Grace is one of those words that shows up in ancient writing like the Bible and Quran but that has lost a lot of its meaning in contemporary usage. What the early translators meant when they used the word was much deeper and all encompassing than what we consider it to mean today.
Dictionary.com gives no less than 20 definitions of the word Grace. Many of them have very little or nothing to do with the theological implications that I’m trying to work out here but two stand out.
• a manifestation of favor, esp. by a superior
• the freely given, unmerited favor and love of god.
Last week was Halloween. It’s tradition around my house to watch the classic Peanuts TV special; “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” We can usually find it on one of the major networks in the days leading up to October 31st. The post powerful moment comes toward the end, after Sally has spent the night in the pumpkin patch with Linus, without meeting the Great Pumpkin. Upon realizing that she has missed her chance to collect candy with her friends she turns on Linus and screams; “You Block-head! I’ve been robbed! I’ll sue! I demand restitution!” The image is one of complete contempt for Linus and what he has cost her.
In a world of justice based on personal accountability we are programmed, like Sally to demand restitution. How then are we to react when someone who has wronged us is offered this unmerited favor? More importantly, how are we to do the offering?
A full understanding of grace requires us to recognize how little we deserve it. When we break the law, or some other agreed upon rule we deserve punishment, the people we have wronged deserve restitution. Civilized people demand strict adherence to a code of conduct, whether it be written down as law or not. When someone breaks that code we are and should be held personally accountable. But that is not the way of grace. Grace, like love, “keeps no record of wrongs,” and therefore trumps justice.
The clearest example of this kind of grace that I can think of is in John 8. The Pharisees had found a woman caught in the act of adultery. The law clearly stated that she should be put to death but rather than apply the letter of the law Jesus asked if anyone present was completely innocent.
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” [John 8:7]
As the full implication of Jesus words sank in every one of her accusers walked away and Jesus turned to the woman and said “Neither do I condemn you, go now and leave your life of sin.” [John 8:11]
Many will protest that grace just isn’t practical. Justice and the rule of law are important. Without it the world would fall into a trap of anarchy and oppression. I agree, but grace doesn’t let us off the hook either. Did you catch the subtlety in Jesus words to the woman? He stopped short of forgiveness, she was still accountable, just free to go for now.
As I’ve studied grace for these past few weeks one overarching theme as stood out; there will be a judgement day when we are called to make a defence of your actions in this life. But today is not Judgement Day. There is still time to make things right.
Go now and leave your life of sin.