Unearned Gift of God
Awake or asleep, we live in the grips of moral decay and impending death. We need a way out, and we cannot provide it on our own. We need help from outside ourselves. The living God is not only our desperately needed Gift-Giver but also our desperately needed Gift. He is the Rescuer to whom as well as by whom we are rescued. He is the life-Giver to whom and for whom we must live. This gift of life is indeed a gift and is not earned in any way by us. Common "wisdom" suggests that it is somehow earned, as if we were able to overcome our moral decay and to obligate God to bless us with lasting life. The biblical writers teach otherwise. The apostle Paul writes:
If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about— but not before God. What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Romans 4:2-5, NIV)
Paul denies that we earn our status before God by means of works that obligate God to give us life. God does not owe us His gift of rescue in Jesus. If He offers it at all, it must be as a gift, freely given by grace, and not earned by us.
Clearly our conduct relative to God's moral laws does not earn us right standing before God. We have failed in many ways, decisively. God nonetheless brings us amazing good news of an unearned gift. Paul remarks:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith, in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26, NIV)
Righteousness from God is right standing before God, right relationship with God. This does not come from our keeping God's moral laws, because we have disobeyed God's moral laws, particularly His love commands. In addition, we cannot erase or otherwise whitewash our past and present disobedience. So, we cannot earn our right standing with God via His moral laws. We cannot present our conduct as obligating God to rescue us or to sustain us. We are in no position to claim that God owes us life. Left with what we have earned from God, we have nothing at all. Earning, then, is not the way to God. The tyranny of earning in our attitude toward God deserves rejection once and for all. It is dishonest throughout. It is often learned via distortions in human relationships, but it must be unlearned, again and again.
God's alternative to the fraudulent tyranny of earning is not a program or a therapy. It is instead His beloved Son, Jesus. God's gift of gifts to us, His enemies, is Jesus: Jesus as the focal source of God's reconciliation of those (namely, all of us) who cannot earn reconciliation to God. Jesus, in his life and death, brings and proves God's offer of friendship to us. As Paul states: "God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Jesus is God's sacrificial love in human flesh. He sacrifices his life for us, to prove the loving, gracious justice of God. Jesus pays any needed price, and accepts any needed judgment, for God's reconciliation of His enemies. He comes to give us God's life, freely, with no earning needed. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ. This is the Good News all of us desperately need. Only this Good News can bring us from death to life, from despair to hope, from fear to peace, and from the tyranny of earning to the joyous acceptance of life's gift: Jesus. The gift of Jesus saves us from our idols. Friendship with him makes our idols pointless and even repulsive. This friendship is the unearned gift we all need. When, and only when, we give this gift its proper exalted status will we be able to receive God's other gifts properly. Otherwise, we easily turn God's gifts into harmful idols that hinder our loving and trusting God.
We receive God's unsurpassable gift of Jesus not by earning it but rather by obediently and gratefully trusting the gift Giver and His self-giving Son, Jesus. As we gratefully trust and obey the gift Giver, we receive His love and even His Spirit in our lives and are thereby transformed into the image of His Son, Jesus. This reception of God's love is characterized by the attitude of Jesus in Gethsemane, as he prays to His Father: Not what I will, but what You will (Mark 14:32-36; cf. John 12:27-28). As we follow Jesus as our Lord through Gethsemane, we share his obedient attitude toward His Father. We thereby receive God's love and life as found in friendship with Jesus as Lord. Indeed, the spirit of Gethsemane, whereby we gratefully do the will of God, is the only way to receive God's kingdom of love. As Jesus teaches, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). In the end, there is no genuine receiving of the gift of Jesus without our trusting and obeying His Father. In the end, there is no genuine trust, or faith, in Jesus as Lord without obedience.