Grace Without Reservations
By Greg Albrecht
And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, then grace would no longer be grace.—Romans 11:6
Have you ever had an altercation, a conflict or misunderstanding with your wife or husband, adult child or a good friend and wondered how in the world you could patch things up? We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Perhaps we are “there” right now.
Let’s suppose (and it’s a safe supposition, isn’t it?) that the mess we are thinking about is a mess that is our fault. We are to blame. After all, at some point in our lives, we have all been in the wrong, haven’t we? At some point in our lives we have all been the major factor or cause behind a human relations fiasco that has alienated us from those with whom we have close relationships.
So let’s think about one of those times, a time when we knew we were wrong, and as a result, we were estranged from a loved one or close friend. What’s the solution? When we have antagonized someone else, when we are directly at fault for a disaster of some nature, the solution, from a strictly human point-of-view, usually comes back to something we can do.
When we’re in the middle of a catastrophic separation from those we love, the solution to patching things up, the bottom line for a resolution, always comes down to something that is within our power to do. We think of a peace offering we can give. We might consider flowers, candy, a gesture, a request for forgiveness, an apology, or a promise that we will never act that way again. Perhaps, the something we can do at such a time winds up being a gift offered as a token of our desire to do whatever we can to repair a broken relationship.
This week we’re going to discuss Grace Without Reservations—based on Romans 11:6, a passage that provides the springboard for our conversation with God about his amazing grace. The context of our single verse passage in Romans chapter 11 is the dilemma the Apostle Paul felt about his own people, the Jews. What was Paul’s dilemma? The dilemma was, and is, for all people of all times and ages, simply this:
There is a gulf between humans and God. How do we bridge the gap, the chasm between ourselves and God? Given the fact of our imperfection, our sin and the fact of God’s perfection, his holiness, how can we be reconciled? How can we be forgiven? How can we achieve a right relationship with God?
Paul wrestled with his own people’s negative reaction to the gospel. The Hebrews were the people of God of the old covenant. When God came to this world, in the person of Jesus, he came as a Jew, first of all to his own people, and then, of course, to the world at large. But at the time Paul wrote the book of Romans, the Hebrews were the one group of people who seemed to almost unanimously reject Jesus. As the Gospel of
John says, a book probably written several decades after Paul wrote Romans, He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:11).
We all know how the religion of the Jews at that time absolutely repudiated and despised Jesus. Of course, no matter what our religious or racial background may be, the gospel of Jesus Christ is clear—every human has a choice when God offers his grace, we may accept or reject it.
There are many reasons humans turn their backs when God’s grace is offered. One of the biggest reasons is that his grace is incompatible with the way humans think, operate, work and live. Many find the idea of being solely dependent on God’s grace humiliating, we don’t like the idea that we are incapable of doing enough things to heal the rift between us and God. Some of us reject God’s grace because his grace is offered to us only on his terms, not on ours.
God, in effect says to us—”My grace is offered to you on my terms. If you accept my grace, you must do so unconditionally—without reservations. I do not allow you to accept my grace with reservations. Don’t try to water down my grace. My grace is Grace Without Reservations.”
Most of us feel that the idea that God can resolve the differences we have with him, that God alone can fix the breach, that God alone can reconcile us to himself, all by himself—is a proposition that seems to be just too good to be true. At some level, we believe that God needs our help, or at the very least, expects our help. Some feel that if they don’t have something to do with making themselves more lovable and acceptable to God, then any other answer to our alienation from God, like, for instance, the purity and power of God’s grace, is illegitimate.
Many reason that it’s just not possible for God to forgive us and justify us and reconcile us all by himself—we humanly reason that he must need our help.
Some believe that the idea that God alone can rescue us from the dilemma in which we find ourselves, that God’s love and grace is sufficient for our relationship with God, is just too un-demanding, too un-oppressive and too darn easy.
But, the plain truth is that God’s grace is not an “easy way out” as some claim, grace is actually the polar opposite. God’s grace is the hard path, it’s the narrow gate that Jesus mentioned in Matthew 7:14. Jesus says that most people, when confronted with an option of how to live their lives, choose the wide gate and the broad road—a gate and a road which leads to destruction. By contrast, he said, small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and few find it.
Ironically, grace-less religion actually takes this passage and twists it so that many church-going, so-called “good, religious folks” think that Jesus was saying that the narrow road is the road of hard work and devotion. They incorrectly interpret the narrow road to be the place where we put our noses to the grindstone, the road that means we have to just gut it out, work hard, do more, produce as much righteousness as we can, and then barely, by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin (to cite the Three Little Pigs) we might just barely squeak by.
But the clear meaning of the narrow gate and the narrow road is that grace is the road less taken. Why is that? Because God offers us his grace as an absolute. God does not offer us the idea that our salvation is determined by his grace in addition to what we can do, in addition to our contributions, in addition to our good deeds—it’s God’s grace or nothing at all. The offer is simple—God’s Grace Without Reservations.
In effect, Jesus says to us, “when you consider my offer of grace, let me make it perfectly clear—it’s my way or the highway. My way is the narrow road. The highway is, as I have said in Matthew 7:13, the broad way that leads to destruction. The broad way, in contemporary terms, is an eight-lane freeway crawling along bumper to bumper, with people attempting to have a relationship with me on the basis of their own good deeds.” But that road, friends, is the highway to hell, it’s the religious road I call 40 miles of bad road. You’ve heard the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”?
Throughout this magnificent book of Romans, as well as the other 12 New Testament books Paul authored, Paul always comes back to God’s grace being a stumbling block for those who are deeply mired in the religious hypothesis that humans can only please God on the basis of their own works.
Our passage, Romans 11:6, And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace, is part of three unique chapters (Romans 9-11) in which Paul shares his inner pain. He transparently discloses the agony he has for his own people who are caught in the death-grip of religion.
Grace is the narrow road—it’s not crowded according to Jesus, in fact it’s the road often not taken. If Jesus were to have phrased his statement about the narrow path and the broad road, the one we cited from Matthew 7:14, the way Paul did in our passage here in Romans, then Jesus may have said something like this: “Grace is the narrow road, the road whereby we accept what God alone can do for us—the broad road is the road that we take when we decide that we can please God on the basis of what we do. If the road is narrow, it is not broad. It the road is broad, then it is of course not narrow. A road cannot both be narrow and broad—it is one or the other.”
We do not please God on the basis of his grace plus our works—we choose one or the other. We accept God’s grace on his terms, not our terms. It is Grace Without Reservations, without human qualifications, stipulations or modifications.
You know, it took me a long time to discover the narrow road of God’s grace. And I must tell you that I didn’t recognize God’s amazing grace as a result of my investigations, my biblical research and study or my long hours of religious devotion. Grace didn’t come to me after days of fasting, hours of candle lighting or months of grinding penance. When he was ready, in his time, by his will and according to his plan, God plucked me off the broad road and brought me over to the narrow gate and introduced me to his grace.
When God did this I was deeply involved in the highway to hell. I had been on that road a long time—35 long years. I was a religious professional—a preacher and a teacher. I was doing my part to convince people that they needed to work harder, do more, run faster, and then maybe, if they would just keep on striving, keep on overcoming, keep on doing, keep on building character, maybe, just maybe, they might barely “make it” into God’s kingdom of heaven.
I understood my task to be someone who attempted to convince and persuade people to stop sinning. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to convince people to stop sinning? I, along with so many, many others (then and now) had the idea that I could scare people to death, I could warn them about hell, I could motivate them to stop sinning. I had been trained in the fine art of religious guilt.
I was sending people on religious guilt trips all the time, thinking I was doing them a favor, because eventually they would feel so guilty that they would start obeying God. Of course, if they listened to me at all, they would have believed that when they started to more carefully and responsibly obey God, then, and only then, God would be a lot happier with them. That’s what I thought and taught.
At the bottom line of all this I was convinced that every human being could please and appease God on the basis of their own works, and perhaps every human, with a little help from God of course, had the capacity to eventually get to the place where they would stop sinning.
God mercifully showed me that my whole job description wasn’t working too well. In fact, he said, “Hey Greg—take a look at yourself. That’s right, step right up to the mirror. Let’s be honest. How are you doing, yourself, in this business of getting sin out of your life? How is that working out for you?”
I had to admit that it wasn’t working out so well. God started to show me that I was one mixed-up little camper. He started to show me that my entire life, attempting to relate to him, and attempting to persuade others to relate to him, on the basis of religious performance and deeds, was bankrupt.
So after I got over the pain and shock of admitting that the whole religious premise of my life was horribly flawed and broken, after God walked with me through the valley of the shadow of death, on the other side he showed me what he now wanted me to teach and preach. He lifted me out of the religious mire and muck, and cleaned me up. He transformed me. He cleansed me of all of my pretentious ideas about what I could do for God, and instead he showed me what he would do for me. He showed me that he wanted me to teach and preach his grace—faith alone, grace alone, and Christ alone.
Initially I thought—”Wow—this is great! People are going to be so excited! I am going to be able to tell them that they can leave their religious dungeons, that Jesus wants to save them from the religious salt mines, and that they can be free in Christ! People will love this message. In fact, people might even love me for telling them!”
Wrong—really wrong. So wrong.
It started almost immediately. People started saying that I was preaching permissiveness. Many former friends, who remained deeply mired in the religious swamp from which God had plucked me, said I was an antinomian. I told them to hold on for a minute while I checked my dictionary, to see if I should thank them for using that word “antinomian” in relation to me, or whether I should be offended. Of course I was well aware that they were trying to cast me and what I now believed and cherished in a negative light. I knew full well that antinomian meant someone who was against the law, but I was just playing with them.
It turned out that they didn’t want to play with me anymore. They took their law and went home. No more play dates for me. It turned out my former religious buddies couldn’t come over to my house anymore, because their mothers (a code word for their legalistic church or group) thought I had the theological cooties.
They said I was a permissive—a libertine. They said anyone who only preached grace had some secret agenda, and that agenda was probably to allow people to sin and think they could get away with it. They started calling me names—they started trying to figure out what my real motivation in this shocking change of my spiritual priorities.
There I was, a former legalist of legalists, a true believer who had been up to my neck in the swamp of religious legalism, and now I was an entirely different person.
Of course if there’s one thing that offends a religious legalist, it’s the idea that someone, somewhere, may get away with something. After all, one of the jobs of religious legalism is to expose sinners (check out the Pharisees Jesus encountered for examples), and if God doesn’t appear to be punishing others, then it’s our job as the slaves of religion, to punish others. Christ-less religion insists that it’s up to us to ensure that others get theirs.
It turned out people really got upset with the message that God wasn’t upset with them. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the message that God is not mad at us, made people mad! How ironic is that? Why do people get so unloving when someone tells them that God loves them? Why do people become hostile and belligerent when God’s grace is proclaimed?
One reason we get upset is that we have been lied to. We have been deceived. We have bought into a distorted idea about God. Grace-less religion has taught us that God is a slave-driving taskmaster who accepts nothing less than perfect, flawless obedience. Yes, authoritarian religion does teach about what it calls God’s love, but its definition of God’s love is warped and twisted, from a biblical perspective.
There are people who are beaten and battered by their parents or their spouses, and they think that their beatings, whether physical and/or emotional, are the way that their parents or spouses express their love for them. In a similar way many people have come to have a perverted idea of God.
So many people think of God as a heavenly tyrant who spends all his time, leaning down from his throne, watching our pathetic lives, getting more and more upset. They think of God as primarily engaged in telling his angels how many thunderbolts they need to rain down on us today, to punish us. They think of God making notes of our failures in his big, black book, or I guess today it would be on his big, black computer monitor. They think of God making digital notes of all our sins, shortcomings and imperfections, so that one day, in the judgment, there will be hell to pay.
And, I have to tell you that those distorted ideas about God mainly come from institutionalized religion.
That’s where we get those crazy beliefs about God.
Here’s the good news of God’s grace. God’s grace is unconditional. God’s grace is without reservations, on his part, as well as yours and mine. God doesn’t play favorites, he is not a respecter of persons. He loves you just as much as anyone else. His love is offered to you freely and without cost, on your part.
As humans we think—”well, if it’s free and without cost, it must not be worth very much. After all, you get what you pay for, right?” That works in the world in which you and I live, in a world of time and space, a world of hurt and pain. But God’s grace is other-worldly. It is given to us without respect for our worthiness or merit, without respect for our accomplishments or our failures. God’s grace is without reservations or conditions, given to us without any reservations so that we might accept his grace in a similar way—without reservations.
We are accepted by God by his grace and because of what Jesus has done for us. Jesus has done for us what we can never do for ourselves. Jesus has paid a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.
Once we accept God’s grace, without reservations, we don’t have to worry about losing it—because we didn’t earn it in the first place. Jesus did. What he has done, is doing, and will always do for us can’t be lost, diminished, tarnished, or modified. As he said from the cross, it is finished (John 19:30).