by Steve DuPlessie
So I read a true story the other day about a prostitute who showed up at a soup kitchen with her baby, looking for a meal. She told her story: she was homeless, sick, unable to buy food, using all her money for her addiction. The soup kitchen volunteer listened to her story, sad and horrified at the life this woman and her child were living. Finally, the volunteer asked her if she had thought of going to a church for help.
“Church!” she cried. ”Why would I go there? I’m already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse!” Really? What struck me about that story is that women much like this prostitute actually ran to Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person—woman or man—felt, the more likely they were to find Jesus was a safe person to run to. The woman at the well. The woman caught in the act of adultery. Zaccheus the tax collector. The dying thief on the cross. And the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet.
Has the church lost that gift? The gift of grace? The best definition of grace is the simple one: grace is the free and unmerited or unearned favor of God. A while back Zach defined mercy as not getting what you deserve and grace as getting what you don’t deserve! That grace—that undeserved favor of God—is at the very core of the good news of the gospel.
Talking about Jesus, Titus 2:11 tells us, “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.” The bible makes it clear, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take any credit for this; it is a gift from God,” (Eph 2:8 NLT).
What sets biblical Christianity apart…
In fact, grace is what separates biblical Christian faith from all the religions of the world. I was sitting in an Interfaith group a few years ago for a monthly conversation to help us understand each other better, and the question for discussion that month was, “If you saw a poor man lying on the sidewalk, what does your faith tradition say you should do?” When it was his turn to speak, the Hindu priest in the group said, “I would step over him. I don’t want to interfere with his Karma.” I guess there’s no concept of undeserved grace there.
Where Buddhism and Islam, Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hinduism and traditional tribal religions all say Do, biblical Christianity says Done: “While we were still sinners (still guilty and still unrepentant), Christ (already)cdied for us,” Romans 5:8.
So we talk about the good news of Jesus, the gospel, in terms of God’s grace, God’s unearned favor poured out on unworthy sinners. And of course, everyone wants to get grace. But our attitudes and our actions seem to show our neighbors that followers of Jesus who have received God’s grace aren’t particularly quick to give it.
Not sounding too good…
Multiple surveys show that Americans think very highly of Jesus, the giver of grace … but his followers not so much. In a twenty-year span starting in the mid-nineties, research shows that favorable opinions of Christianity in general have plummeted drastically—and opinions of Evangelicals have taken even deeper dives. Christians have lost respect, influence, and reputation in a newly emerging post-Christian culture.
There’re a lot of reasons for this. Some see Evangelicals too tied to a particular political agenda or political party and it seems you have to make a political conversion before you can make a spiritual conversion. Some see Evangelicals as too negative and too judgmental, known more for what they are against than what they are for. The list goes on.
And to be honest, I have to admit that it’s pretty easy for me to look at someone and make a quick judgment call—maybe justified, maybe not—about the moral condition of someone who would do that…but that judgment call simply reinforces my own sense that I’m a pretty good guy, at least compared to that one and that one.
Ok, so I grew up in a church that drew sharp lines between the Age of Law that we find in the Old Testament, and the Age of Grace that began after Jesus. But even though we talked a lot about grace, we had our own Do and Don’t list that rivaled the best lists of the Pharisees: at the top of our list was no smoking and no drinking. Followed by no divorce. No movies. Period. As a kid that also meant no TV and no comic books for me. No dancing. (I was class president, all four years in HS, and never went to a dance or prom; I was always on the clean-up committee!) And for us there were no sports—playing or watching—or any other amusements on Sunday, the Sabbath, the day of rest. And no secular music. No playing cards or gambling. It also meant head coverings and long skirts for women and short hair for men. And other churches had their own lists: the Church of Christ, the Amish and the Mennonites, The Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God; they all had their lists. In spite of talking about grace, it seemed like God’s favor was earned, or at least held onto, by keeping the rules on the list.
Churches that were supposed to be about undeserved, unearned grace were actually about performance and compliance to a list that would judge spiritual condition on a scale. Not only was there an attitude of judgment and superiority on those sinners outside, it was also on the supposed saints inside. So no wonder the prostitute I mentioned at the beginning was pretty sure a church was the last place she wanted to be. She might have already experienced “grace” in a church.
Now to be fair, I know a lot of followers of Jesus who are generous givers of grace. Countless parents who forgive a child who shamed them. Many who give their lives and their time and money to serving people in need—in most cases serving people they don’t even know personally—people who might well be undeserving and who could never possibly repay that kindness.
But if the recent studies are correct, then all the followers of Jesus need to work together to change the conversation, change the perception in the secular culture around us—in our workplace, in our school, in our neighborhood and community, in our family—change the perception that we’re all about judging and condemning—because our Jesus, the one we say we are following, was all about … grace. John, one of the closest followers of Jesus wrote,“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17).
3 stories of God’s heart…
Jesus could have come here in as the angry judge, condemning the woman caught in adultery to death under a hail storm of stones. He could have told the dying thief on the cross to go to Hell. He could have totally ignored and avoided the awkward conversation with the woman at the well, the one who’d already had five husbands and was shacking up with another guy at the time. But Jesus said, “I have come to seek and to save those who are lost,” Luke 19:10.
So to make that point, Jesus told stories like the story of the lost sheep: the shepherd left the 99 sheep behind to find the one lost wandering sheep. And the lost coin: the woman swept her house from top to bottom until she found a single coin she had misplaced. And the lost son: the father hoisted up his coat and ran like a schoolboy down the street to hug the rebellious son who had shamed and impoverished him.
Jesus told those three stories of undeserved, unmerited grace to show the heart of God to a crowd of super religious people who didn’t like it when Jesus hung out and ate his meals with hated tax collectors and other notorious public sinners.
And we are very ready to take that grace from God, we accept that grace quickly for ourselves, and then too often forget the opportunity that comes with the gift of grace to celebrate and mirror the heart of the giver. So Ephesians 5:1 says, “Therefore be imitators of God … walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”
We all deserve the punishment of eternity in Hell, but God graciously gave us the unearned gift of His Son for our forgiveness, our salvation, justification, redemption and adoption into his family. So knowing about, and personally experiencing, God’s grace in our own lives should move us to figure out how to show grace to others.
The bottom line…be a giver, not just a taker, of grace.