In God’s Grip

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Lillie Baltrip is one of the finest school bus drivers that Houston, Texas, has ever seen. 

In the spring of 1988 her school district took note of her spotless, accident-free record and announced that she would receive, along with 29 others, a special safety award.  Lillie was even chosen by her fellow recipients to chauffeur the whole group in a school bus to the ceremony.

You’ve probably already guessed where this is going. 

On the way to the awards ceremony, Lillie turned a corner a little too sharply.  The bus flipped over on its side.  She and sixteen others had to be taken to a hospital for minor emergency treatment. 

Worse still, the awards committee changed its mind and withdrew Lillie’s medal of honor.  A lifetime of perfect performance was wiped out by one lousy turn.

There lurks in many of us the dark suspicion that everything we have achieved so far, everything that could ever be credited to our account, might be wiped out if we blow it just one more time.  Is that something followers of Jesus need to worry about?

Over the course of Christian history, two schools of thought have emerged.

The first (supported by about a dozen Scripture texts) insists that salvation is fragile.  It must be handled with care.  God is on the side of the Houston school board.  We mustn’t slip.  One serious mistake can have eternal consequences. 

Unsurprisingly, those who embrace this perspective tend to be anxious about spiritual security.

The other school of thought (supported by more than 100 Scripture texts) insists that an authentic connection with God is resilient.  It can weather life’s storms, not to mention category five human screw-ups.  According to this view, a relationship with God is not a contractual arrangement subject to annulment if one side fails to meet the minimum performance requirements, but a covenant – something akin to family ties.   

As the poet Robert Frost put it, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” 

Those who endorse the second school of thought believe that those who say Yes to Jesus can always knock on God’s door – and he will always say, “Welcome home.”

But what about those dozen scare-us-to-death verses, the ones that warn us we must never fail to take God seriously?  

Bible study does not come to down to arithmetic:  Since there are 100 verses on one side and 12 on the other, let’s just go with the bigger number.  Instead, we need to find out how to understand the smaller number of texts in light of the many – without negating their meaning or power. 

Any discussion of “eternal security” begins with what Jesus says in the Gospel of John:  “My sheep listen to my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.  No one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.  No one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (10:27-29).

In this remarkable picture, those who enroll as Jesus’ disciples are held in a double-grip.  We are secured by both Jesus and his Father.  No one can ever pry us out of those hands.

In the end, do we hold on to God, or does God hold on to us?

If staying in God’s grip comes down to perfect performance – if all is lost through mere negligence or momentary carelessness or experiencing the spiritual equivalent of tipping over the school bus on the way to the awards ceremony – then all of us are toast. 

God will have to hold on to us.  According to this text, that is exactly what God promises to do.

This fully aligns with one of the Bible’s overarching themes:  If you want God, you can be absolutely sure that you can have him.   

But, of course, there’s something inside all of us that doesn’t want God.   

There are moments when we want God to look away.  Or to disappear.  Or to get off our back and out of our face.  Even history’s “holiest” men and women admit that such impulses never fully disappear in this world.

The question is whether those “Get lost, God!” moments remain just that – mere moments, after which we return to God in humble sorrow – or whether they become our way of life.  God will not run roughshod over human freedom.  The reason for those fierce warnings in the Bible is that it’s possible to keep saying No, No, No to the promptings of the Spirit. 

As C.S. Lewis observed, life can go one of two ways.  You can either say to God, “Thy will be done,” or God will finally say to you, “Thy will be done.”  Dallas Willard once wrote that no one misses heaven by an inch.  We miss it by a mile. 

For years I agonized over whether I had somehow disqualified myself from walking with God.  Had I sinned once too often, or failed to do the right thing, or succumbed to too many doubts?

A mentor warmly reminded me, “If you even care about that question, if it keeps you up at night, you can be sure you still have a heart for God.  And because he is your heavenly Father, he will always have a heart for you.”

We can go home again.  Even now.

Lillie Baltrip, for her part, might suggest we walk instead of drive.