It’s rare for me to feel anything but excited when I see people being baptized. Every time they happen at our church, I think back to my own baptism and being able to publicly declare myself to be in Christ. To participate in one of the two most ancient customs of our faith and celebrate the grace of God. I say “rare” because there has been one time when I felt something other than joy.
Once, I actually felt grief as I watched.
A number of years ago, I listened as a young woman shared her story before being 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, she said, “…and now I want to pay God back by doing something for him.”
Now, I know a lot of people would find this pretty minor, not something that should cause grief (or a blog post to be written). But it’s funny: I don’t remember hardly anything else about that day, but I do remember this. And I remember feeling uneasy as soon as those words left her mouth, not because I had questions about this young person’s profession of faith (I wasn’t in close enough relationship to say one way or another), but because of the burden she had placed upon herself.
I felt uneasy because, unwittingly, this young woman had set 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. She’s not alone in this, of course. There are many people who act as though their deeds can cancel out their debt to God, or that they can earn his favor—even among those who profess to be Christians! Grace cannot be earned, only given. Grace is scandalous, after all.
But this idea of “paying God back” or otherwise earning approval 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.
An earlier version of this post was first published in June, 2013.