So what is the relationship between divine grace and human effort? Let’s start by imagining me as the quarterback of the Washington Redskins instead of Robert Griffin III … or not. It doesn’t matter how much strength training, how much coaching, and how many years of practice I had, I could never be a NFL quarterback, much less a quarterback like RG3. He is gifted with a certain body type and a certain set of talents that makes him who he is. Me? Not so much.
Excellence at that level is, from one perspective, pure gift: RG3, LeBron James, and Stephen Hawking are uniquely gifted. No one else could do what they do. That’s the “grace” side.
But their success was not inevitable and that’s the “effort” side. There was no guarantee that Hawking would become a brilliant physicist or that James would become so dominant on the basketball court. While they are uniquely gifted, what we see is the result or training, repetition, suffering, effort, etc.
There is also a flip side to these observations. There are probably young men out there who are every bit as gifted as RG3, but who did not have the discipline to do what he did through the years to develop that sort of excellence. Even though certain people are gifted (or graced) with remarkable native talent which is a necessity to excel, excellence still requires a great deal of work. It’s not either/or, it’s both grace and work.
This offers a limited but helpful analogy to the various, seemingly contradictory strands related to salvation in the New Testament. We must recognize that salvation is pure gift (ie, divine grace) while acknowledging, at the same time, that it is hard work. The young and brash apostle Paul created a seemingly uncrossable divide between faith and “the works of the law” in Galatians. To be fair to the young apostle, he did say that naked faith was not enough: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith made effective by means of love” (Gal. 5:6).
My folks were very involved with the Navigators, a Christian parachurch organization that promotes discipleship among believers. There are a host of such organizations (Navs, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Youth with a Mission, L’Abri, etc.) which are a Protestant analog to the monastic movements of the Roman and Eastern churches. Common among all of them is the understanding that there can be more to the Christian life, but it requires great effort, great discipline, and great dedication to achieve it. I suppose some might find it ironic that the Navs, as committed as they are to sever Christian discipline, have an historic affinity with the Presbyterian Church and Reformed theology. Scripture memorization, small group accountability, prayer, meditation, and study, in no way contradict their commitment to the pure grace of salvation.
This perspective on Christian commitment above and beyond just going to worship on Sunday morning ought to remind us of RG3, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Serena Williams, Leo Messi, etc. Athleticism, after all, is one of the best analogies we have for the Christian life. Even Paul was fond of it. “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26f).
Salvation is free, but so is the exercise trail in South Sioux City; fervently believing in it and driving out to it on Sunday morning won’t get me fit. I have to embrace and exercise the gift if I ever hope to have, not just life, but life abundantly (Jn. 10:10). This is why it is important, critical even, to affirm that salvation is hard. Not in a burdensome way, but in a 5k run or RAGRBRAI sort of way.