500 years after Martin Luther boldly reasserted "Grace!" into the Christian church's vocabulary, we still struggle with it. Let me explain.
My six-year-old daughter and I went a St. Louis Cardinals game in September. We had tickets way up in the outfield. On the sidewalk, a guy comes up to us and asks if we have tickets. “Yes,” I say abruptly. He’s probably trying to sell me something.
“Where are they?”
“Section 340,” I say reluctantly.
“I’ve got some better tickets. You want 'em?”
Before I can say "no," he hands me two tickets. The price on each says $184. Third base line behind the dugout. “How much?” I ask. “Nothing,” he says. "I’ve got four tickets, but I’m only using two."
I sat next this generous gift-giver during the game feeling like I owed him. "I have to return the favor." I offered to buy him a beer, but he refused.
We have a hard time accepting gifts because we live in a reciprocal world. If you get something, you need to give something in return. When you get a gift, you're indebted, obligated to reciprocate.
In our "this-for-that" world, insert the experience of grace. I like Martin Franzmann's clear description:
“Pure grace is the free favor of God counter to all man’s deserving.”
Grace is free. There is no returning the favor. There’s no expectation of payment or reciprocity. In fact, grace is accentuated by the fact that the recipient is inept and incapable of a payback. Grace is the giving of a gift precisely when the gift is not deserved.
Gifts are hard for us to receive and grace is hard to understand. A primary reason for this is pride. We don’t like help or handouts. We want to deserve the gift in some way. We don’t want to admit need. Grace implies that I need help. That I’m wrong, or weak, or lacking. And I want to be right and strong.
We want to have a hand in grace, or at least a finger. We have to have some role in deserving the gift. In this scheme, God is like Santa. He gives gifts to good little boys and girls. He deems us either naughty or nice. So our Christianity becomes an effort to be “nice” and not “naughty.”
This is evident in a culture that places ultimate value on success and self-sufficiency. Our idols are people who've made it on their own, self-made heroes in business, politics, or athletics. We instill these values in our children from infancy. But when they fail, they’re crushed. There’s no margin for error. No room for grace.
But in our relationship with God, success and self-sufficiency have no place. Martin Luther identified the kind of person to whom God shows grace:
“God saves no one but sinners, he instructs no one but the foolish and stupid, he enriches none but paupers, and he makes alive only the dead; not those who merely imagine themselves to be such but those who really are this kind of people and admit it.”
God saves no one but the failure and the fallen, the broken and the bruised. This is why Jesus came and this is who grace is for. It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.
St. Paul put it this way: "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) In the context of reciprocity, this is scandalous.
God gave you a lavish gift NOT when you deserved it.
NOT when you could pay.
NOT on your best day.
NOT when you were following the rules and going to church.
NOT when you had cleaned up your act.
NOT when you were nice, but when you were naughty.
Paul says that God showed love for us “while we were weak . . . when we were ungodly . . . while we were still sinners . . . while we were enemies.” ENEMIES. You give gifts to friends. God gives gifts to his enemies. This is grace. Christ for you, against all your deserving.
You want to work for the gift, and God just gives it.
You want to earn grace, and God just offers it.
You want to be good enough, but God is good to you even when you’re not.
You want something to do, and Jesus does everything on the cross.
You want to pay, and God says, “You’re already paid for.”
You want a reason to be called God’s own, and God calls that reason grace.
Let us never "get over" the astounding nature of grace. Onward, to the next 500 years.