Sweaty Grace

A parable: two students each received scholarships to Harvard University. Full rides, every possible expense paid. Both were bright kids, and both felt intimidated by the reputation of such a great college. They each thought, “I don’t deserve to be here.” One student studied day and night. She gave it all she had. The other student began to enjoy the thrill of college life: parties, the big city nearby, and the freedom of being on his own for the first time in his life. By mid term, the first student was still working hard, earning C’s and B’s in her classes. The other was failing every class and placed on academic probation. By Christmas, the first student had earned a 3.0 GPA, but the second had flunked out of Harvard. Which of these two students laid hold of the opportunity given to them?

Of course, the answer is the first student, humble and hard working. The second student was the object of gossip: “How could he throw away an opportunity like that?” people asked.

Imagine for a moment that the grace of God is like a full ride to Harvard: beyond expectation, every expense paid, a life-changing opportunity. Anyone watching these two students would conclude that the student who flunked out had thrown away a once in a lifetime opportunity. The scholarship to Harvard was a gift of grace, but the truth was that the work was just beginning. God’s grace is something like this parable. He does for us what we could not possibly do for ourselves. What is beyond our reach is joyfully paid in full by Jesus Christ, but the work is just beginning. Why would we squander the possibilities of new birth in Christ?

Some people might object to the close association between the word “grace” and the word “work.” God’s grace comes with no strings attached, doesn’t it? No amount of effort on our part could win his pardon. True enough—it’s just not the whole story.

The whole story goes beyond the fact that God picked up the tab we couldn’t pay: he invites us to labor with him as the Kingdom of God breaks into the Earth. The Apostle Paul knew immediately that Jesus had laid hold of him for a purpose. Paul, filled with gratitude for God’s grace and forgiveness, began to call himself “God’s fellow worker.” (I Corinthians 3:9) He considered the church in Corinth God’s field, God’s building, and he considered himself privileged to join the workforce. Paul was well aware that he had no moral standing to plant, preach, or pastor God’s new church in Corinth; he was also aware that his “qualifications” were not the issue: “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (I Corinthians 15: 10) What a strange combination of words: “grace” and “worked harder” all in one sentence.

Like the student who received a full ride to Harvard, we need to receive the grace of God for what it is: a calling to a new life, a life in which we join the family business.

Paul isn’t the only Biblical example. Imagine the grace of God coming to one man, with a warning of worldwide judgment. Imagine that this one man–out of all the world–had found favor in God’s sight. You are imagining Noah. In an era when sin and violence threatened to spoil all of creation, the grace of God came to one man with the warning of a flood and instructions to build an ark. The grace was in the warning; building the ark was the response. God did for Noah what he could not do for himself. Noah responded by partnering with God to bring safety to every living creature. Tradition holds that construction of the ark took 120 years. Imagine 120 years of faithfulness in response to the grace of God. Noah’s response to God’s grace was sweat and effort for longer than men or women live in our day. Here’s the lesson: the only reasonable response to the grace of God is gratitude that moves us to action.

Some are given a free ride to an Ivy League school. Others hear a word of warning generations before the great and terrible day of the Lord. We all are given God’s grace to become fellow workers in the family business. 

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Ray Hollenbach, a Chicagoan, writes about faith and culture. He is the managing editor of Ministry Tech. He book "Deeper Hope" (and others) is available at Amazon.com He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture.