Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gratitude vs. Payback

Halfmom asked me, in response to my post "What Grace is NOT," how I would explain the difference between gratitude to God and paying him back for his grace in our lives. There seems to be a lot of confusion over this, because some people's responses seemed to indicate that I was disavowing that the Christian life is one of reciprocal fellowship or obedience. Of course I am not saying this. What I am saying is that God does not seek "payback" for saving us.

Suppose you're ten years old, and your parents just bought you a shiny, brand new bicycle. You're absolutely in love with this bike; it's super cool, you know, black with some sweet flame decals. Of course you don't have $179 to pay them back. But they never expected that anyway. They also wouldn't say to you, "Hey, kid, we got you that bike you wanted. Now you'd better get busy taking out the trash and cleaning your room for us!" That's ludicrous. (Of course, such a child will often see that his parents love and value him and consequently wish to do his chores more wholeheartedly and willingly than before.)

What, then, do loving parents desire? They want their child to put that bicycle to use and enjoy this awesome gift. The way the child can thank his parents and show appreciation for that bicycle is none other than by riding it and enjoying it to the max. I assume the biggest letdown for parents is when, just two weeks after Christmas or a birthday, their children are tired of their new toys and want to move on to something else. In the same way, God wants us to keep returning to the fountain of his grace (1 John 1:9). He wants us to see and believe the freeness with which we're loved and to enjoy the relief of our total forgiveness. "How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me?" asks the psalmist in Psalm 116:3. The answer: "I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD." The way to honor God's grace is to depend upon it more and more in our life. And that means repenting of all our own efforts to do things our own way and to receive from him more and more. It's a prideless thing.

Of course, with that gift of the bicycle comes the parent's responsible guidance for how to use the bicycle: Don't ride it in the street, don't ride after dark, stay within ten blocks of home, etc. But even staying in those rules is their wise way of letting us enjoy it more freely and safely. (Think: We can actually enjoy bicycling more if we know we can ride flat-out without being in danger of cars or trucks.) In our own "wisdom" we may doubt or twist those rules. We think we know better, and our curiosity and independence prompts us to push the boundaries to see what would happen if we did, in fact, ride in the street. Would it be a rush, a thrill? So even though we possess a new kind of law, the "law of the Spirit" which actually corresponds to our life of freedom and blessing and enjoyment, we can twist it into sinful responses.

This is hardly an antinomian life. The Heidelberg Catechism, with its guilt-grace-gratitude framework, introduces the Ten Commandments as the way to exemplify a life thankful for God's gracious salvation. And that's how it works, too, in the New Testament; the apostolic imperatives are always founded upon who the believer is on account of what God has already done in making him a new creation. (Yes, the law is for lawbreakers, to silence them and fell their pride, but the law also functions in a new way for those who are redeemed and forgiven in Christ.) But as we trust our Father's goodness, his statutes for our life bring his blessings to us, and we are drawn deeper into our relationship with him. We thus feel more sure of his mercy and more free to come to him in need. Free grace does not undo the law, but rather brings out its real purpose in our lives: drawing men to God, who give glory to their Maker and Savior by honoring, trusting in, and delighting in him.

I hope this clears up what a life of gratitude looks like, one in which reciprocal love is in view but "payback" is not.


Halfmom said...

Thanks, Drew. I didn't get a chance to use this yet in Jr High - we ended up talking about community last night - what it is and why we need it. It started because a toy and a cell phone were taken away to start and those who had the items removed wanted to know why. In the midst of that discussion we ended up talking about how stupid sheep are :) At the end of group, Luis (did you have him last year?) said, "hey this was so cool. We didn't have to have a Bible study at all, we just talked all night!" So funny!

Hopefully we can get back to the bike shortly - I'm thinking Galatians is going to allow many more chances!

Miss you!

preacherman said...

Great post on this topic.
I believe that all believers need to read this post, hear it from our pulpits, and live it! Thanks for your challenging words for us all. I enjoy your blog!