Grace Is the Opposite of Karma

A Q&A with Justin Holcomb on the release of his newest book, On the Grace of God.

Question: So let’s start with the big idea. Give us a quick summary of what the Bible says on the grace of God.

Justin Holcomb: “Grace” is the most important concept in the Bible, in Christianity, and in the world. The shorthand for grace is “mercy, not merit.”

Grace is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve. Grace is the opposite of karma. Grace is the love of God shown to the unlovely, the peace of God given to the restless, the unmerited favor of God. Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving. Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it. Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues. Grace is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against him. Grace is one-way love.

Question: “The opposite of karma.” That’s good. In fact, that all sounds pretty good. And yet in the book you talk about how grace is actually offensive. Can you explain why a concept that involves unconditional love could make people mad?

JH: Unconditional love is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. Many of us think (whether we admit it or not) there must be some breaking point where God gives up on us. Certainly there must be some sin or amount of sin that is just too much. Our natural human tendency is to establish negotiated settlements with God through religion, but grace undermines our religious attempts. As Jacques Ellul said, “Grace is the hardest thing for us to be reconciled to, because it implies the renouncing of our pretensions, our power, our pomp and circumstance. It is opposite of everything our ‘religious’ sentiments are looking for.”

“Karma is all about getting what you deserve. Grace is the opposite.”

Religious people don’t like grace because it messes up their gig: giving advice, telling people what to do and not to do, parenting, marriage, being a boss. Grace undermines condemnation and fear, which are the best tools for religion.

In the Christian tradition, there are many adjectives that have accompanied the word grace: amazing, free, scandalous, surprising, special, inexhaustible, incalculable, wondrous, mysterious, overflowing, abundant, irresistible, costly, extravagant, and more. John Calvin calls it gratuitous grace. Gratuitous is the idea of something being unwarranted or uncalled for. Though we yearn desperately for grace, the beautiful extravagance of God’s love in Christ is utterly uncalled for.

Question: Many of those words aren’t generally associated with the concept of grace outside the church context. How do you think people in general define grace?

JH: I actually bought a shampoo one time called “Amazing Grace.” I couldn’t resist. The description on the bottle was the best example of a bad definition of grace I’ve ever seen. I had to write it down:

Life is a classroom. We are both student and teacher. Each day is a test. And each day we receive a passing or failing grade in one particular subject: grace. Grace is compassion, gratitude, surrender, faith, forgiveness, good manners, reverence, and the list goes on. It’s something money can’t buy and credentials rarely produce. Being the smartest, the prettiest, the most talented, the richest, or even the poorest, can’t help. Being a humble person can and being a helpful person can guide you through your days with grace and gratitude.

This may sound nice, but it turns grace into a chore and a platitude. In our culture, the word grace has a lot to do with charm, elegance, beauty, or attractiveness. This has very little to do with how the Bible uses the word. Grace isn’t a personal virtue at all; grace is unmerited favor or a kindly disposition that leads to acts of kindness. Grace is a gift.

Question: Which of course raises the same question Paul talks about in the book of Romans. If grace is a gift that we receive freely—if our acceptance is based on grace and not whether we obey God’s law—what’s to prevent people from abusing the gift and ignoring God’s commands? How do you tackle this issue?

JH: When it comes to grace and law, it’s not a matter of keeping them in balance, but using them correctly. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intensified the law when he took the Ten Commandments and told us that it’s not just about our outward behavior. If you sin inwardly you have broken all of the law. Then, in Matthew 22:36–39, he summarizes the law with two prongs. He’s asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He replies: “Love God with all your heart” (which sums up the first four commandments), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which sums up the last six). Jesus made the law even more dangerous and intense than it was in the Old Testament. He wasn’t just explaining an ethical code for his followers—he was freaking people out so they would know their need for a Savior.

“Grace is the end of religion.”

The law is a mirror. It reflects to us our problem, our condition, our need, and our death. The law is good because it shows us reality. Like a mirror, the law shows us our problem. But a mirror can’t change what it shows us. It reflects our problem, but it can’t fix it. The law cannot generate what it commands. When applied to sin, the law curses us with judgment. In the presence of the law, only a holy substitute can save us. Look at what the Apostle Paul says: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Rom. 7:24–8:3).

Jesus died on the cross in our place to take away the curse we bear for breaking God’s law. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, there is an answer to the disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” The good news comes when Jesus says, “With man [salvation] is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). That’s the point of the law and the gospel: with us, salvation is impossible (law), but for God, everything is possible (gospel). It’s when we face the impossibility of doing anything to save ourselves that the grace of God floods in.

Question: Talk more about the difference between grace and religion. How do you distinguish the two?

JH: “Religion” is shorthand for the human propensity is to establish negotiated settlements with God. Robert Capon explains: “The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands.”

Grace reveals our natural pride of self-sufficiency, as well as the pride of spiritual progression. God’s grace pushes us to recognize our sinfulness and reject all confidence in our abilities and ourselves. Grace is the end of religion because the secured promise of the gospel frees us from the supposed promises of our religious self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-justification.

“The cross is a coup de grâce, a ‘stroke of grace.’”

In religion, you get what you deserve. It is the same with karma. Karma is all about getting what you deserve. Christianity teaches that what you deserve is death with no hope of resurrection. Grace is the opposite of karma. While everyone desperately needs it, grace is not about us. Grace is fundamentally a word about God: his un-coerced initiative and pervasive, extravagant demonstrations of care and favor. The cross is God’s attack on sin and violence; it is salvation from sin and its effects. The cross really is a coup de grâce, meaning “stroke of grace,” which refers to the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering.

Question: That’s a great way to put it. Grace not only trumps religion, but also evil and suffering. What are some other ways that God’s grace can influence our day-to-day lives?

JH: God’s grace is overflowing and abundant. It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: “The love of Christ compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14, NIV)! Similarly, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). The principle that grace motivates ought to permeate our lives, work, and leadership.

For leaders, this means that when you want to see better performance from your staff, don’t threaten demotions or probation; instead, provide security, offer freedom for self-direction, and help them see the larger significance of their work.

For parents, if you want your children to be more obedient (not just compliant), don’t give them threats, but talk about Jesus’ obedience on their behalf and dazzle them with grace.

For pastors, when you want to see more faithfulness in your congregation, don’t just hammer them with the demands of the law; rather, tell them about Jesus’ faithfulness on our behalf, even and especially when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). You will be amazed at the fruit the Holy Spirit produces when you focus on grace, rather than threats and incentives. Grace motivates.