I read a very short but interesting book on Friday. It was called How Good Is Good Enough by Andy Stanley. It was really written for nonbelievers, but as I read it I realized that much of it applied to me as well.
Stanley says that most Americans believe in an afterlife, and if you ask those Americans what it takes to get to heaven, most of them will give some variation of the same answer: be good and you'll get in. He spends the rest of the book showing why that is a bad answer -- not just theologically, but logically.
Even though I might not have been in the target audience, I saw myself very clearly in the pages of that book. I've been living on a variation of the "good enough" belief system for a very long time. I don't believe that doing good things can earn me a place in heaven--I have always understood that only Jesus' sacrifice could do that. But once I was saved, I believed that salvation was basically mine to lose. If the Baptist view of salvation could be summed up as "once saved, always saved," then the Pentecostal belief could be stated as "once saved, barely saved." You could lose your salvation for any number of infractions.
Early on, when I attended churches with "Holiness Standards," the line was very clear: you dressed a certain way, no jewelry, women never cut their hair, men always had short hair, etc. Baptism (and baptism by a certain formula) was essential for salvation, as was speaking in tongues. Leadership was to be respected. Tithes were to be paid. Of course, they also had the more traditional list of terrible sins from which one was not likely to recover, but any violation of the rules could disqualify you from salvation. Essentially, works were still a part of the salvation equation.
I've moved on from that church -- and I've been in a couple of churches now since then -- but somehow, that belief has stuck with me. The list of salvation-losing mistakes has gotten shorter, but it was always there.
Salvation by grace? To me, grace meant getting another chance to get it right. Grace was like a chance to re-take a test that I had performed badly on at school. Grace was an extra few days to get a bill paid. Grace was getting a do-over when I really should have struck out. It was undeserved, it was very welcome, it was still amazing... but even after receiving grace, I still had to do something. Grace was the thought that Jesus died to give me a chance to know God... a chance to repent, get baptized, and live by the rules.
If you blew it, then the grace didn't matter. If I got just as bad a score on the test when I took it the second time, where was the benefit? What if I didn't get the bill paid in the grace period? What if I struck out again on the do-over? What if I violated the rules and lost my salvation?
But if I'm understanding Stanley correctly, that's not grace at all. Grace is failing the test, but being given an 'A' that someone else earned on my behalf. Grace is someone else paying the bill. Grace is not dependent on what I do.
Is salvation really that kind of grace--a grace without the strings?
Is the idea that I could do something bad enough to lose my salvation just as absurd as the idea that I could do something good enough to earn it?