GRACE – A STUMBLING STONE

There is a point at which grace is offensive. Something within our human hearts and minds does not like it, and we want to turn it into something less than grace to reduce its offence.

We rebel against grace, firstly, because in our pride and self-importance we believe that there is something in us that merits God’s attention, approval and acceptance. Whether it is something in our past, present or future attributes, actions and attitudes, we like to think that something of ours is what causes God to be merciful to us, and that it is because of this past, present or future personal merit that we are saved. When we do this, ‘grace’ has immediately ceased to be grace.

Grace and human merit are mutually exclusive as a means of salvation. This fact that grace utterly excludes, and is excluded by, any saving role given to human merit it strongly taught in Romans 9:30-10:4. Here Paul states that ‘Israel … pursued a law of righteousness … by works’ and ‘they stumbled over the “stumbling stone” ‘. Because they sought to ‘establish their own’ righteousness on the basis of law and merit, they did not acknowledge or receive the ‘righteousness that comes from God’ in Christ. They missed out on grace. All perceptions of personal merit make us blind to the presence and power of grace. Thus Paul teaches very sternly in Galatians that to depend on human merit is to set aside grace, indeed it is to fall from grace [Galatians 2:21; 5:4].

It ought not to surprise us that grace is offensive, because Jesus Christ himself is ‘a stumbling stone’ – ‘a rock of offence’ [Isaiah 8:14; Romans 9:33;1Peter 2:8]. Grace and Christ are inseparably connected. To receive Christ is to be saved by grace; to be saved by grace is to trust in Christ.  The person who holds tightly to his own merit will never reach out a beggar’s hand to receive Christ. Until we let go of that pride we cannot take hold of Christ. Until we let go of that confidence in our perceived merit, grace is powerless.

We rebel against grace, secondly, because it makes God the sovereign initiator of our salvation, placing the originating cause of our salvation in God’s sovereign choice. This offends us on two counts: one, because it again offends our human pride by demolishing any thought that something in us caused God to save us; two, because it seems to be incredibly unfair of God to choose to save me, but not my brother. This huge issue of divine sovereignty in salvation has divided Christians since the beginning of the church. Paul faced it head on in Romans 9:6-29, where he draws parallels in God’s choice of Isaac, not Ishmael, and of Jacob, not Esau.

He states clearly that God chose Jacob: ‘before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls …’ [verse 11,12]. Then he asks the question that bothers us all:

‘What then shall we say? Is God unjust?’ and answers ‘Not at all! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy’ [verse 14,15].

Our issues with God here at this critical point of sovereign grace spring from our twisted perception that in this matter of choice we are on the same level as God: Equal negotiators with God with equal rights to call the shots. Equally as informed as God, with equal knowledge of God’s eternal and sovereign purposes. Equally as free as God, with equal ability to actually make this choice.

When we rant against this divine sovereign grace, and want to reclaim this choice back for ourselves, we are forgetting who and what and where we were before God saved us: we were sinful rebels who desired nothing of God; we were prisoners of Satan who had so entrapped our minds and our hearts that we were brainwashed into allegiance to him; we were blind, so overwhelmed by the darkness that we actually thought it was the light. Jesus summed this up in his words: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…’ [John 6:44] and ‘No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him [Matthew 11:27].

This grace, this sovereign divine choice, over which we so easily stumble, is our only hope. Apart from this offensive grace, we would never, we could never, return to God.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2010