On Getting What We Deserve

We should not want what we deserve – what we want and need is grace:

For some reason the word “merit” popped into my mind early this morning, so I reflected on it briefly, before moving on to other matters. But then my morning Scripture reading, coupled with a social media post, brought it back to me. So let me seek to tie all three of these events together here.

As to the “M” word, I thought of it in a religious context, knowing that it is both a noun and a verb. A quick online search offers us these definitions:

Noun – the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.

Verb – deserve or be worthy of (reward, punishment, or attention).

My reading in the Gospel of John made me reflect on these definitions as I kept finding Jesus challenging the religious leaders of the day. If anyone thought they deserved or earned or merited God’s favour, it was the Scribes and Pharisees. But Jesus had to continuously disavow them of this false notion.

Indeed, Jesus constantly made a distinction between those who really belonged to God and those who did not. As to these leaders, Jesus made it plain that God was NOT their father. Instead, as he said to them in John 8:44, “you are of your father the devil.”

This truth that not everyone is a true child of God is a core biblical teaching. The affirmation of two distinct humanities is found throughout John’s gospel. Here are just several passages worth recalling:

John 3:18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

John 5:24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

John 5:28-29 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

And to reinforce this idea that not all will partake of God’s favour, he emphasises how it is God who is at work here. As we read in John 6:60-65:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

That God is ultimately the one to give credit to for our salvation – and everything else – is a theme found throughout Scripture. We read repeatedly for example that ancient Israel was chosen by God NOT because they merited it. Consider just one such passage, Deuteronomy 7:7-8:

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

And of course so many others made the same point, including the Apostle Paul. As he said in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Indeed, when folks are dead in their trespasses and sins, they are in no position to do anything meritorious or to boast about anything. They can only cast themselves on the mercy and grace of God. Yet countless millions of folks somehow think they deserve to go to heaven and that they are somehow meritorious enough in themselves to please God.

Let me now bring in my third element from this morning: a post I saw on the social media. It was a quote from Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

The post had this quote of his: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.” Wow. I did a quick net search and discovered that the quote is not new, but something he said back in 2014.

It is however a perfect example of what I have been discussing here. It is the default position of countless folks, and certainly of most religious folks. They really do think they deserve to go to heaven. They really think they are pretty decent folks that God is pleased with. As Sinclair Ferguson put it in his 2010 volume, By Grace Alone:

Image of The Holiness of God
The Holiness of God by Sproul, R. C. (Author) Amazon logo

Religious people are always profoundly disturbed when they discover that they are not, and never have been, true Christians. Does all of their religion count for nothing? Those hours in church, hours spent doing good things, hours involved in religious activity—do they not count for something in the presence of God? Do they not enable me to say: “Look at what I have done. Don’t I deserve heaven?” Sadly, thinking that I deserve heaven is a sure sign I have no understanding of the gospel.

Yes quite so – and too many folks have no understanding of what grace means either. At the heart of the biblical teaching on divine grace is the notion of unmerited favour. We get – and need – grace because we are undeserving. We do not merit it. All that sinners deserve is divine punishment.

R. C. Sproul has often discussed such matters as well. In his superb book The Holiness of God (Tyndale, 1985) he has a chapter on “Holy Justice” and discusses this idea of merit and getting what we deserve. He looks at the important distinction between justice and mercy. He writes:

We often blame God for the injustices done to us and harbor in our souls the bitter feeling that God has not been fair toward us. Even if we recognize that He is gracious, we think that He has not been gracious enough. We think we deserve more grace.

Please read that last sentence again: We think we deserve more grace. What is wrong with that sentence? Grammatically it is fine. But there is something seriously wrong with the content, with the meaning of the sentence. 

It is impossible for anyone, anywhere, anytime to deserve grace. Grace by definition is undeserved. As soon as we talk about deserving something, we are no longer talking about grace; we are talking about justice. Only justice can be deserved. God is never obligated to be merciful. Mercy and grace must be voluntary or they are no longer mercy and grace. God never “owes” grace. He reminds us more than once: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy” (Exod. 33:19). This is the divine prerogative. God reserves for Himself the supreme right of executive clemency. 

It does not matter if you are a millionaire and former NYC mayor, or anyone else. We have all gone astray, we all deserve the just wrath of God for our sins, but we can call out to God, asking for his mercy. Cast yourself on his grace and on his mercy. We all need it, and no one deserves it.

Let me conclude by making this plea. I know there are all sorts of folks who will now want to come here and start WWIII. Their theological pet peeves have been all stirred up, and they feel that they must “correct” others who dare to differ with them. Maybe I am getting old, but I do not want that to happen here.

I want people not to derail the main point I am seeking to make here. And that is this: praise God for his glorious grace. We do not deserve it, and we need to thank him now and throughout eternity for his wonderful mercy and matchless grace. Those who prefer to argue are advised to set up their own website and do their thing there!

I will let Martyn Lloyd-Jones have the last word here: “The ultimate test of our spirituality is the measure of our amazement at the grace of God.”

[1518 words]

13 Replies to “On Getting What We Deserve”

  1. These 3-simple definitions assisted me is sorting out a lot of Scripture and theology:
    Justice…….you get what you deserve
    Mercy……..you don’t get what you deserve
    Grace……..you get what you don’t deserve.

  2. ‘Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!’

    Thank You, Father, for Your unwavering love for us and Your unmerited favour, Amen.

  3. I left a cult 28 years ago into orthodoxy and grace is still the sweetest doctrine to my soul!

  4. Most of our skewed understanding of the concepts of mercy, grace and justice comes from the decreasing tendency in the churches on teaching about sin and man’s true nature, and so consequently when we witness to those outside we fail to pass on the truth of man’s need. Outside the church we magnify the problem by teaching that feelings of guilt are misplaced and the cause of poor mental health whereas, in reality, trying to ignore our guilt is the true cause of many mental health issues. So, when sharing the truth and the gospel with others, I find the lack of understanding of our true nature to be a significant barrier to communicating the message. Instead of seeing ourselves as sinners deserving of God’s justice we see ourselves as basically good, with no one harmed by the little white lies we tell, the gossip we speak, etc. If we haven’t literally killed someone or committed a ‘serious’ crime, we think we’re pretty well ok.
    Even Christian understanding can be oriented towards the idea that we are basically good in the way we interpret the passages that make mention of God looking on the heart, rather than external appearances. When God looks at the heart, it is telling us that God’s judgement is more than skin deep – for some reason though we tend to interpret that to mean that God will be happy with what he finds in the heart when he assesses our motives and intentions. But this thought of God probing deeper into my heart and my true motives causes me to pause and tremble…for the scripture doesn’t have much of a complimentary nature to say about the heart – for out of the heart the mouth speaks; it is out of the heart that evil thoughts come —murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. The heart is deceitful about all things and I think this is a perfect example of how it does that.
    In one of my favourite books, ‘The Death of Christ’, James Denney explains it well. He describes Christ’s death as ‘a great proof of love to the SINFUL.’ If we don’t understand the meaning of sin and the implications of this, we’ll miss understanding the Gospel altogether and the concepts of mercy, grace and justice. Sin kills – in Denney’s analogy he describes our situation as being drowning sinners who’ve fallen from the end of the pier and Christ has dived in to rescue us, at the risk of making our peril his own. But unfortunately, with the lack of teaching on sin and human nature, we don’t see ourselves this way – rather we see ourselves sitting on the end of that pier enjoying the sunshine, just occasionally dabbling our toes in the water.

  5. Thanks Bill, at first I thought the heading ‘On getting what we deserve’ was going to be about Gladys Berejiklian and the kafuffle she has got into. Indeed Gladys has been an outstanding premier of NSW through the bushfires and now coronavirus by putting people first, she said, but she didn’t put all our wishes first when she and her govt pushed through new abortion rules last year (August 2019) with abortion up to full term. I thought the reason for expediting the new abortion legislation was due to the film “Unplanned” coming out in cinemas but Riccardo Bosi of the new Australia One Party said he thinks the reason may be that when President Trump defunded Planned Parenthood they were short of baby parts and needed them asap. I don’t know what for. What I am saying is, Gladys, its time to go, you’ve worked hard but you haven’t done God’s Will along with all the others I have on a list from Fred Nile. But back to Bill’s superb article – we are saved by grace, not by our own efforts as Jesus said in Matthew 7:22-23 ‘Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name?….And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.’ We have to keep seeking God and trusting in Him, not in ourselves.

  6. Far too many members of churchianity not enough of Christianity.

    So many will say Lord, Lord and hear begone I never knew ye.

  7. The cross is not a tragic event, but the most powerful event to save men from their sin. Only those who don’t understand the cross, will view it as tragic.

    1 Corinthians 1:18-31
    New King James Version
    Christ the Power and Wisdom of God

    18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
    And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
    20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

    Glory Only in the Lord

    26 For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. 27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; 28 and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 29 that no flesh should glory in His presence. 30 But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— 31 that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.”

    By grace alone, through faith alone, Christ alone, the word of life alone. Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given to men whereby we must be saved. Thank you Bill great piece of doctrinal truth. Blessings.

  8. No WW III from me!
    Thanks, Bill, for telling it like it is and pulling no punches. (Sorry about the cliches.)

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