It is possible to speak of God in ways that are theologically accurate yet nonetheless anemic; divorced from incarnational, day-to-day existence, and having no real touchpoint in human experience. When such lapses occur, God loses salience. He is stripped of his raw, un-cageable, flesh-and-blood virility and reduced exclusively to categories—categories which turn the beating heart of the Gospel into a mere spreadsheet. God is not an abacus. He is not a calculator. He is not a glorified comptroller concerned merely with deficits and surpluses, ensuring the sums are all accounted for, debts are paid, and the ledger is in the black. No. God does what He does not for love of mathematics, but for love of YOU and ME. Salvation is not calculus, and God's primary concern is for sinner-saints—not numbers.
Simeon Zahl touches on this idea, particularly as it relates to modern critiques of the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification: "According to this argument, traditional Protestant theologies of justification, focused as they are on the 'imputation' of Christ's righteousness to sinners through a decree offered in a putative divine 'courtroom,' offer no satisfying way of connecting what is happening objectively before God with subjective human experience in the world. The connection, such as it is, is an abstract, intellectual one only—it is a conceptual game, a kind of shifting of counters in the sky, rather than a lived and livable reality."(1)
Putting aside the question of the validity of such critiques, Zahl draws our attention to something critical; something that must be reckoned with, particularly within our postmodern context: Grace is more than a dusty category, and it must have a lived, embodied relevance if it is to gain a hearing. To put it another way, the everyday consequences of grace in people's actual lives must always be accented in our teaching and preaching, since all of His salvific action is oriented toward embodied beings.
While it is true that Scripture, in particular the Pauline epistles, are shot through with references to doctrines like imputation (2 Cor 5:21, Philippians 3:9, Romans 5:18, etc.), this by no means exhausts the ways in which salvation is spoken of. Other images abound. Believers are adopted as sons (Ephesians 1:5) and made "children of God" (John 1:12). We are "baptized into Christ" (Galatians 3:27). Our lives are "hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). We are "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ" (Romans 8:17). We are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:18). We are his and he is ours (Psalm 100:3). Most of these metaphors are relational in nature, having to do with the way that God's love for us in Christ makes possible an entirely new way of living and being and relating to Him, based not on fear and shame but on love and freedom.
As with most doctrines, then, there is a multiplicity of ways of speaking of our new relationship with God and our new standing before Him on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ. The only question, then, is WHICH of those images will we choose to accent in any given context?
When God forgives sin, when He cancels debt, when He bears the curse on the tree, when He removes sin as far as the east is from the west, when iniquity is laid on Him, all of this (and more) is done not for the sake of balancing an equation, but for the sake of enfleshed human beings whom He calls His beloved! It is motivated by the zealous desire of the 3-in-1 God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) for relationship because He is relational by nature and desires nothing short of full reconciliation with His creatures. He is a loving Father longing to adopt His wayward children, not a cold-hearted number-cruncher hellbent on auditing the accounts.
So, yes: Balance the spreadsheets! Cancel the debts! Fill up our bank accounts with the righteousness of Christ! But never forget that all of these transactions serve the ultimate purpose of restoring, healing, and redeeming broken relationships—coram mundo (with Creation), coram deo (with God), coram meipso (with ourselves), & coram hominibus (with one another).
Salvation is not simply transactional; it is fundamentally relational. Not anemic, but full-blooded. Not disembodied, but bodied.
So...what am I saying, and why does it matter?
Lest I be accused of the very crime I'm decrying (separating "theology" from "real life"), let's take grace off of the top-shelf and belly up to the bar. Let's make the conversation a little more salient.
A Christian friend once told me a story. She struck up a friendship with a couple of young skeptics who had recently begun attending church. They were little acquainted with Christianity. After weeks, months, and years of regular Gospel proclamation and spiritual conversations, they still did not profess faith. Discouraged and disheartened, my friend wondered aloud why they would keep coming back if they didn't believe what they were hearing? One of them responded with this revealing statement: "As a scientifically-minded person, I'm wary of any kind of overly-literalistic reading of Scripture. So, I'm not really onboard with all of this seven-day Creation or Resurrection stuff. But you know what does keep me coming back week after week? It's the message of grace and forgiveness. I don't get that anywhere else." It was friendship—rather than simply new data—that drew the skeptic back time and again. It was through relationship that grace truly became embodied for them.
God is for you. God is for me. He loves unconditionally. He justifies the ungodly, forgives sin, and imputes righteousness. And all of this He does (in the words of Martin Luther) "out of His pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy. Not because I've earned it or deserve it. For all this I must thank, praise, and serve God. This is most certainly true!" (Large Catechism)