Do conditions = merit? This week I have the privilege of introducing you to a guest blogger, Ron Bennett. Ron and I have known one another since since our twenties and have been on Navigator staff together since before the Dead Sea was even sick. I have a deep respect for Ron and when we are together we usually find ourselves in a deep biblical discussion. Ron has introduced one-on-one discipleship to hundreds of churches and thousands of individuals. Let me encourage you to visit his website, The Adventure of Discipleship, at www.rbennett.net.
In Ron’s post he deals with the tough question of conditional promises…ones that contain an “if…” When there is an “if” attached, is meeting the conditions the same as having to earn merit with God? This seems to be in conflict with the grace of God. Ron sorts this out for us and I found his illustration about concert tickets especially helpful. Read on.
A first cousin to the grace/effort tension is the grace/conditions tension. This tension is exposed by the question, “Are God’s promises unconditional?” You could substitute any number of spiritual concepts for the underlined word “promises” and create the same tension.
Grace is usually understood as the unmerited favor of God expressed to us out of his loving nature. Vines NT 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”.
To this basic understanding of the word grace we often add the concept “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 handle such tension by polarizing what we cannot harmonize and the result is we often claim the promises but disregard the uncomfortable (even unwanted) conditions.
(6) Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (7) And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6-7).
The promise is for the peace of God to 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!
So when we try to live by grace and the “conditions” create angst in our spirit, I suggest we not ignore the conditions but rather decouple conditions from the concept of merit. It is an unnecessary and detrimental alliance.
Recently some friends of ours called to offer us tickets to the Kansas City Symphony at the Kaufman Center. They said they were a gift if we wanted them. When we replied in the affirmative, they said we could pick them up at the “will call” window before the performance.
Arriving a little early to the concert, I stood in line at the will call window to receive the tickets. Once in hand 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.
But conversely 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 come 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. They were given to encourage the development of a helpful life-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 promised. After riding the pink Smurf bike down the driveway without training wheels, we went to the store and picked out the coolest, 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 of them as a form of merit. Rather they are God’s gracious provision for our walk of faith.
Bill here again. I trust this was helpful – and be sure to check out Ron’s website. It is very well done and makes you think. I’ll be back next week with another inner breeding ground of stress.