No-Favorites Merit

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I grew up with a traditional definition of grace as God’s unmerited favor. With time, my definition had to flip-flop and expand. What if grace were better defined as unfavored merit—as God’s refusal to show favoritism?

Job spoke of a Redeemer who would stand on the earth at end times (Job 19:25). He yearned to see this Advocate who would speak out on his behalf. He wanted his merit—his goodness—to count for something. But Job’s own merit was not the point.

High on a cross, Jesus suffered for the sins of the world. One of the criminals crucified with him challenged Jesus to save himself and the two of them (Luke 23:39-43), and Jesus responded. This thief created a dilemma for those of us who turn to faith early in our lives the way that Job did. We expect to have earned a certain degree of favoritism. The other criminal saw only justice in his own death sentence and that of his thieving colleague: "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve" (Luke 23:41). This criminal turned to Jesus—whom he recognized to be innocent—and asked him to remember him. Jesus told the late-repenting criminal that he would be with him in paradise on the same day. This was classic case of unmerited favor instead of an outcome based on justice.

Job expected justice to be in his favor. And like Job, our childhood experiences of faith can lead us to a long and virtuous new life . . . yet the dying thief is still our equal—and Job's—in the economy of grace.

Whereas the crucified thief knew better than to ask for justice, Job wished to use it to make a case for his innocence. Job was so sensitive to sin that he resisted or repented from it at every turn. To the best of his ability, he had lived by God's law as best he knew it.

Now it was not grace (unmerited favor) Job sought, but justification for his meritorious life. Just the same, God’s gift to Job was unfavored merit.

The coin of grace has two sides. It's easier to understand and yearn for grace when we are not blameless. As a law-abiding man, Job did not seek grace. He did not see that he was not a perfect man but a forgiven one, as much in need of grace as the penitent thief—and you and me. He asked for justice and expected favor for his merit. But grace, unfavored merit, was the greatest gift that Job would ever receive.

Job's quest for a Redeemer opened his heart to the reality that his good works were not enough. "The law," as Paul notes, "was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus."

As we recall Christ’s passion and seek to live repentant lives, let us focus not on our merit, so unmerited, but on the wonderful gift of God’s grace, His lack of favoritism.

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