Do We Really Trust Grace?

beautyofgraceGrace is a funny thing.  We all want it, we all believe in it, but we have a hard time trusting it.

You would think that the message that God has just chosen to forgive us would be good news, but a lot of people that I have talked to over the years have a hard time trusting it. 

You can’t just go around indiscriminately forgiving people without requiring something from someone. If you’ve done the crime, and you gotta do the time.

As a pastor I see this tension displayed in a couple of ways. First is a deep seated resentment and a cry of injustice when a perpetrator goes unpunished. In the Bible this is the portrait of Jonah, stewing under his silly little tree, angry that God has held off the punishment Jonah had proclaimed upon Ninevah and has simply forgiven the Ninevites after their king said, “I’m sorry.”

But most often I see people who can’t quite accept that God would simply choose to forgive them without requiring anything of them. This is often accompanied the deep-seated belief that God’s basic orientation toward all sinners is anger, indignation, and even resentment.

In their heads they know that they are forgiven, but in their hearts they believe that they must constantly be seeking to please God i.e. move him from an orientation of displeasure with them to pleasure.

A lot of us, including me, were taught that grace comes to us because Jesus agreed to pay the penalty for our sin, so that now we don’t have to.  That’s grace. 

But whatever else that is, it’s not really salvation by grace; it’s still salvation by punishment.  Sure, the guilty get off scot free, and that’s grace to them, but it’s still a grace that is subject to a salvation by punishment.  If there’s no punishment, there’s no forgiveness, and if there’s no forgiveness, there’s no grace.

In this system, Jesus is full of grace because he volunteers for the punishment, but God is still the punisher.  God needs his ounce of flesh, and that is only somewhat mollified by the idea that God gave the flesh that he himself required.

But God can’t just forgive us.  That wouldn’t be just.  It would violate some rule that says that sin can’t go unpunished. 

Who made that rule up? Why is God, the maker of all things, subject to it? That part is never fully explained.  That’s just the way it is.  Everyone knows it.

But why can’t he just forgive us?  Why is forgiveness tied to punishment?  Why is grace dependent upon the need for someone, anyone, to be punished?

“Well,” we’re told, “according to Hebrews 9:22, ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.’” Well, there it is. Someone has to be punished for sins to be forgiven, and the punishment for sin is death. Someone’s gotta die!

Except that is not the whole statement, it’s just one part. The whole statement says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (My emphasis)

The Old Testament sacrificial system was not built upon the idea of reward and punishment but upon the idea of clean and unclean. Sin made a person unclean, which rendered them unfit for worship and service.

Blood—be it from a lamb, a bull, or a dove—purified the unclean, for it was in the blood that the very force of life was carried.

In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus simply proclaimed her forgiven.  There was no punishment.  That’s the point of the story, Jesus sending her would-be punishers away in shame.

Likewise, in Jesus’ well-known parable the father forgave his prodigal son without requiring any punishment whatsoever, even after the prodigal offered it. The prodigal wanted punishment, but not the father!

This is what fueled the resentment of the older brother.  Instead of punishment, his father threw this son of his a party!  The older brother didn’t like grace, at least not without some punishment mixed in.

God gave his son as a sacrifice to purify us of sin. We’re the ones who require someone to be punished, not God. We’re the ones who punished Jesus, not God. We’re the ones who don’t trust grace, not God.

Until we accept grace and learn to trust it, we’ll never love sinners the way God does.  Not even ourselves.

Image from The Quote Factory

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