Thursday, March 31, 2011

Esteeming Grace

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. (1 Corinthians 15.9-10)

Significant Costs

Our church’s Lenten Bible study rounded a major corner this week, as the 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer turned our thoughts from the disciplines of discipleship set forth in The Beatitudes to properly evaluating God’s grace. Although Bonhoeffer’s terminology has become common among theologians and seminarians, it was new—and somewhat unsettling—to us. He writes, “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.” (p52) Cheap grace? Costly grace? Affixing financial modifiers to grace seems inappropriate, since it’s a priceless gift. That’s the paradox of grace: while it’s too great to be earned by good deeds or moral virtue, it’s offered to all. And, ironically, its being beyond our means is what causes us to undervalue it. We cheapen grace by treating it like carte blanche to persist in harmful habits because we know God’s grace will always be abundantly available. Yet grace is anything but a license to ill. Its primary purpose is enabling correction.

Grace clears our slates so we can replace unhealthy attitudes and behaviors with those that please and reflect our Maker. Thus, it’s given freely, without favor; yet in accepting God’s gift of grace, we assume significant costs: self-honesty by confession of sin; repentance that renounces wrongdoing; constant discipline and awareness to follow Christ faithfully; and active obedience that transcends lip-service to Christ’s principles and commands. In the final analysis, grace may be free, but it sure ain’t cheap. Its demands are costly and entail many sacrifices.

Nothing and Everything; Everything and Nothing

God’s gift of grace is the crux of Jesus’s message, and it’s impossible for us to comprehend how absurd the concept strikes those who first hear of it. Like all ancient worshipers, they pay for wrongs via specific animal sacrifices mandated for two classes of guilt: moral trespasses and physical impurity. Trespass offerings require a sacrificial ram—symbolizing one’s social and financial stability—to make restitution for losses inflicted on others. Sin offerings secure forgiveness and purification on a sliding scale; prices range from a young bull for high priests to one-tenth a bushel of fine flour for very poor people. Both trespasses and sins are assumed to be unintentional errors. Intentional crimes are adjudicated per a labyrinthine penal code that exacts extremely brutal punishments. Thus, when Jesus talks about God’s unconditional love and grace—a God Who gives rather than demands—He unravels the fabric of Jewish worship and society. That’s why we often hear disciples and listeners question how this works. Freely given forgiveness and mercy sound improbable to them. There must be a price. And there is, which is why Jesus repeatedly emphasizes how costly grace is. Because nothing about us can possibly earn God’s love and forgiveness, grace costs us everything. Or, as Jesus puts it in one of many similar statements, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10.39)

When Jesus introduces the concept of grace—which He teaches relentlessly and ultimately ensures by sacrificing His life—it’s so revolutionary it has no name. Although Luke 2.40 says from childhood Jesus “was filled wisdom, and the grace of God was on him,” and John 1.14 declares Him “full of grace,” none of the Gospels cites any instance when the actual term passes His lips. It’s only after Early Church leaders consolidate Jesus’s words, life, death, and resurrection into a unified doctrine that “grace” enters Christian usage. No surprise, Paul rallies as its greatest champion. (Of the 124 times the Bible mentions grace, 80 are credited to him.) Virtually every statement he utters in the Book of Acts and every sentence he pens circle back to God’s grace and our responsibilities as its recipients. His confidence and enthusiasm know no bounds because he, above all Apostles, knows from experience that God’s grace is boundless. As he confesses in 1 Corinthians 15.9-10, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” From the moment Christ halts him on the Damascus road to his dying breath, God’s grace flabbergasts Paul. He owes everything to grace and nothing it costs is too much to pay.

The Riches of God’s Grace

Esteeming grace becomes Paul’s lifelong theme, while inspiring all believers to do likewise becomes his life’s mission. One marvels at the passion in passages like Ephesians 2.4-8: “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Love, mercy, life, acceptance, honor, kindness—the riches of God’s grace are not to be cheapened by underestimating them. Nearly as often as he extols grace’s inexhaustible wealth, Paul insists there’s no excuse for abusing it; knowing God’s love and forgiveness know no bounds isn’t our ticket to do as we please. After five chapters of reveling in God’s grace, he begins Romans 6 by posing and answering a hypothetical question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” In other word's God's grace doesn't free us to sin. It frees us from sin.

Lent is traditionally regarded as a season of penitence, when the desert’s harsh solitude sets our failures and frailties in sharp relief and we confess them to God. This is an invaluable pursuit that every believer should practice every day of the year, not merely 40 of 365. The self-honesty predicating sincere penitence unlocks grace’s treasures. “If we confess our sins,” 1 John 1.9 tells us, God “is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” At the same time, it accounts for costs we incur as recipients of grace: conscious repentance that renounces sorry attitudes and behaviors, fervent obedience to Christ’s commands to love God and our neighbors, and the disciplines of true discipleship. Esteeming grace always, never underestimating its riches, keeps us mindful it sure ain’t cheap. Yet how could we possibly believe it’s not worth the price? We owe everything to grace and nothing it costs is too much to pay.

God’s grace is a paradox. While it’s freely offered to all, those who accept it incur significant costs.


claire said...

Grace is a fascinating topic, isn't it? Your Lenten book sounds fascinating. I have to check it! Dietrich Bonhoeffer was such a remarkable Christian in the hardest of times. He radiated grace and never cheapened it...
Grace has to change the person who receives it, as in the hymn Amazing Grace which we sang yesterday at mass.
I could read what you have to say on grace for a long long time, Tim.

Thank you.

Tim said...

Grace has to change the person who receives it.

Claire, you give us about as a concise and direct a summation of grace as I've ever seen! That's certainly the thrust of Paul's message--and it's Bonhoeffer's driving interest in distinguishing cheap grace from costly grace. True recognition of grace should result in true discipleship in every sense.

I can't recommend the book highly enough, although it's remarkably dense for such a slim volume. Taking it on as our Lenten daily discipline has definitely challenged us, because every day Bonhoeffer seems to catch us up short. First comes the enlightenment, immediately followed by the recognition of how much we take for granted and how often we fail! And, as you point out, he writes from circumstances I pray none of us ever face--living Nazi Germany and watching the Church there lose its way to political and social pressure to conform to pure evil. That defuses all desire to turn deaf ears to what he says or approach him as a theoretical theologian, much like we do his mentor, Karl Barth. The man knows whereof he speaks!

The attention he commands has been overwhelming for me--which is why I've not been as regular as I'd like in visiting your place and others that I look to so often for inspiration. But I hope to catch up with you soon!