One of my favorite scenes in the movie Rain Man is when Ray (Rain Man) and his brother, Charlie, go to Vegas and win big at the blackjack table. Ray’s mathematical genius, trapped in an autistic mind, is able to count a seven-deck chute and accurately calculate his odds of hitting 21, or busting. In the movie, they hit often, and they hit big.
Without getting into the nuances of the game, blackjack is fairly simple: if your cards total 21 you win, if your cards exceed 21 you’re bust. Of course, hitting 21 means you win money; busting means you lose money.
It occurred to me that Christians often see God as a blackjack dealer. We see God as having a big stack of love and favor – like casino chips – that he distributes when we hit 21. For example, we hit 21 if we do certain things like have devotions, go to a small group, invite a friend to church, resist temptation, help someone in need, etc. And like a casino dealer, God is compelled to give us his love and favor chips because that’s the rules of the game.
Now, I realize that we don’t view God’s love in a purely transactional way, i.e. we do, he gives. I think most would agree that God loves us unconditionally, at least in the beginning. However, there is a sense that if we play our cards right, God bestows on us more love and favor. In other words, we say, “of course God loves us, but there’s more to be had.”
But then if God is giving out love and favor chips when we hit 21, then the opposite must be true also. When we bust and don’t do the things that get us to 21, then God takes back his chips. It’s not that God now hates us, it’s just that God doesn’t love us as much as he could. God is more so tolerating us like an annoying friend or co-worker.
The problem with “blackjack” theology is it confuses the means of God’s grace with the evidence of God’s grace. “Blackjack” theology makes the evidence the means.
This leads us to believe that our obedience gets us God’s love, and keeps us in God’s love (we hit 21). Therefore, the opposite must also be true: our disobedience causes us to lose God’s love (we go bust). You see, we make the evidence (our obedience) the means, or the way, we get and keep God’s love.
“Blackjack” theology turns the gospel upside down, or puts the cart before the horse. The gospel tells us that God loves us. Period. Full stop. The gospel tells us that there is nothing that we did to initiate God’s love for us, and that there is nothing we can do to remove God’s love from us.
To demonstrate this love, God the Father sends God the Son to die, not for repentant people, not for obedient people, not for sorrowful people, but for sinful people (Romans 5:8). And since this was God’s rescue plan before time began, we have a deep assurance that God won’t back off of his plan as soon as we go bust.
It’s good news that God’s abiding love isn’t dependent on my obedience. God’s love abides in me and is perfected in me, not because I obey, but because I am united by faith to the One who obeyed perfectly for me.
That God’s love is perfect in me means it is complete, 100% in effect. It means there are no more chips to be won because they were won for me at the cross.
This also means we can live to the glory of God who loved us before time began. We can love God and neighbor, not as a means for God’s love, but as evidence of God’s love.
Further, we can rest and abide in God’s love because his abiding love won’t pick up and go the moment we have a bad week. No, the love of God that got you, is the same love that keeps you, and holds on to you, and is with you. Right now. And forever.
Period. Full stop.