This old article from Fast Company has been sitting in my inbox for awhile now (ht Matt Perman), but its theological implications warrant a long shelf life. Consultants, authors, and brothers Dan and Chip Heath in the January 15, 2009 issue of the coolest business magazine around talk about the power of incentives for business performance. Most of us are familiar with this routine: a vacation to Palm Springs for the highest performers or lower commission percentages for the lackluster performers.  But the Heath brothers argue that inherent in that power is the chance that the incentive will backfire.

Ken O’Brien was an NFL quarterback in the 1980s and 1990s. Early in his career, he threw a lot of interceptions, so one clever team lawyer wrote a clause into O’Brien’s contract penalizing him for each one he threw. The incentive worked as intended: His interceptions plummeted. But that’s because he stopped throwing the ball.

The law in this case, the incentive, backfired and couldn’t produce the desired result.  I think many of us resonate with that experience when we consider our relationship to God. Many of us wrongly relate to God on the basis of what we do. If we accomplish our goals (the Law) we get the perk (closeness with God, a sense that God is pleased with us).  Of course, this is all an illusion since we cannot keep the Law as God requires nor does God relate to us on the basis of our Law-keeping.  Most of the Christian life for some folks is spent trying to convince themselves of this fiction.

The Law cannot empower us to throw the ball down the field. Only the love of the game and a sense of our calling/vocation can do that. And that is exactly what the Gospel does for us. It does not hold out a divine carrot for good behavior, the Gospel announces that we are accepted in Christ.