Grace—it is central to the gospel. As Christians, we understand that. Yet many of us operate with an inadequate theology of gift, and gift presupposes grace.
Imagine asking two successful people how they managed to accomplish what they have. The first says, “I’m just very gifted.” The second says, “I’ve just worked very hard.” Who sounds more smug?
Our meritocracy—in which people are valued based on ability alone—has conditioned us to consider it arrogant to attribute our accomplishments to God’s gracious gift. For some reason, gift talk sounds elitist. Conversely, we think we’re being humble when we say we worked hard for our success. The gospel polarity of grace versus works, though correctly understood in theory, is capsized in practice: “You succeeded? You must have worked harder than others,” we think. “You didn’t succeed? Try again.”
For it is by works you have succeeded, not by gifts, so that no one can boast. Logical as it may seem, it’s far from the gospel.
For good reason, Paul referred to spiritual gifts as charismata: gifts of charis, or grace. We all have different gifts, according to the grace given to us (Rom. 12:3–6). Paul also knew that using those gifts was essential for everyone’s flourishing. So he urged people to use what God had given them—but always as stewards, not earners. Sailors work hard to harness the wind, but they’re never so foolish as to take credit for moving the boat.
Yet the meritocratic meme pops up everywhere. Instead of talking about their distinctive gifts, wealthy entrepreneurs often explain their prosperity as the result of diligence, focus, and ...1