Can't Earn It

Grace, part 1

We live by grace. We live in grace. There is a joy in life. Even amid the grief and tragedy – in part because of the grief and tragedy, growing out of the sadness – there is a joy.

Many years ago, one summer when my daughter was six and my son was four, we moved: from Georgia to Virginia. New town, new state, new schools. When August came, and the first day of school approached, my daughter was nervous about beginning second grade. She was anxious, which was perfectly understandable.

I asked her what she was afraid of, and she said, “I’m afraid they will ask me what the capital of South Dakota is.” It was a tender and funny moment – my little girl, growing and struggling to cope with a large, strange, and challenging world. So I told her the capital of South Dakota.

Yeah, I blew it.

There’s a place for knowledge, but that’s not the lead of the story she needed in that moment. The poignancy of her need kept me thinking about it. She was teaching me how to be her Dad, and this was my homework. Eventually I did come around to saying what I wished I’d said right off:

“Number one, it’s OK to not know. It’s always OK to just say, I don’t know. Number two, the other kids don’t know either. They don’t know all the states and capitals. I know they don’t because states-and-capitals aren’t taught until 5th-grade. I know some of the kids will seem like they know everything, but inside they’re as scared as you are right now that something about them is wrong. Number three, what you do know really is just right for second grade. You know what 13 plus 12 is. You know what a vertebrate is. You can read. And write. There’s an exciting adventure of second grade before you, and you are prepared. And, finally, number four: it’s Pierre.”

My daughter’s vulnerability in that moment was a gift – as it always is when someone shows us their vulnerability. It was a gift that I didn’t expect, and had not earned, and it was a gift of love. In Christian theology, grace is “the freely given, unmerited favor and love of God.”

For John Calvin, the 16th-century Protestant theologian, grace played a very different role then it does for us. Calvin is worth knowing about for two reasons. First, his thought was hugely influential on our culture. The Puritans and Pilgrims that laid the foundation for what would become the United States were Calvinist. And second because Unitarianism and Universalism have been defined as a sustained reaction to Calvinism. Calvin set the agenda. Unitarians went through and said no to every item on the agenda.

"Total depravity," said Calvin. "Human beings are utterly and totally depraved, corrupt to the core, consumed by sin."
"Nope. Inherent worth and dignity of every person," we said. "It’s a blessing you were born."

"Salvation by faith alone," said Calvin. "Not by your good deeds can you get into heaven."
"Nope. Salvation by works and by character," we said. "It matters what you do."

"Predestination," said Calvin. "It was determined before any of us were born who was going to heaven and who was going to hell, and there’s nothing you can do to change it."
"Nope. Freedom is real, and, with it, character can be nurtured and developed," we said.

"Limited atonement," said Calvin. "Christ’s sacrifice on the cross atoned for the sins of only a few of us."
"Nope. We are all saved," we said.

Straight down the line, whatever Calvin said, we said the opposite.

Grace had an important role in Calvin’s thought. The grace of God is bestowed upon the elect – those whom God has determined to save. Though these elect are as depraved as anybody, God overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel. The point of emphasizing how depraved we are was to make clear that we can’t save ourselves, and, hence, how dependent we are on God’s gratuitous grace.

I think our forebears were right to dispute Calvin, and I’m glad they did, for in doing so they created this religious tradition which today we inherit. After almost 500 years, though, perhaps we can set aside some of our reactivity and acknowledge a good point. In very important ways, we aren’t in control. That’s the nugget of truth buried in Calvin’s stilted theology. We don’t make and cannot earn the goodness of the world.

The best things in life are free: air to breathe, friendship, love, hugs, smiles, laughter, sleep, the company of trees. You don’t have to earn them, you can’t buy them, and nothing you can say, do, be, or become can make you deserve them any more or any less.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Grace"
See also
Part 2: Pay Nothing But Attention
Part 3: Spend It On the World

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