I’m actually “out of the office” this week, receiving some training in a biblical software package that I’ve owned for a long time but have never fully utilized. And in my readings for this morning, I’ve run across an example of why the use of such tools makes a difference.
In the NIV, Paul writes to his protege Timothy: “You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That phrase has always caught my attention. Grace – as we typically understand it – is “unmerited favor.” So how is one to “be strong” in grace? “Being strong,” it seems to me, implies effort and achievement on our part. And so – in some way – fulfilling this admonition would undermine the very grace that we seek to be strong in.
A quick look at the underlying Greek text, however, reveals that the verb translated “be strong” by the NIV is actually a passive verb, which means that the translators of the ESV are probably more accurate when they render this verse: “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” The goal is not to “be strong” in grace – as if we had to train and struggle in order to appropriate the grace that is freely offered in Christ (although I must confess that this remains an intriguing image). No, the goal is to be strengthened by grace: to allow the unmerited favor of God to give us freedom from out anxieties, confidence in our hope, and an ability to rest in the love that holds our lives today (and every day).
Of course, this doesn’t mean, therefore, that we are left with nothing to “do” or “strive for.” Paul then goes on to encourage Timothy to pursue a way of life that his characterized by intense effort. He talks in terms of soldiers and athletes and hard-working farmers who are eager to please their commanders, to win the victor’s crown, and to receive their share of the crop. But the difference, I think, is that these efforts are made in response to grace and not in an effort to earn it. As Paul says in one of this other letters, we do “work out our salvation in fear and trembling,” but we do so because “God is the one who is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Of course, all of that remains just an exercise of the mind until it transforms our hearts. Will we allow ourselves to “be strengthened in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” today? Will we accept that we don’t have to strive anxiously to prove and defend ourselves, because we are already loved with an everlasting love? And then, secure in that love, will we invest ourselves fully in whatever opportunities our Lord might bring our way?