Sam is a Jehovah’s Witness who stops by once in a while to chat about Jesus. Usually, at the hour he stops by, I am busy preparing for a gospel message or for a bible study so I have several bibles strewn across the table and I am tapping away on my laptop. For this reason, Sam likes to compliment me on how studious I am.
“There’s not many people like you around here; people that want to study the bible and truly know Jehova. Most people just don’t care about spiritual things, but you, a young guy like you, studying the Bible, that is quite something.”
As I thought about this compliment, I realized it made perfect sense for a Jehovah’s Witness to say. At the end of day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a sect that is based upon self-righteousness, as any worldly religion is. For them, salvation is certainly a work of Jesus, on Jehovah’s behalf. But both the act of faith and the continued faithfulness throughout the life of a believer, are human works. You believe because you chose to believe. You are faithful to Jehovah because you put in the work of being faithful (which of course is why they keep showing up at your door).
Now, the compliment that Sam keeps pestering me with does, in some sense, make sense for a Christian. We don’t deny that we make real choices of faith and faithfulness. We are not robots controlled by a sovereign God.
However, it is a uniquely Christian thing to recognize that at bottom, at the very root of faith and faithfulness, it is 100 % God at work, and therefore we cannot take even .01% of the credit. We cannot pat ourselves on the back for the faith we have because that faith is a gift from God, completely undeserved.
One place in Scripture where we see this truth pop up is in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul is busy explaining where his apostolic authority comes from and thus is reminded of his murderous past and his unworthiness to be counted among the apostles. But, by the grace of God, says Paul, he is an apostle, and as if he is making up for the lost time when he wasn’t an apostle, Paul makes the claim that: “I worked harder than any of them.” And all of a sudden Paul sounds like Sam the Jehovah’s Witness.
However, notice how quick Paul is to qualify his statement. Without finishing his sentence, Paul adds: “yet not I, but the grace of God that was in me.” It is as if Paul immediately recognizes that what he has just written could be terribly misconstrued and so in a flurry he dips his pen in the inkwell and adds the bit about the grace of God.
Yet, for Paul, grace is not just an add-on that muffles any boasting in himself. No, for Paul, and for every Christian, grace is everything. The Christian life is shot-through with grace. Grace is around every corner and grace runs ahead and is hot on the heels of any sort of statement of faith or faithfulness on our part.
So, can we complement one another for being a student of Scripture, for pursuing holiness, for being faithful in the Christian life? Yes, but so long as grace is right there too, erasing any boasting and pointing our gaze up to Jesus. Last time Sam arrived and complimented me on being such a great student of Scripture (which was a bit ironic given that I was actually just working on planning for an English class), I finally had the sense to borrow Paul’s words and respond: “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
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