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The Paradox of Salvation

Ephesians 2:8-9

James R. Davis

I like paradoxes. Webster defines the word paradox: "a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true: An argument that apparently derives self contradictory conclusions by valid deduction from acceptable premises."

I once had a camper trailer with a refrigerator that ran on a gas flame. To me this always seemed to be a great paradox. When it was heated up it got cold. The flame actually heated a solution in the tubes running through the refrigerator. The heat caused a chemical reaction that rendered the solution cold enough to freeze water. To me nothing seems more contradictory or paradoxical than getting ice from fire.

Yet, nothing is more paradoxical than life. Love and hate are paradoxes, yet they can dwell in the same heart. It has been said that there is only a fine line that separates love and hate. No matter who I am there is only a very thin line between who I am and what I could be.

How many times have you gone to a grocery store and watched the price of each item as it rings up on the computerized cash register. When the cash register rings an item up for $.50 more than the marked shelf-price what do you do? Some stores in our area began giving you the item free if the computer had the price programmed wrong. Some shoppers were smart and they would go back and get ten of those items hoping that all ten would be free. So stores made a rule that you could only get one item free.

But what do you do when you look at the cash register price ring up $.50 less than the marked shelf price? There is a fine line between being honest and a thief. I don't want to make any of us so uncomfortable with the ethics of shopping that we miss rest of the lesson. So relax, the lesson is not on ethics or honesty. We want to look at paradoxes. This paradox between who I am and what I could be, for either good or bad, causes an extreme amount of tension in living for each of us.

A number of years ago stress was called tension. In time we began to define tension as stress. But during that time when stress was spoken of as tension someone said, "Tension is the price you pay for being alive!" The fine line over the $.50 at the cash register shows me something about the paradox of living. It also creates the tension that defines me.

The Paradox of Grace

Life is full of paradoxes and nothing deals with the paradoxes of life better than the Bible. Actually salvation is the greatest paradox of all. It is the tension the paradox of grace creates that keeps us alert and alive as Christians. God takes the most evil act of humanity, the crucifixion of God, and presents that evil act as the means of humanities salvation. In that evil act of humanity the Holy God of heaven laid upon his Son the iniquities of us all. What a paradox?

The grace of God continues to be a mystery to all. For grace is the most confusing paradox in theology. The tension that the paradox of grace causes has to do with freedom and responsibility. Now there is a paradox! Is it freedom and responsibility or freedom vs. responsibility? Most everyone in the religious world holds a view that cancels the other. It is how we handle each that defines the other. And how we handle each is what defines life for each of us.

Some proclaim freedom excludes responsibility. Others proclaim that personal responsibility excludes freedom. Yet the very act of God's grace in salvation teaches that neither cancels the other; both are valid conclusions. God's grace is a contradiction; it is impossible but possible. It is the heat that is caused over the tension between freedom and responsibility that necessitates grace. Salvation involves the maximum freedom and maximum responsibility. Grace says both are equally binding.

God is sovereign and he is free to do what he wishes. Yet, responsibility defines his freedom, which results in grace. Each conflict with the other and in doing so each creates the appreciation for the other. Each creates the need for the other. Out of the wretched experience of living between the two equally valid conclusions of the paradox comes our wretched need for salvation by grace.

It is not hard to understand but extremely difficult to grasp. If we do get a grip on it then we are no longer in His grip. If we lose our grip then we are no longer free or responsible. I must accept the fact that there is nothing I can do, while I understand that "If it is to be, it is up to me." There will forever be those who hold to one concept while refusing the other. There will forever be those who seek to explain it. But all you can do with it . . . is accept it. It is only then that you will benefit from it. Too most that sounds like a compromise. But for those who are saved there can be no compromise.

The Freedom of Grace

David Branon says: "It's a good thing our local library gives a grace period before it starts charging for overdue books. My family checks out books by the dozen, and sometimes we forget to get them back on time."

"Recently one of my daughters passed the grace period--by more than three weeks. When I went to pay the fine, I asked if we could get credit for the grace period and pay just for the days after that. I was told, however, that once the grace period has elapsed, the full penalty is due."

According to the Bible, we live in the age of grace. In this age of grace God is withholding His judgment because He does not want anyone to perish, but someday the period of grace will suddenly be over, and it will be time to `pay the fine' for the wages of sin. 1

Through God's grace he has chosen to make everyone free from the debt of sin. Yet as grace extends the freedom from sin it also imposes a responsibility. Through faith you must accept God's grace before your grace period is over. It is your choice. "If it is to be, it is up to me." You are absolutely free to do whatever you wish. Yet, grace says you are responsible for the decision.

In the Bible grace is always equated with freedom and liberty. The Bible also equates faith with personal responsibility. (Ephesians 2:8-9) The Bible also makes it very clear that salvation involves both. During this age of grace, we have to acknowledge our sinfulness to God and put our faith in Jesus Christ who has already taken the complete penalty for sin on Himself, but if we die without responding to Christ, or if He returns and we've rejected Him, the "grace period" will be over and we will be judged responsible for our own sin.

An Awesome Sense of Responsibility

Some envision responsibility like a spelling bee. When I was going to school as a child each year the school would have a spelling bee. If you won the spelling, you could continue competing until you went to Washington D. C. That was the goal. The class would line up against the wall and the teacher would begin giving out the words. The longer you stayed the harder the words got. The amazing thing was, if you missed one word you were out. You would sit down and there would be no trip to Washington for you.2

If our sense of responsibility is like a spelling bee, there is no hope for any of us. "We are not just persons of sorrow, acquainted with grief; we are persons of guilt acquainted with failure."3 If life is like a spelling bee, then there is no hope. No one spells life correctly! Grace reminds us that without grace life is like a spelling bee, that is, until we choose to be responsible and accept grace.

A young man had failed miserably. He went to a counselor and emptied himself of all of his failures. The counselor told him that his failure reminded him of lots of other people who had come to him for counseling. The counselor asks him if he would be willing to listen to taped interviews of others' failures. He told the young man that the people had given him permission to use the taped interviews. So the young man agreed to listen to the tapes.

The first taped interview was the voice of a man. It soon became clear that he was a father who had failed in raising his son. He had realized that he had done certain things to his son as he was growing up which were now causing the son a great deal of pain. The father was filled with remorse for the way he had used his parental power.

The second tape was the voice of a female. She had been through a divorce years before. She was just beginning to realize the part she had played in the failed marriage. Up until this time she had blamed her husband, but she realized that marriage was a mutual undertaking. Marriages are not created alone and they are not destroyed alone. She was equally responsible and now she was filled with remorse.

The third tape was that of an executive who had taken an uncalculated risk and failed miserably. He had failed to research his decision properly. Events began to occur that he had not anticipated and the company was losing millions and his own job was in jeopardy. He was full of self-loathing for his failure in his job.

The therapist ask the young man who was listening to the tapes, Can you see the thread connecting each of these stories?"

The man responded, "Well, of course. Each of these people, in his or her own way, is saying, 'If only I had acted differently in the past.'"

The counselor told the young man that his observation was correct.

Then the counselor told the young man that he was instrumental in getting each person on the tapes unstuck from their difficulties. He told them all they had to do was change two words that continued to recur in their conversation. He taught them to say "next time" rather than "if only". 4

You see the "if only" continues to hound us about our responsibility. It can be like flunking a spelling bee. Once you have failed, you are a failure and there is no hope for recovery. And a failure is what you will forever be. Responsibility makes us come face to face with our own limitations. I am a failure and truly that is all that I will ever be. But a healthy sense of responsibility tells us that there is a "next time" and raises us from failure that we might do better the "next time". Yet it is the very freedom of the "next time" that makes us responsible now.

"If only" points to a human experience that cannot be altered. The past is solidified and no longer fluid. You may feel deeply about it but you do not have the power to go back and redo it . . . the "next time" points to an aspect of human experience that is still open, still fluid. It is out there to be shaped. This frees you from the past, it allows you to accept yourself as a failure while making you responsible to the future.

The Sustaining Power of God's grace

Yet, it is the power of God's grace that sustains between the "if only" and "the next time". Grace sets us free to learn and discover that there is freedom from the "if only" and teaches us to do the responsible thing the "next time". Grace is what sustains us not the hounding responsibility of the "if only" or the dogged determination to do it better the "next time."

In John 8 the religious hierarchy brought an adulterous woman to our Lord accusing her of adultery. To them that one act she was caught up in defined what she was. In their eyes she was worthy of death. Jesus said, "If there is anyone here with no "if only" in their lives let them cast the first stone. All of her accusers left. "When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? " . . . hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:10-12)

This coincides with Paul who wrote: "For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works. These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee. (Titus 2:11-15)

It was grace that lifted her from failure and sustained her for the moment by giving her hope and light for a future life. His grace freed her from her past, from her "if only" but grace also said "the next time, be more responsible and go and sin no more."

There are very solid reasons that I must avail myself of the power of God's saving grace for the present. There are too many failures in my past for which I am responsible. I am a failure. Secondly there is no guarantee that I will do any better the next time. And furthermore if my salvation depends upon doing better the next time I may not live long enough to straightened it out the next time. Then what! The only "next time" I have is now at the present. The thief on the cross had no next time and his past was sealed. Therefore the power of God's grace saved him for the moment. That moment is now an eternal moment for him and he is not worried about the "if only" or "the next time".

If grace makes us responsible enough to say "if only" then it makes us responsible enough to say the "next time." Yet my salvation is not dependent upon my "if only" or "the next time" I am saved now. Therefore it is absolutely free. Oh no, There is that word again "free". How can it be "free" when I am "responsible".

I feel like a dog chasing the end of it's tail. There is no end to be grasped in this discussion. For finite human beings there is no end because God is infinite. How can the finite comprehend infinity? It is as complicated as allowing humanity to commit the most wicked crime of all time, the crucifixion of the one and only Creator, and then using that as a means for humanities salvation. In this one act we see the maximum of freedom and the maximum of responsibility. Both come together in the most critical hour of human experience to extend grace.

How can this be? But God has it figured out. Trust HIM and simply do what he says!!! Oh no! There is that word "do". But it is "free"!

Is it . . . just accept the freedom your personal responsibility offers? Or is it . . . accept the responsibility that our personal freedom offers? It is little wonder grace is such a paradox! It is sort of like getting an ice cube from a gas flame but much more complicated. Yet it is the simplest thing in the world to receive responsibly---for it is absolutely free.


A woman was once married to a man she did not love. He made her get up every morning at five, cook his breakfast, serve it at six o'clock sharp, and then wait on him hand and foot. He was so exacting that her life was miserable from trying to satisfy his many requests. Finally he died. When she married again, her partner was one she truly loved. Later, while cleaning out some old papers from a desk, she came across the strict set of rules her former husband had compiled for her. Sitting down, she began to read them. Suddenly she stopped as she realized she was still seeking to fulfill most of the same requirements for her new husband. Now, however, she was no longer doing it out of fear--but out of love. She was serving in a "newness of spirit."6

Dwight D. Eisenhow said: "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it." That is what God's grace is endeavoring to do. God does that by saying regardless of your past and regardless of your tomorrow's you have a clean slate right now.

1 This illustrative point came via InfoSearch Database, The Computer Assistant, Arlington, TX. (www.inforsearch.com)
2 The illustrative point about the counselor came from John R. Claypool, The Library of Distinctive Sermons, Vol. 2, Questar Publishing, 1996 pg. 87.
3 Ibid. pg. 98.
4. Ibid. pg. 87.
5. Ibid. pg. 87.
6. Infosearch Database.


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