A friend once told me that he could sum up the religious teachings of his childhood in two words: “Do better.” Denouncements of worldly sins, warnings of what would happen if he gave in to temptation, and constant guilt trips for not practicing a consistent “quiet time” with God eventually formed within him a sense that he wasn’t doing enough. That he wasn’t enough. And the only way to get right with God was to renew the commitments he’d made and broken a hundred times and do all of the things the church told him he should do.
Does this sound familiar to you? Because it does to me. And based on my observations and conversations with many who grew up in the Christian faith, I’d say this experience is not uncommon. For many, the big takeaway from growing up in church is that they’re not good enough, that they’re not living the way they should, and that they need to do better if they want any hope of having a relationship with God. This should not be so.
One of the most foundational, unique, and beautiful aspects of the Christian faith is that it is not a merit-based system. While we tend to think of the world in terms of achievement, effort, and stratification, God calls us to instead practice humility, submission, and equality, and to recognize that none of us is able to succeed at life on our own, but only when we rely on him. This is a radical break from the way we’ve been taught the world has to work. This is magnificent. This is the gospel.
At the center of the Christian message is God’s grace, his undeserved favor towards us. He doesn’t have to love us. He doesn’t have to want what’s best for us. He doesn’t have to give us the opportunity to do life with him. But he does. His grace is offered freely to each and every one us. And that is a precious, precious thing.
I’m afraid that in trying to communicate the good news of God’s grace, the church has become too focused on the natural complement to it: the reality of humanity’s fallenness. It’s true that we’re all broken. We each do things that are wrong, that hurt others, and that go against the will of God. And we need to understand this fact. But the focus of the gospel is not on our brokenness; in fact, it isn’t on us at all. The focus of the gospel is the amazing grace of God that can heal the brokenness we all feel inside ourselves and experience externally.
Of course, grace isn’t the end of it all. It’s only the beginning of our life with God. Once we’ve accepted God’s grace and committed our lives to following him, then the real work of following his will begins. There are still things that we’re called to do—things that our faith compels us to do—and do them we should. But in the midst of all the doing, there is still grace. Grace isn’t in the end, but it will always have the last word.
Because even while we’re trying to live life God’s way, we’re still imperfect. God doesn’t save us once and then expect us to do the rest on our own. God’s grace saves us from our brokenness, but salvation is a process that won’t be complete in this life. And we can’t do it by ourselves. Grace is a continual gift that constantly picks us back up when we fall, heals us when we need it, and calls us to carry on.
God’s grace calls us to become better, but not by our own doing. We become better (that is, more like God) by letting go of the false narrative that we can do it ourselves and instead allowing God to work in us. When we choose to look at salvation and sanctification in this way, it takes a lot of pressure off of us and allows us to extend grace to ourselves as well.
So whenever and wherever we share God’s truth with others, may we always err on the side of grace. May we never leave people thinking that the gospel message is that they should do better. May we instead always leave them with the impression that God loves them, that he wants to know them, and that he wants to heal them and make them new. That’s grace, and that’s the gospel I want to share with others. It’s my hope and prayer that you will do the same.