I think grace has been misunderstood for a very long time in American Christianity. Either people feel that one must earn his way to heaven (grace = God taking up the slack of what we miss) or they feel it doesn’t matter how one lives her life at all (grace = free pass).
From my perspective, grace is God coming down to where I am and offering me relationship based on his love rather than upon my performance. I am not good enough and I never will be good enough to receive one iota of this unselfish love. He gives it just because he is the definition of love: it’s his nature.
However, while his love is not contingent upon my performance, his love is not content to leave me where I am.
To use a very poor metaphor, it is a coach who selects the most unlikely, clumsy, and out-of-shape couch potato and says “You are on my team. I want you to be on my team and you are on my team as long as you want to stay.” However, for the coach to allow said couch potato to remain in this condition would be the height of irresponsibility to the team and a lack of love toward the man.
So what does he do? He begins to put this out of shape man through training. He runs him through drills, he conditions him, he pushes him to his limits–all because he wants this person to become an effective team player. Because you see, God loves this man, but he also loves the team. The training then becomes a demonstration of his love for both the man and the team. Beyond that there is an ultimate goal: to play the game well.
Character and virtue–developing the mind of Christ–is about training. Anyone who is saved, is saved by grace. No one saves herself, no one is good enough–everyone is messed up and incapable of rescuing himself. As the great theologian Odd Thomas says, “We’re broken and a broken thing can’t fix itself.”
But God expects us to develop the mind of Christ. He expects us to grow in character and in virtue. So, through his guidance, we begin to practice the disciplines. Not to earn heaven, not to make God happy or proud of us, but because his will is central and his goal–bringing his will on earth as it is in heaven–becomes our goal.
And what are these disciplines? Common sense things like honesty, integrity, love, peace, joy, unselfish service to the broken, and patience. We train in the outward disciplines of community, service, and forgiveness along with the inward disciplines of prayer, meditation, and study. All of this so we get into shape to live as citizens of the kingdom. (Or as N. T. Wright describes it, “learning the language” of the kingdom.)
We are saved by grace, we are sustained by grace. We earn nothing. But we train in godly virtue and character to live as God’s people.
So what do you think? Does this make sense? How would you describe the dynamic between grace and virtue/character development?