Some years ago, a young woman shared her story as she was about to be baptized. She told the congregation how God had been at work in her life (it’s been a long time and the details aren’t necessary) and we all gave thanks to God. And then she said something funny as she concluded and was about to be baptized:
“…and now I want to pay God back by doing something for Him.”
I don’t remember much about that day, but this stuck with me for a long time. I felt uneasy, not because of any doubt about this young person’s profession of faith, and not because I was in a nit-picky kind of mood (although that was hardly uncommon in those days).
No, I felt uneasy because unwittingly this young woman was setting herself up to fail.
Somewhere along the way, she’d picked up the notion that she needed to pay God back for His gracious work in her life, as though that were possible. But this idea should never be given credence by God’s people—it only leads to disaster. Justin Holcomb describes this well in On the Grace of God when he writes:
There is a damaging idea floating around that says, “God saved you, now what are you going to do for him?” This is a recipe for failure. If you come to the table believing you can do anything for God in your own strength or repay him on any level, you have already lost. You are back to confessing your self-dependent spiritual death from which Jesus saved you.
You and I have no power to pay God back for anything—we “go and sin no more” (John 8:11) by His grace alone, not by our own strength. The works we do are works of grace, not for the satisfaction of a debt. When we lean on anything but the grace of God, when we try to pay God back in some way, we set ourselves up for certain disaster.