes sense and is is consistent with what we would expect from a good creator God.”? Is it consistent with what the Bible teaches about God, namely that “God is love” (1 John 4:8)?
Many would answer, no. Their impression of Christianity is that you try to keep the rules, then you go to hell when you die because you couldn’t. If that is it, then yes, it is very ugly indeed!
However, that’s not it! Many religions are based on performance, that is, your relationship with God is dependent upon how well you keep the rules. Many people, including many Christians, think that Christianity is based on performance. That, however, is not Christianity.
What is Christianity? What does the Bible teach as to how God relates to us?
Let us go first to the Old Testament.
We might point to all the rules of the old covenant law and assume that one’s relationship with God was, and is, based on performance. But look closer. Long before the law was given at a mountain called Mount Sinai, God was in relationship with humanity. Adam and Eve sinned, which introduced death and separation from God. However, God stayed in relationship with Adam and Eve, and with humanity. Israel was called to be a different kind of people, a people who followed God’s lead. They often stumbled, and yes, bore the consequences. However, despite their poor performance, God stayed in relationship with stumbling Israel, and with stumbling humanity.
In the Bible we have a long record of relationship between God and humanity. Within this, to use literary language by way of analogy, the old covenant is a sub-plot which is essential to the unfolding of the main story. Yes, in the sub-plot Israel’s performance was tied to Israel’s future. If they rebelled against God, they would be exiled from the “promised land.” They did rebel. They were exiled. But God stayed in relationship with them anyway! Through Israel God was working out his plan for relationship with all of us. That plan was not dependent on anyone’s performance, but on God’s desire, God’s grace.
The old covenant law is not the main story, even of the Old Testament. The main story, from Genesis to Revelation, is God’s relationship with humanity, not through our performance, but by His grace.
. . . . God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.2 Timothy 1:8-10 (NRSV)
Second, let us consider Jesus.
How do you begin your prayers? Is it “O all seeing, all knowing judge, who is ready to pounce on me for every sin”? Jesus, in teaching us to pray, taught us to begin with “Our Father.” The Lord’s Prayer begins in a manner which reminds us that we belong. We begin prayer with a reminder that when we are praying in the presence of God, we are exactly where we ought to be. We belong, even when we think that belonging is not what we deserve. In teaching us to pray, Jesus reminds us that we relate to God, not through our performance, but by God’s grace.
Consider too, how Jesus related to people in the Gospels. Jesus was gracious to all, being known as a “friend of sinners”. Jesus did have harsh words for some, namely the religious perfectionists who continually harped about performance of the law. Jesus modelled a grace-filled life. God relates to us in the same way Jesus related to people, not by our performance, but by his grace.
Consider too, what we learn from Jesus’ death on the cross. Basically, we killed God. He loved us anyway. That is all grace. Eternal life is a gift made possible by the grace of God.
Third, let us consider Paul, as an example of what the apostles taught.
Paul teaches about grace in Ephesians 2:1-10;
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.Ephesians 2:1-10 (NRSV)
Though we were in a mess, God rescued us. Paul himself is an example of grace, since he messed up terribly by persecuting the people God was using to reach other people with the good news of God’s love. If God’s grace can reach Paul, it can reach anyone.
How does God relate to us?
The Bible teaches that God’s relationship with us is marked, not by the performance of perfect people, but by God’s grace and love for imperfect people. This is a beautiful and compelling aspect of Christianity.
Grace provides a great atmosphere for our relationship with God. When a relationship is based on performance, it can be like sailing in a thunderstorm, scary. One never knows when lighting will strike. Perhaps one even feels that their mast is the tallest and will be the first to be struck. When a relationship is based on grace, it is like sailing with a good breeze on a sunny day. There can be adventure, enjoyment, and progress. Grace provides an atmosphere perfect for flourishing and growth.
When we receive God’s grace, we do not come before Him like a distrusted employee before a cruel boss, or a hated criminal before a harsh judge. The Christian comes before God as an imperfect but growing child welcomed into the presence of a good, good parent. The Christian experience of grace is therefore consistent with how God would relate to us if “God is love.” The manner in which God relates to us is consistent with a good and loving God. That is a beautiful thing.